OCTOBER 16, 2016
I have been writing poetry which highlights the extinction of large iconic animals which once roamed the British Isles – it's resulted from the novel I am working on, where the main character, living in the present time, occasionally enters a trance-like state where he experiences incidents in the life of a Palaeolithic artist. Most of the poems in this series are sonnets of various types and lengths, but this is the first poem written, and it is not in sonnet form at all. In it, a Stone-Age man encounters and is overawed by an enormous mammal which has become rare – endangered, in our modern terms – by the time of this chance meeting. I recited a shortened version of this poem at the TEDx Inverness 2016 conference.
Straight-tusked elephant, tall as three men,
Grey bulk hidden in the thick hawthorn wall,
Pushes white tusks like huge ivory
Needles through the branching boughs, smooth tusks,
Long and straight to the quick curve of their ends,
Where the tips reach almost to the ground,
To the hawthorns’ roots, but straight as poles till then.
Its great trunk snakes up, grasps the spiny stems,
Tosses its massive head; cracking wood
Snaps and flings sap upwards in a stream;
The falling stand of thorn reveals the cow,
Magnificent in her hugeness, her
Great humped dome dappled by the oaks
That shade the thorn, her sagging, weighted skin
Doubly mapped, lines riven like runnels
In the rock of a broken riverbed.
Next to her is a calf, bull-calf with ears
Too big for the head that he swivels
To mimic his mother’s crushing blows.
All this I see, my spear with its flint head
Motionless, haft smooth in my dry hand,
My held breath as still as certain death
Should I be sensed, and crushed and speared.
I have heard tales of these domed elephants,
With their strange straight tusks too long, unbent;
I have never felt, before, so close
To such an immensity of power.
I know the cow will be dangerous
With her calf so near, and I fear, then,
For my son, still so young, and for the
Bump in my woman’s belly, new child.
For a moment, inevitable,
Light from my eye locks with the light
Pulsing from that of the straight-tusked cow,
And my body loses substance, form;
She holds my gaze and seems to feel my fear,
Weighs my intent, weightless as I am,
And I sense she knows me, or knew me once.
I feel, absurdly, that she foretells
What my human presence portends, end-song –
Then her trunk flicks down to nudge her calf
Closer, and she releases her grip
On my gaze, gently draws her calf’s trunk
To the tender new leaves at his feet,
Shredded and stripped from the arching thorns.
Beyond the hawthorn ruins and oaks, massed pines
Stretch endless to the sea; below, what
Will be called Loch Ness sparkles in its glen.
The matriarch with the long straight tines
Moves on into deeper, darker wood;
My insubstantial body drops down,
And I wait a long while in silence,
Before I move too, back into the
Coming world, the whittling world of men.