The Elephant of the Sea "The Elephant of the Sea," reprinted by permission of the Louisiana State University Press, copyright 2007.
NPR logo The Elephant of the Sea

The Elephant of the Sea

"The Elephant of the Sea," reprinted by permission of the Louisiana State University Press, copyright 2007.

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Because I make the big bucks fooling around

with words, in France sometimes I like to say

        "Sylvia Plath" instead of "s'il vous plaît,"

as when I open the door for Barbara and say,

        "Après-vous, Sylvia Plath!" But yesterday

the lady in the boulangerie asked me what I wanted,

        and I said, "Une baguette, Sylvia Plath! Crap. . . ."

        Before I move to France, I have to help

my friend from France buy his first American automobile,

        and naturally he wants everything on his car

to be just like mine, right down to the manatee on the tag,

        for which I pay an extra seventeen dollars that

goes into some kind of special fund for endangered species.

        He says, "You have zuh elephant of zuh sea

        on your matriculation?" Tag, I say, tag!

And manatee! which is a Native American word meaning, uh,

        l'éléphant de mer, and no, you don't want it,

because we're trying to save money here, remember?

        We go over this several times, yet when we are in

the tag office and I am filling out a form to have his title

        sent to my address, I hear Antoine say,

        "I can have zuh elephant of zuh sea

on my matriculation?" to a clerk who's got this grin

        on her face like she's either seeing God

or having an aneurysm, and I can see she loves it,

        she's going to tell the women she goes fishing with

on Lake Jackson about this foreign fellow,

        nice as he could be, though, who comes into

        the office the other day and says, "elephant of

zuh sea" and "matriculation," and they'll say,

        "Wanda, hush! You're scaring the bass!"

and so she'll tell her husband, who will say,

        "Uh-huh! Any more of these potatoes?"

and also everyone at her fortieth class reunion

        and her grandchildren and their children, too,

        and they'll ignore her as well, the little ones

thinking, Whoa, G-momma's telling those old stories again!

        And on her last day, Pastor Blair will be there

saying, "That's all right, now, Wanda, you just let go,

        you hear?" And she'll wheeze and say,

"And then this fellow says, 'I can have zuh elephant

        of zuh sea'—ah, glory!"

        Up to this point in his life, Pastor Blair

will have had about him the same "divine stupidity"

        that Tennyson attributed to Garibaldi,

but the phrase "zuh elephant of zuh sea" will wake him

        right up, it'll hit him like a triple espresso,

and he'll always remember it, though he'll change

        the details as he works them into a story of his own

        about this dying member of his congregation

who raved about this particular foreign individual who,

        etc., and so forth and so on in endless retellings

which are in turn picked up by others who incorporate them

        into their stories until finally "zuh elephant

of zuh sea"—well, it won't be like France at all, will it,

        it'll be like Deutschland, i.e., über alles.

        And the baker, she'll say to her husband,

"Funniest thing: today this stuttering spastic hillbilly

        zombie hayseed-type dude calls me 'Sylvia Plath,'"

and her husband says, "You mean S'il Vous Plaît,

        the author of The Colossus (1960) and Ariel (1965)?"

and she'll pop herself on the forehead with a floury hand

        and say, "You know the dates?"

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