Adderson on Richard Outram’s “Mogul’s Eye”
not survive fire and water, nor earth, nor air;
the cumbrous elements. Nor did it become
numberless as thou seest. No.
is closed, clothed in darkness for all time.
eye was the still centre, the sometime
in the loomed elephant rage to be.
it mirrored the creature sun.
eye had looked on eternal light
the endless orient riverine grasslands;
the overlapped canopy of the felled forest;
stark verticals in high mountain passes;
through chinks in the slats of a boxcar,
the motes mingled in shafts of gold;
snarls in the steel mesh of enclosures;
blaze from a bucket of living water;
forever at last in Penobscot Bay.
alone among other beasts,
common with man, could weep,
did, real tears from his small eye.
common with man, not without cause.
drowned in salt water.
not man nor angel but beast, Mogul
not through his eye by with it life
the myriad present: which is immortal.
he beheld, as he was beholden to,
he became: his one death.
This is the final poem in
Richard Outram’s 1993 book, Mogul Recollected. Taken on its
own, it cannot convey the cumulative power of the collection, which
concerns a true event, the 1836 sinking of a ship in Penobscot Bay.
The Royal Tar was transporting a circus when, during a storm,
the mishandled boiler caught fire. Terrified by the waves, but also
the flames, Mogul the elephant refused to jump into the ocean.
Instead he placed his forelegs on the deck railing, which then
collapsed under his weight causing him to plunge onto a full life
raft. All, including the elephant, drowned.
The poems look at the
tragedy, which would otherwise be lost to history, from every
possible angle, and here, in the final poem, the reader, already
forced to contemplate not only the significance of death by fire and
water of a fellow creature, but also its terrible treatment in life,
now must look Mogul directly in the eye and ask the age-old question:
why must we suffer? The question is, of course, as unanswerable as
the darkness of the death we are “beholden” to is inevitable.
(Death and the ability to suffer are two more things we have in
common with elephants beyond the ability to cry.) Yet Mogul’s brave
eye, “the still centre,” ever sought out the light, which in turn
ever diminished as he moved from freedom to captivity, until it was
just the “rebounding blaze” from the burning ship reflected in
the water bucket of slavery. Still he saw it, “eternal” light. He
saw with that light-seeking eye, instead of through it.
In none of the four or
five times that I’ve read Mogul Recollected, have I been
able to get through it without sobbing for an elephant who perished
more than a century and a half ago. The poems are a call to
compassion, which literally means “to suffer together.” We suffer
with the animals (though somewhat less so than they, I would
venture), yet it is they who teach us how we might finally reach
immortality. With their particular wisdom—instinct, intuition,
creature insight—they perceive “life in the myriad present,”
which goes on and on, recorded or not.
From the November 2010 issue of the Shambhala Sun.
Poem from Mogul
Recollected, by Richard Outram (1993); The Porcupine’s