The Elephant of the Sea

Because I make big bucks fooling around
with words, in France sometimes I like to say
“Sylvia Plath” instead of “s’il vous plait,”
as when I open the door for Barbara and say,
“Après-vous, Sylvia Plath!” But yesterday
the lady in the boulangerie asked me what I wanted,
and I said, “Une baguette, Sylvia Plath! Crap . . .”

Before I move to France, I have to help
my friend from France buy his first American automobile,
and naturally he wants everything on his car
to be just like mine, right down to the manatee on the tag,
for which I pay an extra seventeen dollars that
goes into some kind of special fund for endangered species.
He says, “You have zuh elephant of zuh sea

on your matriculation?” Tag, I say, tag!
And manatee! which is a Native American word meaning, uh,
l’elephant de mer, and no, you don’t want it,
because we’re trying to save money here, remember?
We go over this several times, yet when we are in
the tag office and I am filling out a form to have his title
sent to my address, I hear Antoine say,

“I can have zuh elephant of zuh sea
on my matriculation?” to a clerk who’s got this grin
on her face like she’s either seeing God
of having an aneurysm, and I can see she loves it,
she’s going to tell the women she goes fishing with
on Lake Jackson about this foreign fellow,
nice as he could be, though, who comes into

the office the other day, and says, “elephant of
zuh sea” and “matriculation,” and they’ll say,
“Wanda, hush! You’re scaring the bass!”
and so she’ll tell her husband, who will say,
“Uh-huh! Any more of these potatoes?”
and also everyone at her fortieth class reunion
and her grandchildren and their children, too,

and they’ll ignore her as well, the little ones
thinking, Whoa, G-momma’s telling those old stories again!
And on her last day, Pastor Blair will be there
saying, “That’s all right, now, Wanda, you just let go,
you hear?” And she’ll wheeze and say,
“And then this fellow says, ‘I can have zuh elephant
of zuh sea’—ah, glory!”

Up to this point in his life, Pastor Blair
will have had about him the same “divine stupidity”
that Tennyson attributed to Garibaldi,
but the phrase “zuh elephant of zuh sea” will wake him
right up, it’ll hit him like a triple espresso,
and he’ll always remember it, though he’ll change
the details as he works them into a story of his own

about this dying member of his congregation
who raved about this particular foreign individual who,
etc., and so forth and so on in endless retellings
which are in turn picked up by others who incorporate them
into their stories until finally “zuh elephant
of zuh sea”—well, it won’t be like France at all, will it,
it’ll be like Deutschland, i.e., über alles.

And the baker, she’ll say to her husband,
“Funniest thing: today this stuttering spastic hillbilly
zombie hayseed-type dude calls me ‘Sylvia Plath,’”
and her husband says, “You mean S’il Vous Plaît,
the author of Ariel (1965) and The Colossus (1967)?”
and she’ll pop herself on the forehead with a floury hand
and say, “You know the dates?”


David Kirby
from his book The Ha-Ha: Poems
Louisiana State University Press, 2003
used with permission of the poet

Comments are closed.