Today I learned about Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s poem “The Elephant,” translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith in the collection Multitudinous Heart. The translation of this poem is also available online.
“I make an elephant,” the poet says, repurposing “some wood / from old furniture” and stuffing it “with cotton, / silk floss, softness.” Glue, too, will have to do. But what to do about the ivory, “that pure white matter / I can’t imitate”? What to do about the eyes, “the most / fluid and permanent / part of the elephant”?
It’s not so much an external object. The elephant is “my dearest disguise,” the poet says. He is constructing himself.
It is a poem that might appeal especially to anyone who has tried to sculpt or reconstruct their own body, and perhaps it also may, more abstractly, address the sculpting or reconstructing of nonphysical aspects of a life.
It’s about the risk that we do it badly. We don’t meet our own standards, or the world is not ready to receive us and believe in us. The elephant enters “a jaded / world that doesn’t believe / anymore in animals / and doubts all things,” and “no one will look / at him, not even to laugh / at his tail.” It’s also about monstrosity: how an attempt to imitate an awesome, beautiful being may result in a half-invisible, ugly accident that inevitably must be disassembled by its creator as a failed experiment. Or: This is, at least, part of the process that others pick up on when they perceive us as monsters.
Over the past two decades, I’ve read fifteen hundred books. I’m not including newspapers, magazines, online articles, or sources briefly consulted. I mean books with ISBNs that I’ve read cover-to-cover. Over the same period of time, I’ve listed an additional two thousand books that I’d like to read but have not, to this day, yet read.
The “to read” list usually presents itself as a “to-do” question: When and how will I acquire copies of each book and sit with it? Won’t it take more than two decades to read them all? The “to read” list seems to prompt goal-setting. It’s an achievement that lies in my future. It’s an ambition. We are so often taught to think that way: Something we want to do is necessarily something that we are supposed to do, or else others will interpret us as disappointed, ineffectual, unhappy, and therefore pitiable.
There is a better way of understanding this phenomenon: I add books to my “to read” list at more than twice the speed that I read them. If this week is typical, I’m likely to add five books to my list, yet I can only read two. This is a permanent condition. I can’t catch up with my own list. This is not a problem. The only problem is in imagining that I can read five books a week. I can’t.
One solution is to want less. Just delete books from the list. Don’t tell people that they exist. Downsize my imagination to fit my capacity. This would make other people more comfortable around me because they would remain blissfully unaware that there are things I want to do that I will never do. I wouldn’t be giving them the terms by which to interpret me according to my unrealized potential.
But what’s wrong with having unrealized potential? The list does not have to be a source of frustration. Instead, it can represent abundance. It is the abundance of my own imagination regarding what I would like to do with my time. I may never cross everything off the list. That just means I will never run out of things I’d like to do.
Here’s some of the poems that have drifted my way, by the thoughtfulness of their sharers and by my good fortune to happen to see them, during the first three months of 2020. I am grateful for these.
John Ashbery, “The Chateau Hardware” in The Double Dream of Spring
Cameron Awkward-Rich, “Meditations in an Emergency”
Anna Akhmatova, “The Last Toast,” [“And here, in defiance of the fact”] (both translated by Judith Hemschemeyer)
Mary-Kim Arnold, “Q1: Who Are You Looking For?”
Mark Bibbins, “13th Balloon”
CL Bledsoe, “A Kind of Spring,” in Grief Bacon
Blake Butler, “Asphyxiation” in Folk Physics
Jennifer Chang, “The Winter’s Wife,” in Some Say the Lark
Lisa Ciccarello, in At Night
Lucille Clifton, “blessing the boats”
Kwame Dawes, “Before Winter”
Heather Derr-Smith, “At the Crossing”
Linh Dinh, “WHOAAAA!!!”
Lauris Edmond, “The lecture”
Laura Eve Engel, “Burden of Belonging”
Ross Gay, “Sorrow is Not My Name”
Brigit Pegeen Kelly, [“It was not a scorpion I asked for…”]
Lisa Matthews, “Of these, abandonment,” in The Eternally Packed Suitcase
Jamaal May, “In the Future You Will Be Your Own Therapist”
Alicia Mountain, “Almanac Traction”
C.D. Wright, “Questionnaire in January,” in The Poet, the Lion…”
Louise Glück, “Crater Lake”, “Reunion,” “March,” “Image”
Linda Gregg, “Heavy With Things and Flesh”
Jim Harrison, “Becoming”
Jane Hirshfield, “I wanted to be surprised”
Kasey Jueds, “Birthday”
Galway Kinnell, “Prayer”
Noelle Kocot, “Ligeti,” in Soul in Space
Ted Kooser, “At the Office Early”
Danusha Laméris, “Small Kindnesses”
Audre Lorde, “October”
Osip Mandelstam, [“A body is given to me”] (trans. Robert Tracy)
Jeffrey McDaniel, “The Quiet World”
Lisel Mueller, “When I Am Asked,” “Snow”
Carl Phillips, “Dirt Being Dirt”
Ellen Bryant Voigt, “Deathbed”
William Bronk, “The feeling”, in The World, The Worldless (translated by Paol Keineg)
Naomi Shihab Nye, “Burning the Old Year”
Vijay Seshadri, “Enlightenment”
Grace Paley, “Proverbs,” “Drowning (II)”
Luke Palmer, “Boy on the Beach”
Nathan Parker, “4”
Linda Pastan, “RSVP Regrets Only”
Carl Phillips, “Said the Horse to the Light”
Eugenia Leigh, “Selah”
Frank Lima, “On Poetry”
Mary Oliver, “A Thousand Mornings”
Adrienne Rich, “Final Notations”
Jaime Sabines, “La luna”
Stevens, “First Warmth”
Adam Tedesco, “Achenes”
Marina Tsvetaeva, “Prayer” [trans. Ilya Kaminsky & Jean Valentine], in Art in the Light of Conscience
Chase Twichell, “Vestibule”
Hannah VanderHart, “Heart: An Anatomy”
W. S. Merwin, “When the War Is Over,” [“I needed my mistakes”]
Mark Strand, “The Man in the Mirror”
Maggie Smith, “Good Bones”
Richard Siken, “Dirty Valentine”
Susan Stewart, “The Forest”
Trakl tr. Tapscott, “A Winter Evening”
Catherine Wing, “The Darker Sooner,” in 32 Poems
Franz Wright, “Petition”
Adam Zagajewski, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World”
Participate as a reader, or listen in!
March 23 – 8 PM EST – Costura Creative Living Room Reading Series – Donation-based “tickets” through EventBrite
March 23 – 8:30 PM EST – Boston’s Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola hosts a poetry reading with Crystal Valentine. “The Remedy” on Instagram Live.
March 27 – April 11 – The Stay-At-Home! festival, “a free and completely online literature festival designed to shine some light, joy, and connectivity.”
Wednesdays noon EST during April (National Poetry Month) – Simon & Schuster on Instagram – April 1, William Evans gives writing tips
Poets in Pajamas – a bi-monthly reading series, Sundays 7 PM ET
Poetry Circle – an ongoing tweet-thread of poetry videos, started by Tara Skurtu
Distāntia Remote Reading Series – Seeking video submissions by poets. All videos are captioned.
Poets of the Pandemic – Videos are being planned. Captions anticipated. Likely prerecorded.
Shelter in Place (Maris Kreizman, with Lit Hub) – Discussions with authors about new releases
Train/Car Reading – Instagram-based, videos archived online