Riots in England, elephant rampages, “Death in a Box” and mourning

An Elephant Crackup? – New York Times.

Reading about the riots in England today (particularly this piece by Glenn Greenwald), reminded me of this 2006 article from the New York Times about juvenile elephants rampaging across continents, raping, murdering, and mourning. The story of the elephants affected me so deeply when I read it in 2006 that it ended up in one of my poems, “In Danger of Being Lost,” which was published in my chapbook, Dream of Water:

“murderers from the beginning,”
we understood the incessant noise of negative energy:
how whales were killed by sonar,
or the destructive power of the ocean’s dark sounds

the impossibility of crossing the horizon
was considered and rejected

the evidence was clear:
we were driving them mad across the sea-
like savannah, pachyderms raped and murdered,
stamped the earth with their massive
soles sending out word, burying the dead
marking the bones and standing ground,

(there was little time
for “normalizing” interactions)

we held together
false notions of domination and revenge
how could we reject
the intimations of the one, singular Belief?

(we lit offerings on fire, fanned the flames
with our naked hands)

please understand:
we lost count of the days
we could no longer see
what we’d left behind

What I didn’t include in the poem (but will perhaps end up in another) was this striking image from the end of the article:

As Nelson Okello and I sat waiting for the matriarch and her calf to pass, he mentioned to me an odd little detail about the killing two months earlier of the man from the village of Katwe, something that, the more I thought about it, seemed to capture this particularly fraught moment we’ve arrived at with the elephants. Okello said that after the man’s killing, the elephant herd buried him as it would one of its own, carefully covering the body with earth and brush and then standing vigil over it.

Here were elephants, stripped of their community by human exploitation and intrusion, who had murdered a man and buried him as if he were one of their own murdered by us, mourning the dead even as they were the murderers. The profound sadness concerning the entire event is palpable. The sadness that led to the rampage and then the murder; the sadness of living with the murder; the sadness of mourning the dead (and the dead way of life that they’d suffered).

Earlier today I read a powerful personal essay by Scott Johnson, a war correspondent who has spent the past decade covering our wars (murders? rampages?) in Afghanistan and Iraq:

When the marines kill, they do so rigorously and their prey falls unceremoniously. They lie in the sewage-filled gutters that bisect the neighborhood in thin green canals. They fall in doorways and stay there, slumped like drunks. If they pop around a corner the marines mow them down. They lop them off, like buds. Now, there is a spatter of rifle fire, a madman banging two steel pans in another man’s ear. In the streets their comrades pull them back from the fire line, away from us. They vanish.

Underneath me the prospect of death is alive. It is a marine. I don’t know his name. His feet are smashed and broken. The other marines have taken off his boots. His teeth are broken and blood seeps from his lips.

The essay must be read in its entirety, as it outlines this man’s emotional fracturing in the face of so much death and fear of death. I can’t do the essay justice, but I can say that once we question what is motivating us to be angry or aggressive, it seems we often find fear and an overwhelming sense of loss. Perhaps this loss needs to be mourned and attended to.

August 11, 2011