An  Elegy

elephantsA friend leant me Inventions of Farewell, A Book of Elegies, by Sandra Gilbert. This is a wonderful collection and in the introduction she references a passage on “elephant grief” from Fragments on the Deathwatch, by Louise Harmon, which in turn cites a National Geographic article about the mourning behavior of a herd of elephants after the death of an old bull. The elephants “approached his body by twos and threes, ‘sweeping their trunks slowly over him, not touching him for the most part but maintaining an inch of distance between his skin and the moist tips of their trunks. The ritual was more impressive for its silence.’ ’’ 

Reading this book reminds me that death is neither proud nor morbid, but a complex element that lends meaning to everything else. As a culture, we tend to avoid talking about it. Our rituals around it are in flux. It seems like a good place to start thinking about writing.

I’m sure I’ll  select several poems from that collection, but today’s poem is from Bob Hass’s book, The Apple Trees at Olema, New and Selected Poems. The book opens with about 30 pages of luminous, moving new writing, and the death of the poet’s brother is central theme. Today’s poem is an approach to grief as delicate and respectful as the hovering trunks of the elephants. For a long time grief is held at bay by precise description, and finally barely mentioned.

Variations on a Passage in Edward Abbey

 A dune begins with an obstacle—a stone, a shrub, a log,

anything heavy enough to resist being moved by wind. 

This obstacle forms a wind shadow on its leeward side,

making eddies in the currents, now fast, now slow, of the air,


exactly as a rock in a stream causes an eddy in the water.

Within the eddy the wind moves with less force and less velocity


than the airstreams on either side, creating what geologists call

the surface of discontinuity.  And it is here that the wind


tends to drop part of its load of sand. The sand particles,

which hop or bounce along the earth before the wind,


begin to accumulate,

      creating a greater eddy in the air currents

and capturing still more sand.

                                            It’s thus a dune is formed.


Viewed in cross section, sand dunes display a characteristic profile.

On the windward side the angle of ascent is low and gradual—


twenty to twenty-five degrees from the horizontal. On the leeward side

the slope is much steeper, usually about thirty-four degrees—


the angle of repose of sand and most other loose materials.

The steep side of the dune is called the slip face

                                                                        because of the slides

that occur as sand is driven up the windward side


and deposited on or just over the crest.

                                                              The weight of the crest

eventually becomes grater than can be supported by the sand beneath,

so the extra sand slumps down the slip face

                and the whole dune

advances in the direction of the prevailing wind, until some obstacle

like a mountain intervenes.

 This movement, this grand slow march

across the earth’s surface, has an external counterpart in the scoring movement of glaciers,

                 and an internal one in the movement of grief

which has something in it of the desert’s bareness

and of its distances.



Robert Hass


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