On Unicorns, Elephants and Frogs

One poem alone in Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic collection earns the book four- if not a rare five-star rating. Considering the title packs some 50 entries, Oceanic becomes an easy Copper Canyon Press work to recommend.

To fully appreciate her poem While Riding an Elephant, I Think of Unicorns, it helps to first have some familiarity with the medieval tapestry Unicorn in Captivity. Dating to the late 1400s, the artwork boasts a colorful history and features a unicorn resting amidst a garden lush with pomegranates. Hidden within the tapestry is an elegant if seemingly inconsequential golden frog. Should you come across the woven wool, metallic thread and vibrant silk treasure at the Met’s Cloisters, you’ll have to look for the little amphibian, as the symbol doesn’t just jump right out. Here’s a hint, the image appears above the archaic “A” appearing within the bottom-right corner.

Unicorn in Captivity.
c. 1495 – 1505.

Nezhukumatathil even points you in that direction within her poem. But if you’re unaware of the object’s hidden nature you might not properly appreciate the reference’s full relevance.

The poem, my favorite within the collection, elegantly surfaces the Buddhist principle of Right Mindedness. While experiencing anxiety riding an elephant in India’s Periyar National Park, the poet recalls the tapestry and observes the importance of maintaining awareness, celebrating your surroundings and remaining calm:

And when I daydream about unicorns, I can’t help
but think of that little frog in the lower-right corner
of that famous medieval tapestry, Unicorn
In Captivity

After relishing the unicorn’s joyous countenance, the poem continues:

The unicorn seems oblivious to the wily frog
in the lower right-hand corner shoe hides in a few
of violets. And the lesson that this frog teaches me
here atop this elephant, deep in this bamboo—
is to not panic. Even when so clearly out of place

and nothing seems familiar.
Enjoy the view.
There will be plenty of time for delicious
and comfortable water-spots.
That frog doesn’t know he will be part of history’s

most memorable image of the unicorn.
He just sits there, enjoying the view
in his wee wool-warp, silk and gilt wefts,
grateful for the fields of flowered finery.

What a masterful observation.

Those lines prove a wonderful, inspiring reminder to experience and embrace beauty and natural glory wherever and whenever it so chooses to reveal itself. Certainly, such observations and insights make Nezhukumatathil’s volume worthy of your time and attention.

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