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Nox Elephantorum


I’ll be interviewing the poet Siriol Troup here on Tonguefire on Friday, 24 July. The following poem comes from her new collection, Beneath the Rime.

Nox Elephantorum
– Elephant Night at the Coliseum

Climb the railings by moonlight – you’ll find us
on our knees in the ring, turning tricks
under the sky’s black awning. Such eloquent
desolation: the rime of ivory on tufa,
a breeze down the stairwells, the whiff
of dung and pozzolana. We have only
a few hours each night, but they are very long.

How shall we entertain you? Walk the tightrope
backwards? Toss stray cats in the air, watch them
break as they fall? For Germanicus
we danced the graveyard shuffle, our big feet
tender as pincushions, a crimson ellipsis
on the sand. The people roared, the vultures
lunged and hissed over the bleachers.

Let me be your guide. Once there were
statues, frescoes, trapdoors, marble seats, sails
flying through cloud. The butchery defied
imagination: bulls, bears, crocodiles,
tigers and giraffes – an alphabet of beasts
slaughtered ad libitum, carousels
of blood. Listen, you can hear the skirl

of tusks along the colonnades.
I had a mother once. These ears are for
remembering: the feverish sea, psoriasis
of salt on skin, the subterranean
cells, the bite of chains. Now, in the centre
of the herd, we place the ones who cannot
die, shading them with the bark of our hides,

with memories of acacias rooted in heat-
haze. They weep like rocks, piteously, below
the range of human hearing. In summer
the moths come, creamy as baobab flowers,
wings like gauze on their wounds. How many
of us lie buried in this vanished world?
Step closer, let me show you the little paths

that wind among the ruins. The travertine vaults.
The drains gathering water from the hills of Rome.
The Vestals sat here. Here’s the spot where tongues
of lightning set fire to the upper floors. Here
twenty elephants were killed, but not before
we’d raised our trunks to heaven, causing the crowd
to rain down curses on Pompey. And here

you stand with your guidebook, staring at things
you cannot see. Soon it will be dawn.
You’ll leave with our dust on your feet, our breath
on your neck, our tears on your dry cheeks.
Will you remember how we died? How little
we asked of the gods? How the moon tonight
was encompassed by a light unknown in your land?

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