Ivory Carvings

Wendy Barker


How it swelled in the bathroom sink, Granny’s cardboard pellet. A basin full of water, and then, a slow unfurling—petals, a lotus. And more petals, rose, lavender, yellow, abloom in the chipped sink we spat in while brushing our teeth.

The lotus petals signal an expansion of the soul. Or were those paper flowers chrysanthemums? For Confucius, objects of meditation. In China even now, symbols of vitality.

For years on my living room wall—in intricate high relief, nine inches in diameter—a chrysanthemum made of ivory, poised on its stem, and set on a black background in a two-by-five-foot frame. Once it hung in Granny’s high-ceilinged hallway in Hong Kong. Carved from an elephant’s tusk.

African or Asian, these massive creatures mourn their dead, circle the body, caress it with their trunks. Flap their ears, click their tusks, entwine their trunks when reuniting. Big money for those tusks—long, curved incisors. White gold.

Favorite bedtime reading, in Granny’s voice, “O Best Beloved,” how the elephant’s child got his trunk, a painful stretching of his little nose by a crocodile. No mention of his tusks, although in Kipling’s drawing they’re right there, both of them, pointing toward a banana tree.

By the tenth century, not an elephant left in North Africa. Now from Kenya to Congo to Cameroon, mass killings daily. In Tanzania, villagers roll poisoned pumpkins into the road for elephants to eat.

Bananas—shaped like small tusks. Granny’s collection of bric-a-brac included a banana carved from ivory. So clever, she’d say, the way the artist showed it half peeled, as if ready to eat. The petals of my ivory chrysanthemum—a mandala? Or a mouth forced open, jagged stumps, splinters of teeth?




Wendy Barker‘s sixth collection of poetry, One Blackbird at a Time: The Teaching Poems, received the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from BkMk Press in 2015. Barker has also published three chapbooks, a selection of poems with accompanying essays, Poems’ Progress (Absey & Co., 2002), and a selection of translations, Rabindranath Tagore: Final Poems (co-translated with Saranindranath Tagore, Braziller, 2001). Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Best American Poetry 2013. Recipient of NEA and Rockefeller fellowships, she is Poet-in-Residence and the Pearl LeWinn Endowed Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio.



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