Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cousins of Clouds: Elephant Poems

By Tracie Vaughn Zimmer
Illustrated by Megan Halsey and Sean Addy
$16.99, ages 4-8, 32 pages

You may be fond of elephants, but read this beguiling book of poetry and you'll wish you could save every one.

Zimmer brings elephants into greater focus and heightens our respect for them, in a whimsical, if at times sobering tribute to the world's largest land mammal.

Every spread combines meticulously worded poems and soft, winsome collages, along with notes that expound upon their traits and threats to their survival.

In one, the profile of a sweet-eyed elephant spans the fold of two pages, its appendages painted to resemble objects that are similar in size or form.

Ears look like "tattered sails," the tail swishes like a "tapered rope" with a "fancy tassel," a sturdy hind leg becomes a Grecian pillar and another is inset with a slipper to suggest lightness of foot.

In another, Zimmer rejoices for elephants rescued from circuses or fairs, now living out their last days on a 2,700-acre refuge in Tennessee, their "trumpets and rumblings as hopeful as light."

Though Zimmer never comes out and appeals for help saving the endangered elephant, she deepens our understanding of these sapient creatures and asks us to contemplate how humans affect their lives.

In doing so, she skillfully involves us in their plight and makes us want to protect them.

The title poem, also the first in the book, shows elephants as proud creatures and hints that elephants in their service to humans, though dutiful, yearn to be set free.

Set over a sky of flying elephants, the poem describes a mythical time when elephants had wings and ruled the sky, then fell from grace for thinking themselves too great.

One day a prophet came to share with elephants all that he knew. But as they flew into an elm to listen, the elephants began quarreling over who had a better view of the prophet, and as they jostled around, the tree splintered and crashed to the ground.

The prophet, the only creature on the ground not crushed, was so enraged and disillusioned by their behavior, that he invoked a curse on all elephants that caused their wings to shrivel into "pitiful" ears," and made them forever bound to Earth and humankind.

"To this very day / you can see the poor elephants / flapping their ears, / dreaming of flight, / but now only / cousins of the clouds," Zimmer writes in the final lines, tugging at our hearts and making us sad for the burdens they now bear.

Zimmer celebrates all that elephants are and all that we imagine them to be.

One poem describes the many uses of their trunk; others, the symbolism of the white elephant and the ability of elephants to feel sounds from faraway through their feet.

In one of the most joyous, she invite us to share in an elephant's mud bath. "slurp! / thwack! / splat! / Completely divine, / muddy chocolate sublime / splattered onto my skin -- / better yet, I'll dive in."

We learn of elephants' abiding loyalty to each other and how they seem, at times, remarkably like us, embracing each other (with their trunks) when reunited and grieving for those they've lost, long after they're gone.

"She detours through brush," Zimmer writes as a lone elephant solemnly stands on a wide open plain before skeletal remains. "to caress the sun-bleached bones / of her lost sister."

In another affecting poem, Zimmer uses breaks and jumps in spacing, along with circular type to capture a herd's heart-pounding race to protect its babies from stalking hyenas.

Green-printed elephants line all edges of the two-page spread, just as elephant mothers would babies, and near the end of the poem, the line, "fortress of females," forms a circle around the words "baby" and "inside."

In between these magical tributes, Zimmer shares the harsh realities elephants face.

One poem is the voice of an elephant chiding a poacher for wanting to kill him for his tusks, which he urgently needs to use to protect his young, while another is a letter from one zoo elephant to another.

"Dear Lola,/" the elephant writes. "…Do you wish / to unlatch the tall gate / and escape? …Would you chase the zebras? Play tag with the giraffes?… Me too. / Your friend,/ Grounded Too."

As a reader you wish for their freedom, though what does that mean? Zimmer explores how elephants' relationship with humans is complex, and what's best for elephants in today's world is not always clear-cut.

In a note that follows Ground Too's letter, she writes that at least in zoos elephants won't be poached or starved, and points out that animal activists have worked had to make their captivity less harsh.

As their habitat has been eaten away by development, the choices have become harder. Some elephants seek out empty city lots to live in or beg on streets for food, and others are put to work to support local villages.

On one page, Zimmer describes the labors of an elephant as he's ridden by his handler into the center of backed-up traffic. On the next, she rides an elephant on a safari tour, awed by its power and command of her.

"When I pat her head, / Jontu flails her trunk; / a low rumble vibrates through me as if / I'm an instrument she plays. / A tuft of her spiky hair prickles my knees, / and she flaps oven-hot air across me / with her wide, serrated ears... each step rocking me / an African lullaby."

By book's end, you're humbled by the calm dignity of these creatures and feel anxious for what the future will bring, knowing more clearly the obstacles they face.

In "Grace," Zimmer describes an elephant living out her life in a circus and you recognize the pull of emotions she describes.

"The jewels around the elephant's face / flash in the colored lights, / but the ginger jewel of her eye / haunts me, / even in sleep."

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