Elephant Riding

Climbing up
the back of an elephant
you spring into
the toehold of its tail
held in place by the mahout
grab the ropes
strapped round its belly
& haul yourself up.

She rises
from buckled knees under you
moves like a ship
you’re high
under the hanging ashoka leaves
as you flow forward
her fly-bitten ears grey sails flap.
she flings the odd young-leaved branch
into her mouth
with her triumphant trunk.

You want to scratch
the top of her stubbled head
tell her it’s like riding a whale
they’re both your favourite creatures
you’d like to know their languages
couldn’t she speak
just a little of hers?

But the mahout down on the road
rubs thumb & fingers together
furiously you nod
yes pay, of course we’ll pay
thinking, if he doesn’t
accept our offer, let me down
I’ll be stuck up here forever
riding New Delhi streets
with the mahout’s boy
or it’ll suddenly have had enough
trumpet & fling me off or bolt.

I’d never have paid
till he let you down

you said, as we watched her
join the diesel-belching traffic circle
my ship of the jungle
dirty & grey
non-caparisoned, gentle, knowing, female
working animal.

In India, they say
a woman is beautiful
when she walks
like an elephant.

Jan Kemp was born in Hamilton in 1949. She returned to New Zealand in 1999 after 25 years as an expatriate, teaching English-as-a-foreign-language and writing and performing her work in Australia and the Pacific, Canada, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore and finally Germany, where she studied German and Italian literature at the University of Frankfurt. Her latest publications are The Sky’s Enormous Jug: Love Poems Old & New (Puriri Press, May 2001) and Only One Angel (University of Otago Press, December 2001.) She took part in the WOW Tour 2002 to the Waikato and is participating in the New Zealand Poetry Society’s Northern Lights tour of the northern South Island in early May 2002 and in the Going West Festival in September.

Of “Elephant Riding” she says: “There we were, walking along a footpath in New Delhi when, amongst all the traffic, along came an elephant. I couldn’t resist asking if I could have a ride on it — well, what would you do if an elephant, unladen, came alongside? Both the mahout and the elephant were most obliging — he made her kneel down for me to get up onto her back. And, of course, we offered to pay him and I did so admire her, a working creature with such a gentle spirit. The hardest word to find was an adjective to describe her trunk!”

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New Zealand Book Council writer file
Otago University Press author page