John W. Steele

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?

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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.

About Copperfield

Since 2000, The Copperfield Review has been a leading market for short historical fiction. Copperfield was named one of the top sites for new writers by Writer's Digest and it is the winner of the Books and Authors Award for Literary Excellence. We publish short historical fiction as well as history-based nonfiction, poetry, reviews, and interviews.
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