Death and the Turtle

Our cat Clover died this spring. She came to us as a kitten fifteen years ago, and she had a good, long life.  I was not with her at the end, but Lisa was, and she says the moment was gentle and peaceful.  Lisa scritched her head, told her she was a good kitty, and Clover was purring as she passed.

We have a couple of things to remember her by. Some pictures, of course, but also a tiny lacquered box that holds her ashes and a plaster cast of a paw print with her name on it. I picked it up just this morning, this talisman against forgetfulness, and held it in my hand.

I also thought of Clover as I read this poem late last week:

Death and the Turtle

I watched the turtle dwindle day by day,
Get more remote, lie limp upon my hand;
When offered food he turned his head away;
The emerald shell grew soft. Quite near the end
Those withdrawn paws stretched out to grasp
His long head in a poignant dying gesture.
It was so strangely like a human clasp,
My heart cracked for the brother creature.

I buried him, wrapped in a lettuce leaf,
The vivid eye sunk inward, a dull stone.
So this was it, the universal grief:
Each bears his own end knit up in the bone.
Where are the dead? we ask, as we hurtle
Toward the dark, part of this strange creation,
One with each limpet, leaf, and smallest turtle—
Cry out for life, cry out in desperation!

Who will remember you when I have gone,
My darling ones, or who remember me?
Only in our wild hearts the dead live on.
Yet these frail engines bound to mystery
Break the harsh turn of all creation’s wheel,
For we remember China, Greece, and Rome,
Our mothers and our fathers, and we steal
From death itself its rich store, and bring it home.

I appreciate how the poem’s first stanza focuses on distance and diminishment. The turtle dwindles and grows more remote with each passing day.  He refuses food, turning away his head. Not until the very end does he reach out the paws which he had earlier withdrawn.  This gesture breaks the persona’s heart, and carries us into the next stanza, with its burial and grief. The death of this “brother creature” causes the persona to consider her own headlong journey into the void, crying out in desperation:

“Where are the dead?”

The final stanza moves beyond death to dwell on hope and memory: note that the word “remember” is repeated three times. The dead live on in our wild hearts, yet these same hearts, these frail, mortal engines, are also bound to a mystery: what awaits us in that dark corner of creation? We cannot know this side of the threshold, yet I, at least, find some consolation in a poem about death that ends in the word “home.”

Death and the Turtle offers death as universal, the inexorable turning of all creation’s wheel. This ending none may sidestep: mothers and fathers, dogs and cats. Death comes, like a thief, to all members of our families, yet if we so choose we might steal something back from it.

We hoard our tokens of remembrance, paw prints and photographs, keepsakes from a journey shared and symbols of our hope that we will meet again.

For Clover, Cupid, and Zoe

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