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.