On the Meaning of Survival: Kay Ryan's "Turtle"
Really good art makes you really mad.
Really good art makes you really mad. I taught this poem for the first time and my class was vocal. Their sympathies were firmly with the turtle, not the disparaging author. The tone of "[a] barely mobile hard roll," a "graceless" track, and "she's often stuck" irritated them. That poor turtle! How dare Ryan ask "Who would be a turtle who could help it?" The turtle is doing all she can!
Turtle (from Poetry) Kay Ryan 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.
Of course, Ryan wants to create this reaction. Her language describes the turtle's virtues mockingly. You have to unpack the insults to appreciate the exceptional strength. To wit: "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." A turtle is nothing but a "hard roll?" A "helmet?" One that takes crazy risks? When I ponder the insult, I think of the people I know who claim they are masters of survival. They did anything and everything to survive, they say, and therefore you must debase yourself to do whatever they deem essential. They are not turtles. They do not have the "levity" of "patience" and are certainly not "chastened." They want you to panic. The turtle just does what's necessary—no proclamation—"never imagining some lottery / will change her load of pottery to wings." A helmet protects. Panic is often the greatest danger in a tough situation.
I wonder about that, though. So much of life nowadays is proclaiming oneself. The turtle's virtue may be obsolete. I have to be visible on social media, I have to keep meeting new people, I have to be flexible in infinite ways because, well, I don't eat grass like the turtle. Even if I did, it would help if someone else mowed it and another packaged it. Survival has always been collective, but now especially so. You must be seen. You can't be persuasive about your needs if you're invisible, not acknowledged by anyone else.
The turtle has other problems. "With everything optimal, / she skirts the ditch which would convert / her shell into a serving dish." She can get to what she needs alone, but this is an especially risky endeavor. "She lives / below luck-level." I guess it is a privilege to be able to share your needs and receive a response. Yet I find myself relating to the turtle. Her virtue may not be useful to me, but we're in similar situations. Finding others to help can be as perilous as confronting the natural world with your own devices.
I have always felt this poem to be a sly comment on transhumanism. Here's a definition by W. D. Lighthall, helpfully provided by Wikipedia: "The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself—not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity." (1) It does seem living much longer, say hundreds of years, changes significant aspects of being human. We know our perspective on what matters alters drastically with age. If things that bothered us at 20 barely register at 40, then what is it like to be 400 years old?
Well, here's the turtle. She's got "modest hopes" which are defeated by "almost any slope." She moves a lot, but doesn't move well. It's like she's "dragging / a packing-case places." What she does have is the "levity" of "patience." This appears to be a transcendent virtue. Not simply patience, but patience as fulfillment, as joy. A "levity," a lifting-up.
It's a sneaky critique. On the one hand, maybe this is the virtue we will have when we are 400 years old. We've seen too much to care, but every step involved with the one thing we do care about is as essential as life itself. Our being, our "packing-case," echoes with every step. On the other hand, why aren't we more patient now? Why are we trying to change humanity when cleaning the apartment is a struggle? For myself, I find it weird to think that I could stand to be more "chastened," this coinciding with taking pride in being more visible. Humility, though, resides in the contemplation of inconvenient facts.
(1) “Transhumanism.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 February 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transhumanism