War Elephant —after Akbar Viewing a Wild Elephant Captured near Malwa in 1564 Hind legs bound and tied to tree, you stand there poised, ears back, trunk coiled. Captive, yet you stand with such fierce dignity, stamping the earth with your tremendous foot. You tower high above the emperor, seated there upon his prancing horse, spear held aloft, as if to fend you off. A horde of captors stands there holding spears. How dare they do this to you, noble beast? You gaze at them with such deep, steady eyes. Do they not know you mean no harm? Two other elephants walk by, subdued, content to let mahouts ride on their backs. Descendant of the ten-tusked Airavata, who sucks up water from the underworld, sprays it into clouds, and rides upon the skies with Thunderous-Indra on his back, you will lead the charge of Akbar’s troops with iron-spiked tusks, ears splayed wide, whip-like trunk adorned with chains and balls. Remember Alexander’s soldiers trembling at the sight of Persian elephants? They saw a war machine like none they’d seen before. They didn’t know how gentle and compassionate you can be. Their solemn sacrifice before the God of Fear the night before the battle may have helped them win, but your outstanding show of force led Alexander to enlist you in his army. Remember when the Nanda Empire deployed six thousand of your kind? That’s why Alexander halted his advance to India, and stationed hundreds of elephants to guard his palace. Remember how you helped King Pyrrhus rout the Romans, then helped the Romans conquer Britain? How many of your kind died crossing the Alps with Hannibal? When he got you drunk and whipped you to a frenzy, remember those iron-clad Roman soldiers, how they fled? When Yemeni Christian soldiers marched on Mecca, is it true the noble elephant, Mahmud, who led the team of elephants, refused to enter the city, thus saving the holy Ka’bah? When you face extinction at the hands of those you died for, will you not fight back? Why not call on Lightning-Wielding Indra to descend on Ten-Tusked Airavata’s back, thunderbolt the poachers’ helicopters and bring them crashing blood-stained to the ground? __________________________________________________________________________
John W. Steele is a psychologist, yoga teacher, assistant editor of Think: A Journal of Poetry, Fiction and Essays, and graduate of the MFA Poetry Program at Western Colorado University, where he studied with Julie Kane, Ernest Hilbert and David Rothman. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Amethyst Review, Boulder Weekly, Blue Unicorn, IthacaLit, The Lyric, Mountains Talking, The Orchards, Society of Classical Poets, Urthona Journal of Buddhism and the Arts, and Verse-Virtual. He was nominated for a 2017 Pushcart prize, won The Lyric’s 2017 Fall Quarterly Award, and was awarded Special Recognition in the 2019 Helen Schaible International Sonnet Contest. His book reviews have appeared in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and Raintown Review.