Issue > Poetry
Joanne Diaz

Joanne Diaz

Joanne Diaz is the recipient of fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. She is the author of My Favorite Tyrants and The Lessons, and with Ian Morris, she is the co-editor of The Little Magazine in Contemporary America. She teaches in the English Department at Illinois Wesleyan University.

Electrocuting an Elephant

—after Raúl Martínez Beteta

At the Museu Maritím Barcelona, I stood
     in the entryway and watched the automaton:
a dull metal fish that swung and rotated
     without any apparent assistance

save for the push of air that my presence
     brought to it. The steel was an orange shimmer
of underwater motion; the sky above glowed
     topaz like the Mediterranean; and the fish,

larger than life, swung its creaky tail
     from one side to another with a sound
of recycled metals and nails and nets,
     junk from the sea that would and does kill

any real ocean life, now repurposed
     and born again. The fish hearkened back
to a Renaissance desire for things
     that move as if on their own, so lively,

so animated with a kind of spirit,
     that they might even be capable of emotion.
When the spring is pushed, the machine stirs,
     just like the human body with its various clocks

that chime throughout the day.
     Who knows how much of any being
is sheer will, and how much pure inertia.
     Take Topsy, for example. When I first read

about this spectacularly troubled elephant,
     it was in the context of Edison's great
experiment: his way of assuring the world
     that direct current was superior to alternate,

that its shock would be swift, clean, and painless.
     Topsy's rage was her primary emotion.
By the time she was electrocuted, she had already killed
     a man, attacked several others, and her death

was, in the view of her owners, inevitable,
     no matter that the man she killed had goaded her
with lit cigarettes and booze and heckling.
     When you've got a bad elephant

on your hands, the thinking went,
     there was nothing to do but send a charge
through its body, and if the death
     were in service to modern electricity,

progress, and change, then all the better.
     In the moments before Topsy died,
it almost seemed like the cyanide-laced carrots
     and her slow walk in copper slippers

were a part of the elephant's wish, a last great bow
     that only she could initiate. I look again at the fan
of the fish's tail, its creak and glide, how it opens
     to all possibility, which is a machine of its very own.

[Note: the italicized quotes come from Joseph Roach's anecdotes about Rene Descartes in The Player's Passion (University of Michigan Press, 1985), p. 62.]


The air is alive with our failure.

—Deborah Digges

At first they might feel like a mistake,
these tiny shrubs, these sisters to mint

and weed, these lanceolate leaves,
these etymons of the plant's name

buried in laundry and funerary rites,
but then, in a flash, the world is all

Cezanne, all barn in a purple field,
and you climb to the second floor

and stand with your toes on the edge
to behold it: miles of cornstalks

punctuated by this profundity
of lavender. Half of you might think

world's end, sixth extinction, near apocalypse,
but the other half will wonder

where does the hair that whips across the face
become prairie, what is an acre

of lavender, what is this ache. Forty
can feel like days on water, a season

of penitence, years of exile. It is
composite, and like all such numbers,

only semi-perfect, but no harm done.
Sometimes it takes years to know

tenderness, which, as the word implies,
is its own form of currency.

Today, let the mind wander and fan
and even surrender to the body,

then walk through a field of lavender
on this edge of before and after.

Therein lies—believe it—a kind
of contentment, with the body

not a map or a clock but a sprig,
tightly bound, and full of vibrant matter.

[Note: The phrase "vibrant matter" comes from Jane Bennett's book of the same title.]


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