Five New Poems

"One Elephant, Two Elephant" and four other new poems

Clive James

One Elephant, Two Elephant

Denis Zafiro, Last of the Great White Hunters—
Reduced now, a fact worth blessing, to the role of 
No rifle any more, just a mid-range Japanese 
And even that he would keep under wraps. “The 
Of the great white photographers.” One of his 

Took Hemingway out on the almost fatal safari
In which Papa, extravagantly even for him,
Contrived to be in a plane crash twice, thus 
Himself up good, so that on his epaulettes
Could be seen, Denis said, green muck coming out of 
his skull
Like oatmeal porridge.

                                Last of the great white contacts,
Denis, when our safari left Nairobi
Could have ridden up front like Rommel in his staff 
Attacking out of retreat in the Western Desert
But no, he stayed modestly in the background
While our cameraman, intrepid as all get out
Knocked off the required footage of lions and rhinos
And cheetahs licking their lips, with even a glimpse 
of leopard, 
Considered unfindable save by Denis’s sidekick
Kungu, who muttered comments in Swahili
Which Denis translated as “Leopard over there, I 
And there she was, a set of spots deep in a tree—
Stuck to the spot with her spots resolutely 
For the full two hours till she finally took a crap.
“A bowel movement, but at least she moved” jested 
Who had a million of them.

                                                So it went on
Good usable stuff up till the day we rested
The crew, as the union dictates. Thank God for 
those rules
Or there would be crosses all over the Masai Mara
To mark the death by exhaustion of the modern 
The tough men in sleeveless bush shirts
With the tricep tattoos and a camera on their 
That you and I could barely pick up. Our chap was 
“We’re doing OK so far but nothing fantastic, 
So if you two see anything don’t for Christ’s sake 
tell me.”
Denis thought that an off-piste mini-safari
With me up front while Kungu taught me Swahili
And him in the back at ease like Diana Dors 
In a Daimler (his showbiz images tended to be
A bit out of date, though it’s never wise to argue
With a man who actually knew Ava Gardner),
A trip to show me a few unscripted attractions
That often won’t sit still for a movie camera 
Would be a good thing. He was like a book 
Showing you his library. I could tell from how he 
He was Africa mad, so he had his favourite 
For shooting stills, like a ford five miles away
Of bumpy driving, nothing too bad, he promised.
And pretty, even if nothing happened. Well he
Was right, it was pretty. Just wrong about the 
“Elephant,” he said “quite often cross here.
You see whole families of them at a time.”
As if on cue, three elephant, four elephant,
An entire family showed up out of the bush
Which guarded the opposite like a crescent moon
And assembled on the bank. “Well, there you are”
Laughed Denis. “Your luck’s uncanny. Straight 
from the movies.
No wonder Kungu wants to touch you so often.”
But even as he spoke, there were lots more of them
So the first ones had to move, like shunted box cars
Into the oxtail water. More than thirty 
Were now in the frame, except we had no frame
But Denis’s Nikon made a rare appearance.
“Well, Kungu can pick them. This is all your doing.
I’ve never seen this, never in all my time
In Africa. And neither has he.” And Kungu was 
In between the air-horn blasts from a New York grid-lock
With half of downtown occupied by Mack ten-
I caught a few mentions of tembo, meaning elephant
But the other words were double Dutch to me.
“He hasn’t seen this since he was a boy.”
And there were more to come, but by now the 
Of all the tourist firms were gathering
At the point where the first family were now 
On the other side. A lane was left
To let the elephant by, but the flashing lights
On the cameras must have seemed a storm. One 
Flared out its ears and bellowed. “By Christ,”
Said Denis “If this one charges, they all will.”
They didn’t charge, but there was a bit of a panic, 
And that was scary enough. I know I sound
Like Falstaff telling Hal how many thieves
He put to flight, but really there were fifty
Elephant tightly packed and churning around
To take their turn at scrambling from the soup.
In the river, the tots beside their mothers
Were near invisible, their little trunks
Held up like snorkels. Open mouthed
(Like The Three Stooges, Denis later said,
Bang up to date as usual. Thanks a bunch.)
We watched one mother tuck her trunk beneath
Her pup and hoik him out, swing like a crane
And put him on the bank. And guess who didn’t
Get the shot. “Oh blast!” said Denis, fiddling
With the switches that had changed his life. Kungu
Was of the opinion that the magic touch
Was mine, but he was also the first one—
As we bumped slowly home again across the veldt—
To say what needed saying. Denis said 
“He says we have to keep our day a secret.”
I dumbly added “Especially from my crew.”
“That’s who he meant,” said Denis. Pale pink light 
Was growing deeper in the sky
When we got back to camp. Cameraman Mike 
Said “Anything good happen?” From the way
We said it hadn’t he soon guessed that it had
But kept schtum for our young producer’s sake.
And anyway next day we filmed two leopard.

The Light As It Grows Dark

The light as it grows dark holds all the verve
That you were ever thrilled or dazzled by,
But holds it folded thick, stacked in reserve.
More for your memory than for your eye
It brings back pictures that your every nerve
Once revelled in while scarcely caring why.

You care now. Time has come, and there will be
No light at all soon, so look hard at this:
Behold the concentrated panoply 
Just here in this small garden’s emphasis
On colour drained of visibility.
In daylight, such wealth might be what you miss.

The flowers are growing dark, but they will live,
And so will you, at least a little while.
Good reason you should do your best to give
All your attention now. It’s not your style,
I’m well aware, to be contemplative:
The thought of chasing shadows makes you smile.

And yet I swear to you each figment had
Full meaning once. The images are here
That made your day when you would run half-mad
For too much good luck. Now they reappear
So fragmentarily you find it sad.
But really it’s all there, so have no fear:

The light as it grows dark has come for you
To comfort you. It is the sweet embrace
Of what your history was bound to do:
Close in, and in due time to take your place.
You can’t believe it, but it’s nothing new:
Your life has turned to look you in the face.

The Shadow Knows

See how the shadow of my former self
Moves through the kitchen, putting plates away.
The dishwasher yields up its treasure trove
Of future shards from long-ago today.
The blue-ringed soup bowls go home to their 

I get home often now, as shadows are
Inclined to do, because they are so weak.
Now that my work is done, the peace I love
Is here for me, and you can hear me speak
More clearly now than I spoke from afar.

If that sounds strange now we are not apart,
My even breath must prove that here, at last,
I come to you with all that I could save
Of pure affection from my troubled past
Which made us wealthy while I broke your 

I am the shadow and the widower
Because the innocent you were I slew,
But you are here, and real, and far above
My level of attainment. It is you
Who brings me back to love what we once were.

Vision of Jean Arthur and the Distant Mountains

Look back and you can almost pick the minute
When the last power and spring of youth withdrew,
And you began to walk, not run,
Searching ahead for places to sit down.
Really it’s been the one long day since then,
But gradually invaded by this peace
By which you are looked after. The light ebbs
As it does before the heavens open,
And the air fills with this strange comfort,
As if there were a soft and loving voice
Putting sweet emphasis on just one word
To mark the moment of your growing old.
You can’t just stand there in the rain.
You’ll catch your death of cold.

The Black Fighter Pilot

No sudden death was quite as quick as when
The enemy came from the front dead straight,
The closing speed six hundred plus, and then
In just one second, from the wings and snout
He showered the shells that scooped your flight 
deck out
And left an aimless wreck. For just a few
Minutes the bomber might fly on, the waist
And turret gunners find enough control
To turn for England. Like unpacked smoke-puffs
Lone parachutes continued to appear
For miles on end, but let’s not kid ourselves
About the flight crew:  they were history,
And the other kids knew that, just hanging there.
Imagine it, that moment of mad violence,
And then the slow admission of junk status
As the plane turned over and went down. No 
Heard on the intercom except your own:
Where are you? Nose attack. You are alone.
So how come, then, the Jerries didn’t win?
Because they had the planes, but not the people.
Our fighters cut theirs down at such a rate
Luftwaffe pilots rated ace if they
Could land. Forget about an actual fight.
Only old hands could do the nose attack.
The younger ones were heading for the wall
Their first trip out. The Mustangs ate them up:
The Mustangs and the Thunderbolts. P-47s
Could go downhill like dump-trucks and come 
Uphill like soaring seagulls. An all black
Squadron of Mustangs never lost a case.
Just follow me, madame. The perfect escort.
Why isn’t that more well-known? Don’t ask me,
Go ask the President, if he’s at home.
He might say, in that calm voice, that time tells;
And now there’d be a film by Howard Hawks
With a young Will Smith or Denzel Washington;
And yes, a postage stamp, the Mustang proud
As Punch with bubble cockpit high and tight;
And, climbing into it like the Black Prince,
A black pilot. Would that much be all right?
What can we do to make things come out well
That’s better than just saying “War is Hell”? 

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"