July 5, 2010 § 1 Comment
When I was 8 and 9, we bought baby turtles for a quarter at Kresge’s. There were hundreds of them in a tank, bright green, spinning in the gently moving water. They weren’t much bigger than a quarter—small enough for a child to hold in the palm of her hand and feel the stubby legs against her skin as the turtle trudged onward. It was hard to put one back once it reached your wrist and waved its head around considering whether to continue.
I owned several turtles because they died quickly. Their deaths weren’t tragedies, like losing a dog or cat, but made me feel guilty and sad. It would take months of spending my allowance on candy, comics and 45s before I’d go back to the turtle tank. It would have taken a stronger character than I had to resist for too long the pleasure of being a landscape, and the blur in my mind between “animal” and “toy” when I’d set my turtle on the coffee table to race my siblings’ turtles.
The turtles didn’t know they were racing, and wandered off to one side. Often they fell off the table and had to be caught in midair. Their bodies were cool, like air-conditioned skin, and weighed almost nothing. Put back on the table, they were disinclined to quickly resume the race, no matter our attempts at persuasion.
I’m sure many kids were cruel to their turtles in all the ways kids can be, but we weren’t. We just didn’t know what we were doing wrong. We didn’t throw them at each other, leave them on the floor to be stepped on or eaten by the dog; we didn’t forget to feed them. They died in their tanks when we weren’t looking. No—I remember now—a turtle did get stepped on once. I don’t recall the details, only how the death echoed in my imagination, like an airplane crashing into a house. Was I the one who stepped on the turtle or left it out? Not the former, I don’t think, but I can’t be sure about the latter.
They don’t sell baby turtles to kids anymore. This is a good thing. Still, I’m glad to have caressed with one finger the smooth butter-colored underside of a turtle, seen how cozy and self-sufficient one looks with all its limbs tucked in, and disabled at inception any fear of flying saucers (what could they be but space turtles?)
As a young adult, I went to Australia with my mother. We were there at the right time to see newly hatched turtles, not much bigger than the ones I used to buy, meander across the beach from the dunes. They were on their own, their parents long gone. Some took a wrong turn, moving parallel to the water. Even the ones pointed true didn’t notice the crabs lying in wait—the crabs had marked hatching day on their calendars. We were told by the hotel people not to interfere.
Later, in the evening, swimming, I saw a full-grown sea turtle several feet away. It seemed to float and swim at the same time, just under the surface, the waves rocking its hundred-plus pound body. I had no intention of trying to get closer, but that turtle made the ocean feel like a place I belonged in the same way woods and lakes always had. If I had the power to save one, and only one, of the earth’s imperiled fauna, I would choose the sea turtle. And this sentiment is a speck of dust in the wind.
The Adventures of a Turtle
The turtle carries his house on his back. He is both the house and the person of that house.
But actually, under the shell is a little room where the true turtle, wearing long underwear, sits at a little table. At one end of the room a series of levers sticks out of slots in the floor, like the controls of a steam shovel. It is with these that the turtle controls the legs of his house.
Most of the time the turtle sits under the sloping ceiling of his turtle room reading catalogues at the little table where a candle burns. He leans on one elbow, and then the other. He crosses one leg, and then the other. Finally he yawns and buries his head in his arms and sleeps.
If he feels a child picking up his house he quickly douses the candle and runs to the control levers and activates the legs of his house and tries to escape.
If he cannot escape he retracts the legs and withdraws the so-called head and waits. He knows that children are careless, and that there will come a time when he will be free to move his house to some secluded place, where he will relight his candle, take out his catalogues and read until at last he yawns. Then he’ll bury his head in his arms and sleep….That is, until another child picks up his house….
July 1, 2010 § 3 Comments
When I was in college, I took a contemporary poetry class, taught by Russell Banks, where I first read three poets who changed my idea of what poetry could be: W.S. Merwin, Robert Bly and Robert Creeley. Merwin was my favorite then, Bly nudged him out a few years later, and Creeley lasted the longest. Lately, I’ve begun appreciating Merwin again, just in time to see him receive even more honors than he already had—in 2009, the Pulitzer, and now the Poet Laureate-ship.
What I’ve been admiring is the supple, subtle rhythms of his late work, the kind of mastery you can’t get without decades of experience. There’s no dearth of great poets who died young, but there’s a profound pleasure in the skill of age that goes beyond “greatness” or whether the particular poem moves you. Perhaps you have to have written poetry to appreciate it, but I don’t think so. You do have to have read a lot. You have to love words passionately. I would even say (though I have no evidence for this beyond my own experience) that you have to love poetry more than music.
When I was a teenager, and most people I knew weren’t very interested in poetry—if they were interested at all—I was continually surprised at how excited people would get by a piece of music when they couldn’t seem to hear the beauty of poetic lines. I loved music, too; I just loved poetry more. I loved it the way I loved nature, which was so much more beautiful than I could take in that it made me crazy, and the way I loved advanced argument (Kant, for instance) that was just at the edge of my ability to understand. No, I loved poetry more than Kant, but it was like that, the way it took me (almost) further than I could go.
I think I loved poetry best in the days when I didn’t really understand it, either because I hadn’t decoded poetic diction or I was too young for the insights. Not that I was simply wallowing in the gorgeous jumble of syllables—I was thrilled by the flashes of meaning in the undergrowth, the promise of more, the mystery that was like the mystery of other people, who only ever rarely made sense.
I read poetry all the time until I was in my late 20’s, then on and off, sometimes a lot off, for the next 25 years. But I think as I continue to age, should I be so lucky, I will love it more and more until maybe at 85 I’ll be like a 16 year old again, shivering in ecstasy and pitying the throngs of people living their lives without poetry, as if any of the world’s other marvels could remotely compare.
I wanted to include a poem from Merwin’s latest book, The Shadow of Sirius, which is what made me think I would soon be shivering in ecstasy, but I gave it to a friend. The books I do have are from the 60’s-80’s. So for later work, I’m stuck with what I can find online. This is from 1999.
At the last minute a word is waiting
not heard that way before and not to be
repeated or ever be remembered
one that always had been a household word
used in speaking of the ordinary
everyday recurrences of living
not newly chosen or long considered
or a matter for comment afterward
who would ever have thought it was the one
saying itself from the beginning through
all its uses and circumstances to
utter at last that meaning of its own
for which it had long been the only word
though it seems now that any word would do