Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Tuesday Poem - Elegy for the giant tortoises


Let others pray for the passenger pigeon
the dodo, the whooping crane, the eskimo:
everyone must specialize

I will confine myself to a meditation
upon the giant tortoises
withering finally on a remote island.

I concentrate in subway stations,
in parks, I can't quite see them,
they move to the peripheries of my eyes

but on the last day they will be there;
already the event
like a wave traveling shapes vision:

on the road where I stand they will materialize,
plodding past me in a straggling line
awkward without water

their small heads pondering
from side to side, their useless armour
sadder than tanks and history,

in their closed gaze ocean and sunlight paralyzed,
lumbering up the steps, under the archways
toward the square glass altars

where the brittle gods are kept,
the relics of what we have destroyed,
our holy and obsolete symbols.

Margaret Atwood

I'm busy preparing paper for a series of new paintings that will be part of an ArtScience exhibition here in Dunedin early next month. The title of the show is BLEND. There's no way I can't not make work in response to the environmental calamity in the Gulf. I can't get the manatees, seabirds, foraminifera, turtles. . . out of my head. The words 'oil and water do not mix, oil and water do not mix' have been pounding in my chest like a storm; a chant, a plea, a protest. . .

Margaret Atwood's website is (as you'd imagine) a roomy place that, amongst its many treasures, offers generous resources for writers (ref. Negotiating with the Dead: A writer on writing). She has also included 'links of interest', photographs, media clips, podcasts of interviews, reviews, readings. . .

Remarkably, she wrote ELEGY FOR THE GIANT TORTOISES in 1968.

Click here for more Tuesday poems.


  1. Please, not a "last day," not yet.

  2. A very prescient poem indeed and marvelously wrought - what a wordsmith she is.

    BTW Claire I couldn't reach your site from the Tuesday Poem site ... had to go via my own sidebar link ... maybe there's something wrong with that TP link? (Or it could be my connection playing up ... ) Thought I'd let you know anyway in case. :)

  3. It must've been my server playing up, because the link works fine now! Sorry ...

  4. I can't get past the title of this poem it devastates me. Did you ever read the Maxine Kumin poem where she rides the manatee and scrapes barnacles off the manatee's skin with a clam shell? I will try to find it for you today. Please check out the Francesca Woodman photo on my blog today. You may already know it but it made me think of you and this poem this morning.

  5. Dear Rebecca

    Margaret Atwood's title breaks my heart, too. Everything about the Gulf does.

    I don't know Maxine Kumin's manatee poem, no - I'd love to read it if you have it near at hand, thanks. (I've tried Google, but only get as far as titles... one or two poems, but not that one. She's inspiring, isn't she.)

    I checked out your Francesca Woodman photograph - wow. And oh! Think of all the questions that giant tortoise could/would ask, the mysteries it would disclose. If only we understood 'tortoise.' Mind you, we don't have to speak - all that's required of us is that we listen?

    I hope your tender foot is on the mend. Ouch. That sounded sore but kind of daring, too. It's the sort of thing that might just as easily happen to yours truly over here!


  6. Let's hope not, dear Mim. Let's hope not.

    I often find myself turning thoughts towards you and your treasured South Beach. I do hope that stretch of coast is not an affected area?

  7. Hi Kay & Mary - Margaret Atwood is remarkable, isn't she? And very prescient indeed - not just in this poem, but others. Such notions make us think, don't they. . .

    Heavens, it's already Tuesday morning and I'm only just starting to read last week's poems... one day, life has to - will - slow down!

    L, C

  8. Maxine Kumin

    Thoughts on Saving the Manatee

    Weighed down by is dense bones
    the manatee swims so slowly
    that algae have time to
    colonize on its spine.
    I know a woman who rode
    one down the river gently
    scraping with a clamshell
    letting drift free a bushel
    basket of diatoms and kelp.

    At one time you could order
    manatee steak in any
    restaurant in Florida.
    It was said to taste like veal.
    My friend reported that hers
    bubbled and squealed its pleasure
    beneath her making it well
    worth risking a five-hundred-
    dollar fine for molesting
    this cow-size endangered aquatic
    mammal whose name derives from
    the Carib word for breast.

    And from the overlook
    at Blue Spring,
    disembodied breasts
    are what I see dappling
    the play of sunlight on
    the lagoon. The swim up here
    from the St. Johns River
    —mostly cows and their calves—
    to disport in the temperate water

    and stay to choke on
    our discards. They swallow
    snarls of fishing line or
    the plastic ribbons that tie
    beer cans together.
    Along with acorns sucked
    from the river bottom
    they also ingest large numbers
    of metal pop tops that razor
    their insides. Grazing
    on water hyacinths, they’re
    sideswiped by boat propellers.
    Many have bled with bright scars
    they come to be known by
    and yet, many deaths
    are mysterious, in not willful.
    Worldwide less than five
    thousand manatees remain.

    For a small sum you can adopt one
    through the Audubons.
    Already named Boomer or Jojo
    tricked out with a radio collar
    it will ascend tranquilized
    to be weighted and measured on schedule
    but experts agree that no matter
    how tenderly tamed by philanthropy
    survival is chancy.

    Consider my plan.
    It’s quick and humane:
    Let’s revert to the Catch of the Day
    and serve up the last few as steak marinara.
    Let’s stop pretending we need them
    more than they need us.

    From Nurture

  9. Thank you for transcribing Maxine Kumin's poem, Rebecca.

    Such piercing lines, esp. these

    '. . . Weighed down by its dense bones
    the manatee swims so slowly
    that algae have time to
    colonize on its spine.


    . . . Many have bled with bright scars
    they come to be known by . . . '

    I wonder what sound manatees make --- whether it's anything like that of whales or dolphins? I imagine it to be a kind of keening.

    Four years ago, I adopted a manatee named Lily for my young niece in the UK. She, Tess, thinks of manatees as 'living, dreaming rocks.'

    Thank you again for this - love the title of the collection - 'Nurture.'