Pushcart XLI: Stephen Dunn, “The Revolt of the Turtles” (poetry) from Southern Review 51.3

Sculpture by Isaac Cordal: “electoral campaign” from the exhibit "Follow the Leaders"

Sculpture by Isaac Cordal: “electoral campaign” from the exhibit “Follow the Leaders”

On gray forgetful mornings like this
sea turtles would gather in the shallow waters
of the Gulf to discuss issues of self-presentation
and related concerns like, If there were a God
would he have a hard shell and a retractable head,
and whether speed on land
was of any importance to a good swimmer.

You can almost hear them, can’t you, these turtles debating questions much like our own “How can God be a trinity” or “Is philosophy of any use to anyone anymore” or “If you do what you love, will the money really follow”. But these turtles have some serious business on their minds as well, such as running a world where kids keep flipping them over on their backs.

It’s an amusing poem, but dark at the same time. We can’t help but see ourselves in the turtles, but also feel superior to them because we see their mistakes. It’s so easy to see what’s wrong from the outside. It’s why we’re all experts on how other people should live their lives, while our own lives are in tatters. Lecturing us wouldn’t do any good, so Dunn holds up a mirror made of turtles.

One of the turtles has an idea as he considers “ways in which power could bring about /fairness and decency” :

And when he finished speaking
in the now-memorable and ever-deepening
waters of the Gulf, all the sea turtles
began to chant, Only fairness, only decency.

Poor turtles. We all know that historically, fairness and decency don’t stand much of a chance against fear-mongering, greed, and deceit. We’re in a real-time laboratory right now to see if they stand any chance at all. I waver daily, sometimes hourly, between hope and despair.

I didn’t realize the full significance of the ever-deepening waters mentioned in that last stanza until I discovered the Summer 2015 issue of Southern Review was a 10-year retrospective on Katrina. I imagined the turtles holding their meeting a day or two before the storm. That’s when I knew I had to include the sculpture popularly called “Politicians Discuss Global Warming” as header art. Poor turtles.

3 responses to “Pushcart XLI: Stephen Dunn, “The Revolt of the Turtles” (poetry) from Southern Review 51.3

  1. I wrestle in reading this between wondering whether the poet’s sympathies are with the turtles who nobly resist retribution (“he wasn’t interested in punishment”) or if the turtles are naive. They chant “only fairness, only decency” at the end, but isn’t this just another useless creed, a pointless theological dogma like wondering about whether God has a retractable head?

    In short, I wonder whether the oldest sea turtle should have been more interested in punishment and less interested in who controlled the stories. We praise MLK for his pacifism, but in reality, MLK had a lot of pull with the LBJ administration because they could always threaten that if LBJ didn’t play ball with them, he would then have to deal with Malcolm X.

    The turtles’ creed was useless. It was hollow to chant for fairness and decency without enforcing it. That’s why the waters of the Gulf are now “memorable,” that is to say, gone but in memory.

      • That’s what the ancient turtle says, but I’m not sure we’re to take it at face value. It seems to me a little like “Good fences make good neighbors” in the Frost poem. It seems like a sound idea, but it’s somewhat undone by the rest of the poem. Their “revolt” is actually pretty feeble. It amounts to forming a committee to discuss whether God would approve of a retelling of their lives. (Which reminds me of the People’s Front of Judea from Life of Brian.) Maybe those who control the stories are powerful, but the turtles’ interest in fairness and decency shows their lack of will to power which prevents them from controlling those stories. In the end, fairness and decency have nothing to do with controlling power. It’s a dark, dark poem.

        Or, maybe I have it all wrong and we really can read it that the turtles really are in the middle of a successful revolt.

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