Poetry Reading, Louis Simpson, The Tortoise

19 Dec

The Tortoise,  naturally animal poems always bring to mind the characteristics of an animal.  Tortoises are slow and steady, but they win the race, so the proverb goes, by being single minded and pacing themselves, and also humble.  The thing is, Tortoises, metaphorically, can also stubbornly continue in one direction despite all evidence to the contrary and are incredibly resistant to change.

“Always wants to/go back, to correct/an error, ease a/guilt, see how a friend/ is doing.”  Gah, even the line breaks are tortoise-like.  The way the poem is built reminds me of the growing impatience towards someone (and sometimes this someone is myself) to, for heavens sake, get themselves together and do something.  The tortoise is that person who takes forever to get ready even though we’re on a tight schedule already.  Stories claim that the tortoise has intense patience, however, I think tortoises require others to have patience.

Anyway, the tortoise also seems to have a perfectionistic streak about them,  other than seeing the friend, the focus is on dealing with mistakes, they want corrections and no guilt.  So it seems that moving slow is a result of past mistakes and trying to avoid new ones.  In principle, this is ok, however, in reality, mistakes are required sometimes to allow us to grow and change.  Well that ol’ tortoise isn’t about to, in his shell, seeking safety.   In context too, the seeing to a friend is an act of duty.  Duty is like crack to tortoises who will move slowly but surely in whatever direction duty calls.  However, the irony is that as slow as they move, they’re hardly built to put out fires.  Also, a strange connections about how tortoises always go back to the same place to lay their eggs, is their slowness an attempt to go back “home” in a way that they don’t make mistakes?

“And yet/one doesn’t except/ in memory,/in dreams.”  So the tortoise’s aims are impossible.  “The land remains/desolate.”  The tortoise’s aims don’t change the world at all.  It’s like a fatal mistake ruined everything, and the tortoise is functioning as the mistake is still about to happen.

“Always the feeling is/of terrible slowness/overtaking haste.”  An overcompensation here–you know the saying haste makes waste, but slowness can do the same, one can be too careful, obsessing over trivial details, trying to get everything right, can not only keep you from getting anything done, but also suck the joy out of whatever it is you are doing.

I can’t help but take this personally, it rings too true to my current situation, where I have an ideal environment I want to have, and a temporary environment that I currently am in.  I feel stuck there, my job is suitable but not my dream, and distracts me from the things I would really love to do.  At the same time, it’s really difficult to move from this place–it’s secure, it’s safe, it’s tortoise-like, even if it leaves me dealing with things that are ultimately unfulfilling.  It also is a job where not making mistakes is terribly important, so a good amount of my time is thinking over these mistakes and dealing with them, which takes a lot of internal mojo away.  Has my tortoise caught my hare?  There’s a strange boundary between being practical but living in a desolate land, and chasing rainbows, though this poem expresses one can do both at the same time.  Maybe all tortoises are repressed rainbow chasers at heart, having a dead dream, they don’t believe in dreams at all anymore.

And so you focus on the small, the office intrigues, how your chair feels, that strange smell coming from the refrigerator, without ever moving forward.  It’s a fate I’d rather avoid, but at the same time I’m keenly aware of the freezing power of inertia.  One clue this poem has towards solving that is the Tortoise’s obsession with the past and the future repeating it.  Looking at the past is good and well, and certainly everybody needs to know their roots, but there’s a time for knowing that then is not now, then has no possibility, but now does for good or for ill, and the future is not written yet, however hard it seems to change.

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