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Billy Marshall Stoneking: Two Poems
Elephant | Campfire at Tjukula - Central Australia


         (for Ed Field)

He liked the monkeys & the hippos,
the polar bears, & even the birds,
of course...
but most of all, he loved the elephants.
The elephants were dependable—
solid and definite as the paperweights
he'd played with on his father's desk.
You could trust the elephants.
"The elephants," he said,
"the elephants are my friends."

So he learned their stories,
their way of speaking, their private jokes
& what they knew of love and keeping;
& by the time he was nine,
had mastered their vocabulary,
committing to heart their logarithms & astronomy.
He could walk like them, talk like them,
& even recall small facts about
some of the really great ones
who'd made big names for themselves.

On special days,
before he was allowed to travel on his own,
he'd go with his father to the zoo
to say hello to his mates—
the Indian & the African—
waiting for the keeper to come
with leaves of hay,
or brush & bucket to scrub them clean,
transforming their skin
into an ineluctable rubberiness.

By the time he was eleven,
he knew their gestures & their joys,
imagining a life in other countries,
free of cages,
before Loxodonta africanus stumbled
into a crowd of peanuts & boys.

As he recalled it,
to touch the eye of his first elephant
he would've needed a hook'n'ladder;
it was so high, its grey head
scraped the ceiling in the animal enclosure.
Outside, you would've lost it
in a cloud.

Lost—the child grows down into the man.
And year after year, the elephants grow smaller.
The big one—though he searched for it everywhere—
he never saw it again.

Behind the locks that keep us safe,
inside the Sundays of our brains,
hordes of creatures are detained
that can't be fed & won't be named.
We play our parts.
The strongest cage: the human heart.
Not good, not bad, not false, not true.
The incomparable comfort of sawdust
contains the fool.

Campfire at Tjukula - Central Australia

Out here
the night sky is so bright
you can hear the Seven Sisters
screaming in the dark,
frightened by that Old Man—
that greedy one
who would take them all
for wives.

The foot of the wedge-tailed eagle
presses against the sky.
And everywhere,
heaven is littered
with spears.

In Scorpio, two lovers
unable to separate
run for their lives
pursued by waputju
(the girl's father),
and by the guardian of
the circumcision ceremony.
The boomerang flying to kill them
in a cloud of dust.

prods the fire with a stick,
waiting for my reply.

Whitefella way
different way, I tell him:
stories of black holes,
Schrodinger's cat,
the Big Bang,
one hundred eighty-six
thousand miles
                per second.
You see that star? I say.
It might've blown up
before you were born,
           its light is
           still coming
      towards us.

Tutama reaches for
a lump of bush tobacco
behind his ear;
rolls it silently
between dry palms.
Skin warm.
Stomach full.
Not wanting to
disturb the universe,
he accepts what I say
         with the dignity
      of a man
who understands
           how a whitefella
will tell you almost anything.

Poet's Biography:
Born in Orlando, Florida, his published work includes the modern-day classic, Singing the Snake (Harper/Collins, 1990); and the equally good though less classic, Lasseter: In Quest of Gold (Hodder & Stoughton, 1989). Taking America Out of the Boy, an irreverent auto-fictography, was published by Hodder Spectrum in 1993. His first full-length play, Sixteen Words For Water (published by Harper/Collins in 1991) has enjoyed several successful productions, inlcuding seasons in London, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Hobart, Dunedin (NZ), and Buffalo (NY). Much of his work has been influenced, and continues to be influenced, by his long association with tribal Aboriginal people. His latest play, Eisenstein in Mexico has been translated into the Spanish, and will be published by the University of Sinaloa Press in Culiacan, Mexico, as part of their world literature series. Visit Billy's website at He can be reached via email at

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