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CATHERINE MILNE

 

TOUCHING THE ELEFUNT

 

once upon a time and fairly frequently after that, there was an elefunt. not

a large elefunt, nor an imposing one; not the kind of elefunt people point

at and say - look at that! but an elefunt, nevertheless, though one which

could be said to defy expectation.

 

for the elefunt lived in the dark.

 

he spent his days in the dark and his nights in the dark, and he lived all

on his own, confined by the four walls of a room which was scarcely bigger

than he was.

 

in the general course of events, elefunts are supposed to be large, badly

ironed and fond of the company of their own kind. this elefunt was none of

these things: he was slightly built and blessed with a trim, well-fitting

pelt. solitary as he was, he did not dislike other elefunts, he simply had

never met any. his whole life had passed in the company of walls; he knew

walls very well, he had a passing acquaintance with a ceiling and in the

tactful way floors have, his own floor had never complained about being

trodden underfoot. but lacking other elefunts to compare himself with, this

elefunt had no way of knowing what manner of creature he was: for all he

knew, he could be a kind of furniture.

 

how did he survive? elefunts need to eat, they need to move, to

philosophise. he neither ate nor moved, but he thought a great deal; he told

himself stories and tried to guess the endings, he made lists and he dreamed

the tranquil, dim dreams of an elefunt which has never questioned the dark.

it would be wrong to call him contented, but there was no discontent in him,

only an enduring patience.

 

a room, filled with dark. an elefunt in it. time passing, matching its pace

to the elefunt's heartbeat, lengthening its strides as he slept. nothing,

happening.

 

until one day the room discovered it had a door. and after that, of course,

there were visitors.

 

no warning: light suddenly there, voices suddenly there - brightness, noise:

the elefunt broke through the ice crust of a dream and found himself

surrounded.

 

shocked, he stood as still as he could, being small, being unnoticeable.

sound which sped down the helter skelter of the elefunts neat ears and into

his brain and became - words, language! voices saying:

 

'where are we?'

 

'what's this?'

 

'open the door wider, i can't see!'

 

but the door had closed and returned to whatever it had been before it

became a door, and now there was only the dark, the voices and the elefunt

standing small and still, drawing itself up together and trying not to

breathe.

 

'what's this?'

 

the elefunt felt himself touched. never in all his life had the room tried

to touch him. never had the walls possessed hands like these: fingers that

met his hide and probed further, tugged his sensitive ears, tapped on his

tusks. fingertips that crept across his belly and tickled.

 

a shudder ran over the elefunt's skin, wind rippling long grass. the hands

all drew back, the voices exclaimed their words - their language - in

startled bursts:

 

'what is it?'

 

'it moved!'

 

'it's alive!'

 

i'm alive, thought the elefunt.

 

'here, feel this - ' the elefunt felt his tail being pulled, by one, by

another hand.

 

'it's a rat! a giant rat!'

 

'no, it's a snake!'

 

'a snake! yes, that's it, a snake.'

 

i'm a snake, thought the elefunt.

 

'it can't be a snake!' said another voice, 'feel this!'

 

'a cabbage leaf?'

 

'too big.'

 

'a banana leaf?'

 

what's a banana? thought the elefunt. what's a leaf? the hands moved down.

he felt his foot grasped, his toenails counted. he stood very still.

 

'a tree.'

 

'yes, but what are these?'

 

'little stones? roots?'

 

feet, thought the elefunt. those are my feet. he didn't know how he knew.

pictures were coming into his mind. the dark was giving him pictures.

 

'i can't see.'

 

'where are we?'

 

we're here, thought the elefunt. i'm here. where are they?

 

tentatively he extended his trunk and felt around. there was a scream.

 

'it touched me!'

 

'be careful - it might bite!'

 

i won't, thought the elefunt. why should i?

 

the voices were clambering across each other, shoving, trying to make a

door. i didn't have a door before, thought the elefunt; why now? language

was beginning to mount up in him. pictures with sounds, with names, with

permission to go anywhere in his head. wherever they went he felt himself

become a little lighter.

 

'there must be a door!'

 

'there must be!'

 

yes, thought the elefunt. there is.

 

the door opened. light fell in as if it had been listening outside. the

voices turned and made for the door and the light stood to one side.

 

'going already?' said the elefunt.

 

there! he had used language! momentarily the voices in the doorway halted

and looked at him.

 

'what is it?'

 

'it's alive!'

 

i'm an elefunt, said the elefunt. i'm an elefunt. i won't bite. can i come

with you? i won't get in the way.

 

the door smiled and opened wider and the elefunt went through.

 

 

 

 

 

ORFEUS, YURIDISSEY ETC.

 

Orfeus sang

how there were 3 mysteries braided together

in each moment

 

how there were strands

which naturally unravelled

and others which always knitted up

how even water

bore this trifold braid

 

Orfeus sang

of the scrabble of hawk in the egg

he sang

of never being quite able

to see out or see over

he sang

of the slide sideways

into neighbouring myths

of his uncle the aviator

of his foster-brother the raven

 

Orfeus drank some water

then he sang

of the labia of the labyrinth

of the suck of the mothertide

of the falling everywhere

into love

 

he sang of Yuridissey

coming to him across town

her long hands folding him up

her face upswept

her gladness like a kite

her tongue a hook

 

he sang how she would always arrive

to awaken more of their story

he sang

falling into her again and again

of the bellowing creature at his core

whose lusts were single

whose longing was uncurtailed

whereas he had to reassemble himself constantly

he sang how afterwards

Yuridissey was still composed

whilst he was all over the place, lost

 

she was molten yet absent

a bronze flood

fanning out in tributaries

whilst he was flinging himself this way and that

she was all mirrors

overlapping scales

whilst he was roaring in bewilderment

catching up with her disappearances

his fur on end, his heart gasping

 

Orfeus sang and found

his voice had become thorns

he swallowed

and sang face-down over her lake

the silence asked him to descend

 

he sang water and spoke weeds

he raised his drenched muzzle and stared

he had discovered a new chord -

Orfeus/Yuridissey

and something bundled in between

 

music which naturally unravelled

made of notes which always knitted up

 

 

 

ANNUNCIATION

 

Someone has left a lily, tilted

in an antique flask - someone has painted

this annunciation before: the slide of planes
which descry the room, the collision of light
as if an angel lingered, beckoning -
having burned out the walls with its eyes.
The whole place now
stands open to brimming skies.

 

Leaving, the painter took his brushes.  The lily
he'd found and cut with such reverence
he placed at the heart of the work -
then left the painting to compose itself.  These walls
will never hold space the same way again,
because they have summoned an angel
to dispense the rain.

 

The room darkens
and the angel becomes more distinct.
A convulsion of light is its hand
burning the cup's rim.  All day the rain
has brimmed up there,
writhing and boiling, winding its dynamo.

 

So the cup is taken: from an angel
with eyes through which rain pierces.
But had the painting shown any room
(since all rooms intersect) each would have held
an angel with its own annunciation.  And wet tiles
with footprints leading away, and the soft drum
of rain on leaves.

 

Yet though in some rooms a lily, newly unclosed,
might lean - in others
the dark, inward-reaching eyes
would endlessly hold discourse with a rose.

 

Now with the unrolling of the sky and the light's wane
the thunder at last
brings down its harvest of tall rain.

 

 

 

TED HUGHES
29-10-98

 

 

today, holding your death's
small hand, black-nailed
inside your much larger hand
leading it here, you
lay down with it
under the black
and somewhere behind the dance

 

you'd carried your death a long time
and each day
more of it grew large and less of you
until the coat you'd shaped so well, fell in

 

with no one to hold the sleeves out straight
it buckled and sank
and lay in its last strong pose
mouth empty, eyes turned inside out

 

then death stood carefully up
stood looking down at you
stood off a little way
and understood

 

its joggling bones would now go coatless
its name, even, would be spoken unclothed
death - as stark as that

 

so, cautiously
trying it out, death walked off
walked away, naked, left you there
in the hollow behind the words
quietly folded

under the black, and somewhere
behind the dance

 

 

 

Catherine Milne

 

 

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