War Elephant, by John W. Steele
Hind legs bound and tied to tree, you stand
poised, ears back, trunk coiled. Captive,
yet you stand with such fierce dignity,
stamping the earth with your tremendous foot.
You tower high above the emperor,
seated there upon his prancing horse,
spear held aloft, as if to fend you off.
A horde of captors stands by holding spears.
How dare they do this to you, noble beast?
You gaze at them with such deep, steady eyes.
Do they not know you mean no harm?
Two other elephants walk by, subdued,
content to let mahouts ride on their backs.
Descendant of the ten-tusked Airavata,
who sucks up water from the underworld,
sprays it into clouds, and rides upon
the skies with Thunderous-Indra on his back,
you will lead the charge of Akbar’s troops
with iron-spiked tusks, ears splayed wide,
whip-like trunk adorned with chains and balls.
Remember Alexander’s soldiers trembling
at the sight of Persian elephants? They saw
a war machine like none they’d seen before.
They didn’t know how gentle and compassionate
you can be. Their solemn sacrifice
before the God of Fear the night before
the battle may have helped them win, but your
outstanding show of force led Alexander
to enlist you in his army. Remember
when the Nanda Empire deployed six thousand
of your kind? That’s why Alexander
halted his advance to India, and stationed
hundreds of elephants to guard his palace.
Remember how you helped King Pyrrhus rout
the Romans, then helped the Romans conquer Britain?
How many of your kind died crossing the Alps
with Hannibal? When he got you drunk
and whipped you to a frenzy, remember those
iron-clad Roman soldiers, how they fled?
When Yemeni Christian soldiers marched on Mecca,
is it true the noble elephant, Mahmud,
who led the team of elephants, refused
to enter the city, thus saving the holy Ka’bah?
When you face extinction at the hands
of those you died for, will you not fight back?
Why not call on Lightning-Wielding Indra
to descend on Ten-Tusked Airavata’s back,
thunderbolt the poachers’ helicopters
and bring them crashing blood-stained to the ground?
John W. Steele
This poem first appeared in Copperfield Review.
John W. Steele is a psychologist, yoga teacher, assistant editor of Think: A Journal of Poetry, Fiction and Essays, and graduate of the MFA Poetry Program at Western Colorado University, where he studied with Julie Kane, David Rothman, and Ernest Hilbert. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Amethyst Review, Autumn Sky, Boulder Weekly, Buddhist Poetry Review, Blue Unicorn, Colorado Sun, Copperfield Review, Eastern Forms, Heron Clan Anthology, IthacaLit, The Lyric, Mountains Talking, New Verse News, The Orchards, Peacock Journal, Road Not Taken, Society of Classical Poets, Urthona Journal of Buddhism, Verse-Virtual, and Westward Quarterly. He was nominated for a Pushcart prize, won The Lyric’s 2017 Fall Quarterly Award, won an award in the 2020 Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition, and was awarded Special Recognition in the 2019 Helen Schaible International Sonnet Contest. His book reviews have appeared in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and Raintown Review. John lives in Boulder, Colorado and enjoys hiking in the mountains.
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