The Elephant and the Moon

by Cornelia Rohde

Our house has an elephant in every room
made from brass, marble, clay or papier-mâché,
missing one tusk angrily hurled at the moon
who had spied Lord Ganesha fall off his rat
when he leapt to avoid a snake crossing his path.

It made the moon laugh in helpless mirth,
when, stuffed with devotees’ gifts, Ganesha’s
belly burst, strewing sweets all over the earth.
He tucked them all back, then killed the snake
and wrapped it around his massive girth.

The world went dark when the moon was struck
rousing a chorus of pleas from the gods,
until a compromise was reached
for her to wax and wane each month.
When her light is out, Lord Ganesha
gorges on whatever he wants.

The Summer She Died

by Cornelia Rohde

On soft summer afternoons with the press of work over,
we sat together on the flagstone terrace Father laid,
looked out over the old orchard and let the day slip quietly away.
Do you hear Mrs. Wren? she’d say.

A long, joyous, rush and jumble voice would bubble
in the stillness. I’d spot the rufous brown chest,
the same rich hue of my mother’s hair, bustling round the garden,
zipping through tangles and low branches,
forever bringing food to young mouths stretched
hungry in their wooden house hanging from an oak limb.

Feisty for her tiny size, her abrupt scurs and scolds
warned off any predator threatening her domain.
Yet she paused often to deliver cheerful trilling songs
with complex notes– for one so inconspicuous.

Let’s sit here a little while more and listen.
There won’t be many more days as mild as this.

A Dog, A Dove, A Derelict and Dylan

    by Cornelia Rohde

A guitar player sings Bob Dylan into
the arms of a weeping fig in the park:
Come gather round people wherever you roam
and admit that the waters around you have grown.
 
Striking match after match,
a rheumy woman who sleeps rough
huddles in a mound of grey blanket.
Lord, I ain’t got much more to lose.
 
A man with a beard like sea foam
lightly balances a placid dove he’s
trained to do tricks for children.
I got a bird that whistles. I got a bird that sings.

Alert to hurtling traffic, they wait in a pool
of stillness, her hand on his harness.
He guides her off the curb on trained paws.
I’ll be fine if you just let me follow you down.
 
A white-eye thrills the Waterberry tree;
a cloud feather tickles the pate of Lion’s Head.
Throw my troubles out the door.
I don’t need them anymore.

Well, it ain’t much use to sit and wonder why Babe.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Stalkers

by Cornelia Rohde

The heron’s keen beak and
the bone-fisherman’s rod poise
like divers before a plunge.
Their feet lift without a ripple,
as stealthily as a bidder raises a finger.
Eager eyes sharply scan
fleet shadows in the draining tide.

The sportsman’s quick arm
flings his fly in a taut arc.
A silvery flash,
translucent as moonlight,
snaps the feathery barb,
fiercely twists, surges,
is caught by the lure.

Legs braced, arms taut, the hunter
pits his wits in pursuit,
steadily reels, yields,
pulls with a sure grip.
Calmly triumphant,
he admires his sleek catch,
wrenches the hook from her mouth,
watches her streak away,
then resumes his slow slide
through the receding tide.

Close by, the heron swoops,
grabbing her prey
as swiftly as a comet flashes,
but she follows no rule
of catch and release.
Her dinner drops
head first down her throat,

bulges and wiggles
along the slender, dark tunnel
of her neck. She wastes
no time savoring her skill.
Her hungry clock set to the tides,
she must snare more
before the flats lie dry.

Fakir

by Cornelia Rohde

In the snaking gullies
of Nizamuddin,
a cochineal-robed fakir
moves softly on bare feet,
winding his way
through pungent smells
of moradabadi biryani,
dahi butter chicken,
stalls of sweets: kheer in earthen bowls,
virulent orange squiggles of imarti,
hawkers of jasmine garlands,
rainbow bangles,
ubiquitous paan wallahs.

Body hung with holy beads,
hair twisted wild,
holding a staff wound
with many colored ribbons,
strings of prayers
tied to his wrists,
his eyes present and distant,
still and volcanic;
a wandering ascetic
whose only demand
is to draw near to God.

I find his iridescent spirit
in yearning gawwals
sung at Dargah. 
I hold their longing
close within me.

Hair of Crocus

by Cornelia Rohde

Lay a saffron stigma on your tongue.
Watch it bleed deep golden, the glow of Cleopatra’s
skin after diffusing pinches of it in her love-bath.
At Nero’s orgiastic bashes, cakes lewdly squirted
bursts of yellow when squeezed by bawdy guests,

and Pliny the Elder suggested ‘hair of crocus’
in wine to cure a hangover. It is a paradox,
that a thin red thread can provoke snorts
of raunchy laughter, yet too much of it
make the liver shrivel, or cause a costly Saffron War.

I want to drink it as pure, radiant ruby tea,
while I look out over a mantle of purple blooms
at Persian fields unfolding in the morning sun.
I will have reveries of amorous Krishna in his golden dhoti,
stealing robes of gopis while they bathe, and conjure up his home,

where I saw a blazing sea of sunflowers turn their faces
to the light, and meadows of shining marigolds
raised for offerings to the gods.
In that land I will be gifted saffron rice again,
and journey with its blessing.

Hunting a Tiger Without a Gun

by Cornelia Rohde

The jungle splits open.
Two hundred kilos of steel
shoots out snarling.
My knees grip
the hide of the elephant.
His scream slices the air.
Fearful of fangs and claws
hurtling at his heart,
he swings sideways.
I fight for balance on his back,
grasp at strands of his hair,
blood thundering in my ears.
He surges back,
tusks set to gore.
He lunges forward bellowing.
The tiger menaces, rumbles,
melts in retreat.
My teeth unlock.
My breath explodes.

In Old Rangoon (1970)

by Cornelia Rohde

We squat on wooden stools outside crumbling
Scott’s Market, cupping steamy bowls of mohinga
from a street vendor: chunks of river shad,
lemon grass, tender core of banana stem, chili,
pungent shrimp paste, onions laced with rice noodles.

Shafts of light chase shadows from the open stalls.
I watch slanting sunrays burnish
the golden lacquer of a Hintha bird,
teasing glints from its faux-jeweled wings.

“The Hintha is said to eat only pearls. To us,
this bird means love and faith in marriage.”
His tapered fingers offer a slim green cheroot.
The taste is smooth and mild, as clement as his smile.

I savor soup and a smoke with him,
and bring a sacred swan to you.