The Skull of a Mastodon

posted Oct 5, 2010

Covered with faint carvings, a skull is wrenched
from the earth. The symbols etched on its crown
are strange to the archaeologist
who bends above it the way a whooping crane
bends above water. The crane looks
into the ripples for a mid-afternoon snack.
The archaeologist looks into the skull for meaning. 
The carvings could be a poem or eviction notice.
Who knows? What’s certain, is someone else
held this skull, someone else was here. 
How long is anything here? Thomas Jefferson
believed that, here, on this earth,
there were many living Mastodons, still romping
through the wild, celebrating their hairy existence
in the unexplored territories of this country. 
He didn’t believe in extinction. 
That Thomas Jefferson is now extinct, speaks
to a flaw in his theory. Search for yourself—
in shopping malls and mountain ranges
and rain forests—you’ll find Thomas Jefferson
as often as a Mastodon. The mastodon
is gone, out-to-lunch forever, retired
to the realm of fog and sleep. It survived tar pits,
saber-toothed tigers and glaciers but fell
when struck by a spear thrown from a hand.

The hand that threw the spear is not much
different from the one I use to lift the remote
to switch the History Channel to the next channel.
On the next screen, the stock market crashes.
On another, a pugilist swings and swings
as blood sloshes from his mouth. The dark
beyond my window could be same dark
the scientist sees when he peeks into the empty
sockets of the ancient. History feels so close
right now, I can almost hear it clomping across
the plains and into the parking lot outside. 
Before sleep, I press my fingers to my face
and imagine the ridges beneath.

Matthew Olzmann's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Kenyon Review, New England Review, Salt Hill, Margie, and other journals. He is a Kundiman Fellow and a writer-in-residence for the InsideOut Literary Arts Project.

We’ve published two more poems by Olzmann: “Previous Theories on the Body” and “The Gallery of Pendulums.”