Today I learned about Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s poem “The Elephant,” translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith in the collection Multitudinous Heart. The translation of this poem is also available online.
“I make an elephant,” the poet says, repurposing “some wood / from old furniture” and stuffing it “with cotton, / silk floss, softness.” Glue, too, will have to do. But what to do about the ivory, “that pure white matter / I can’t imitate”? What to do about the eyes, “the most / fluid and permanent / part of the elephant”?
It’s not so much an external object. The elephant is “my dearest disguise,” the poet says. He is constructing himself.
It is a poem that might appeal especially to anyone who has tried to sculpt or reconstruct their own body, and perhaps it also may, more abstractly, address the sculpting or reconstructing of nonphysical aspects of a life.
It’s about the risk that we do it badly. We don’t meet our own standards, or the world is not ready to receive us and believe in us. The elephant enters “a jaded / world that doesn’t believe / anymore in animals / and doubts all things,” and “no one will look / at him, not even to laugh / at his tail.” It’s also about monstrosity: how an attempt to imitate an awesome, beautiful being may result in a half-invisible, ugly accident that inevitably must be disassembled by its creator as a failed experiment. Or: This is, at least, part of the process that others pick up on when they perceive us as monsters.