Friday, June 14, 2013

`The Sport of Truly Chastened Things'

Levi Stahl got some of us swapping stories about turtles, a creature tailor-made for fables because he embodies so many human vulnerabilities and strengths. A turtle is armored but slow, slow but patient, patient but fierce. Marianne Moore, who translated La Fontaine and often wrote of armored animals, was nicknamed “Turtle” by her family and suggested, among other names, “Utopian Turtletop” when the Ford Motor Co. asked her in the nineteen-fifties to christen their new automobile (they settled on “Edsel”). 

As to resilience, I remember almost twenty-five years ago driving back to my newspaper after visiting the animal sanctuary Beaversprite in Dolgeville, N.Y. Ahead of me, I watched as a driver swerved to strike a box turtle crossing the road, and saw the animal ricochet off a tire and into the tall grass along the berm. I pulled over and found the turtle, scuffed on the side of his shell like an old pair of shoes, already walking again into the adjacent field. In “Turtle” (Flamingo Watching, 1994), Kay Ryan appreciates the creature’s human lot: 

“Who would be a turtle who could help it?
A barely mobile hard roll, a four-oared helmet,
she can ill afford the chances she must take
in rowing toward the grasses that she eats.
Her track is graceless, like dragging
a packing-case places, and almost any slope
defeats her modest hopes. Even being practical,
she's often stuck up to the axle on her way
to something edible. With everything optimal,
she skirts the ditch which would convert
her shell into a serving dish. She lives
below luck-level, never imagining some lottery
will change her load of pottery to wings.
Her only levity is patience,
the sport of truly chastened things.” 

I haven’t read Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary, the book that inspired Levi’s post, though I saw the movie starring Ben Kingsley, Glenda Jackson and Michael Gambon a long time ago. Hoban, I find, returned to turtles in a poem, “Turtle Prince?” (A Russell Hoban Omnibus, 1999). It reminds me of Stevie Smith (who, incidentally, was played by Glenda Jackson in the film Stevie). Nice for the turtle to come out, for once, the victor.

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