The Monastic Life


A man visited the elephant house at the Auckland zoo.
He admired the animal almost beyond reason.
He loved the indecision of the trunk, the shuffle
from foot to foot to hold the temple intact.
He liked the tiny tail, as though from somewhere else.
He was not a rich man. He re-mortgaged to visit
zoos in different cities. He needed, he said, to check
elephant against elephant, to ensure the first
that he saw was a fair and consisten instance.
But if zoos were in collusion? True to type
yet grossly furnished with defective exempla?
He went on safari. He witnessed elephant
birth. He saw breath crush from the cathedral
of an aged bull, brought down by ergot
poisoning. But peace of mind
was never on. The man could no more hold
‘elephant’ as a verifiable concept that he could
the living herd in the palm of his hand.
His wife suggested horses as a more manageable
obsession. But no, the man insisted
he had not come this far as devotee to waste
time on fetlocks. Elephants, he said,
at least have grandeur, massive grayness, un-
assailable grace. His definition came down
to this: No elephant was required to meet
human demand. We aspire. They are there.
An elephant, au fond, is theology that sways.

from Lucky Table (Victoria University Press, 2001), © Vincent O’Sullivan, 2001, used by permission of the author.

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