Reading: Turtle by Kay Ryan

Today I read a poem by 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner Kay Ryan (b. 1945). Turtle is a poem with her signature ‘recombinant’ rhyme and mordant wit:

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.

The ‘enjambed’ rhyme gives this verse some tempo and I could imagine someone rapping it. Its verbal recombinations would make P. Diddy proud. Help it > helmet; grasses > graceless; dragging > packing; slope > hopes; ditch > dish; lottery > pottery etc. You just read on, you speed up and then – the joke – you learn about the importance of being patient for it is the sport of truly chastened things.

Wait! There’s more. She avoids becoming a serving dish (is this forced by the rhyme or intended all long?) and goes on to never even imagine (but of course it would be beneficial to the turtle) that her load of pottery will hatch. That’s a neat metaphor for the life of these creatures: They start out as pottery and once they are hatched, they must avoid returning to pottery for the sake of its children.

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