Dan Chiasson closes his book Natural History with a poem that bends the usual presentation of a persona poem, or a personification. “Scared by the smallest shriek of a pig, and when wounded, always give ground” is an odd combination of both, but it works because the character is so believable. He doesn’t come right out and say “I am an elephant,” he allows the reader to deduce this from his story. The fact that the character happens to be an elephant is secondary. Throughout the poem, forefront in the reader’s mind is not “I am an elephant but I have human qualities,” but “I am a character, this is my life.”
Chiasson gives Frederick, the elephant whose voice he creates, many attributes normally assigned solely to humans. The quality that makes him stand out most is his affinity for art and metaphor. The poem opens with the elephant’s description of a festival in which they reenact battles, “a real soldier / pulled across the festival grounds trailing blood / the way a paintbrush is pulled across a canvas; / …. / the elephant cried, Oh Murder, I am murdered! / the way we do – wordless, comical, like a choir of kazoos” (my ellipses). In these few lines, the elephant uses two similes comparing something in its life to art and music. The words he gives the wounded elephant, “Oh Murder, I am murdered!” suggest not only an understanding of language, but also a theatrical style of expression. He continues on to analyze the words he has just chosen:
is that poetry? Or is poetry picking the scarcest word,
say, ‘charred’ instead of “burned” –
as in “charred in a fire”? Real life is so raw,
all on its own; it hurts; words should perhaps
protect us from real life.
Perhaps words should be a shield, rather than
a mirror; and maybe poems should be
an ornamented shield….
… Poems should be
like people’s faces in firelight:
a little true, for verification’s sake,
but primarily beautiful…
The only indication thus far that our speaker is an elephant is Chiasson’s choice of a pronoun in the first quotation above, “the way we do – / wordless…”. The speaker has an awareness of art and its function in the world to a profound level. In the next stanza, after recounting an experience when he was dyed purple for a parade and compares himself to a large pomegranate seed, he brings the experience back to art, “That’s what a poem should be: / recognizable reality, but dyed, / a sign that someone here felt joy, / someone was released from pain…”. Frederick has an acute sense of emotion and its translation through artifice.
In the eighth stanza, we learn that not only does the speaker understand poetry, he writes it as well. Even further, it is as if he is the one writing the poem being read, not speaking to us through the writer’s imagination and craft:
so I did it, though my lungs hurt,
though my lungs felt sandpapered after.
I almost wrote ‘sadpapered’ there; isn’t it weird
the way the mind works, because
as I fill this paper up with words
I do feel sad….
The elephant has a deep awareness of and participation with the artistic world, and also has agency in it. In the fourteenth stanza, the elephant talks about his tusks, “myself, I had mine removed as soon / as I had money, and hired / an artisan to carve from them my life’s story – / there is an icon of the moon; a river / icon, three figures together, representing / Sarah, my mother and me; a flag / to show love of country…”. He talks about this as if he is a man getting tattoos.
Along with this artistic awareness, the elephant is patriotic, shown in the quote above. He is compassionate, as well, and at one point describes his mother dating “a guy with a criminal record”. Chiasson takes a persona poem and takes personification to a new level. He makes the character fully formed, with qualities with which the reader relates. Instead of a poem that stretches the imagination to see the world from an elephant’s point of view, this poem goes a step further. He makes the elephant a participant in the world. His ability for expression is not limited to the poet’s imagination, he in fact has a poetic imagination of his own. An elephant can’t write or order engravings on its tusks either, but if the character is formed based on relatable characteristics, and its object-ness is secondary, there are much fewer limits to the scope of the persona and the poem.