Waiting for Dawn atop Butterfly Mountain by Martin J. Elster

Waiting for Dawn atop Butterfly Mountain

A dilapidated lepidopteran
dying atop The Mountain of Butterflies
holds out her wings to the darkness—wings as thin
as the mist that swirls beneath monsoonal skies—

and pictures the tea farm women, who often glow
like painted sawtooths dotting the plantation;
and, wallowing in the Mahaweli’s flow,
trumpeting in carefree conversation,

elephants plashing, washing away all worry.
Unlike them, she’s alone here on this rock,
a decent rock on which to dream. No hurry
to flee the fleeting memories that flock

like the birds of Sinharaja: the cunning jackal,
the whistling thrush, the fish in every lake
(which lure the hungry to come with boats and tackle
and float on magic molecules that slake

the roots of rice), the din of Devon Falls
reverberating through a green expanse
where a muntjac barks, a magpie calls and calls,
and footsteps crack the chrysalis of her trance—

men climbing toward her haven. Soon the sun
will oust the night. Slowly she beats her wings,
wings like frozen wood as, one by one,
they gain the hilltop, quicker as someone sings

a hymn to dawn, then darts away as a bell
blossoms like an orchid on the height
and, rising with the most resounding knell,
fades like the constellations at first light.

by Martin J. Elster, first published The Society of Classical Poets

Poet’s Note: The title alludes to a mountain in south-central Sri Lanka, rising to 7,359 feet (2,243 m), which is variously known as Adam’s Peak (the place where Adam first set foot on earth after being cast out of heaven), Sri Pada (Sacred Footprint, left by the Buddha as he headed toward paradise), or perhaps most poetically as Samanalakande (Butterfly Mountain; where butterflies go to die). Some believe the huge “footprint” crowning the peak to be that of St. Thomas, the early apostle of India, or even of Lord Shiva.

Editor’s Note: The imagery in this poem is so rich and detailed it feels like a painting, but the beautiful meter (iambic pentameter) and rhyme take this poem beyond mere image and into meaningful narrative.

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