The Wooden Elephants of Herat (and other poems)

The Wooden Elephants of Herat

I type Afghanistan into a search engine
that spits out words connected to places
and I get more places: Kandahar, Khowst,
Gardez, Herat. 
                             I never deployed to Herat.
But Herat is where a woodcarver cut
scraps of walnut into two elephants
I brought home from the war to give my son. 
For eight years they roamed his room as he played 
in the ivory carpet of his imagination
until the tusks, tiny as matchsticks, fell out.

He is ten now. He does not remember teething
on my dog tags or holding my sweat-stained 
patrol cap in the Fort Knox gym the night I came home.
He does not remember stopping
to salute the flag when the trumpet played retreat
on post. He no longer plays with elephants,
and now I pack them into a cardboard box
with faded uniforms and dusty boots—
relics we’re unable to throw out
but no longer want to display.

Field Dressing

The silent doe stiffened in her bed of leaves,
where moments ago she fell, panting.

Her last breath rattled.
Life passed from nutbrown eyes
into damp January morning.

The snow wrapped us in a womb of silence.

My frost-tipped fingers wrapped tight
around the stained handle of a buck-knife,
the curved edge trembling.

Warm against my back, my father’s hand.
Soft against my ear, my father’s voice—

Careful, son. Cut gently.
We eat what we kill.
We honor the animal.

We honor the dead who give us life.

Boys like me are not made with words enough for this.

When We Were Boys

every grandfather contained stories 
from The War, told in whispers from other rooms.

Their trophies preserved eternities
fixed between the quick and the dead.

Framed inside a shadow box on the wall,
my best friend’s grandfather kept 

a utility sleeve and brass casings
from two Japanese bullets that sailed 

close enough to rip the fabric but miss
his young muscle and bone. 

Another friend’s grandfather trudged
across Burmese jungles and swamps

picking off Japanese officers,
disappearing into mist. 

Long after the war, he wouldn’t lie 
down in a hammock—in his dreams

the emperor’s soldiers still crawled 
into camp, buried their knives 

into his buddies’ sleeping bodies. 
His wife painted her kitchen red orange 

like the rising sun. The old man
refused to speak to her

until she buried the enemy’s shade 
beneath a hue of muddy harvest gold.

These were the ancestors we worshipped 
in backyards when we played war,

when we stormed beaches with sticks and hunted 
hidden enemies deep inside the caves 

of our imaginations, before we understood
what must be survived before coming home.


  • Ben Weakley spent fourteen years in the U.S. Army, beginning with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and finishing at a desk inside the Pentagon. His work appears in the anthology Our Best War Stories by Middle West Press. Other poems appear or are forthcoming in The Line, Wrath-Bearing Tree, Black Moon Magazine, The Ekphrastic Review, and Vita Brevis, among other publications. His poetry won first prize in the 2021 Col. Darron L. Wright Memorial Writing Awards and first place in the 2019 Heroes’ Voices National Poetry Contest. Ben lives in Northeast Tennessee with his wife, their children, and a red-tick hound named Camo.

  • It is not immediately clear what drew Marcus Selmer (1819 – 1900), a Danish portrait photographer, to spend most of his life working in Norway. In 1852, Selmer travelled to Norway, to visit some of his uncle’s family in the city of Bergen. He never returned. Although his career was varied, Selmer is primarily remembered today for his portraits of local people in national folk costume, as shown here. These photographs depict the customs, traditions and culture of the Norwegian people, and reflect Selmer’s interest in his adopted home. From Public Domain Review.