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The still life of painted turtles


Let there be light and a swamp in springtime

And there will be painted turtles, a small fortune

Of basking painters, the coins of the realm,

Shingling a half-drowned log in midday sun.

Small atop large and heads abreast tails,

All staring off in a vigilant trance

As the sunshine glosses their dusky shells.

They are solar-powered inactivists

Whose work ethic would put the Taoists to shame.

Fifteen million years of inoccupation!

And what has it got them, you ask?  Well, not much,

And they wouldn’t want it any other way.


If the life of these lords of one castle

Is a work of art, it is a still life.

In the dogfights of the darners and dashers,

To the incidental thrums of the green frogs,

Where whirligig beetles roil the waters

Like dispatched precincts of The Keystone Kops,

Their only work is to be a masterwork—

For truly what treasures the painters would be

If they weren’t so commonly encountered.

The smallest recall antique wooden coins

Of some exquisitely tasteful empire.

Their yellow facepaints and shell’s coral edging

Glow like autumnal oils, their neat black mail

Is streaked and spotted red-orange on the limbs,

While the splendid knit of their polygon shields

Is finer than the finest carpentry.

And that frowning, yellow-black, long-pupiled gaze

That seems both imperious and quizzical—

But without a brow to even call low!

The painted turtle’s first and only thought

Was that thinking was not worth the trouble.


Sure, now and then one will slide off the log

For a swim and a few bites of algae,

To chase down a waterborne larva or two,

Before climbing back to its place in the sun.

And of course in late spring they are on the road

And too often literally, spreading

To new waters their no-labor movement—

And who as they plod into mindless traffic

Are the creatures most in the need of sense?

Dusk, the log is bare; they drowse below water.

And winter when the swamp is snow and ice

They’re in the mud, all but frozen solid—

Somehow, they barely require oxygen.

Then that welcome sight soon after the thaw:

The year’s inaugural painted turtle,

Sunning on the log in rough blue waters,

So hardy, so faithful, and so unimpressed.


Yes, let there be light and a swamp in summer

And there will be a mint of basking painters

The sun is minding on a half-drowned log.

But let there be you stepping up to the shore

And how they scuttle and plunge in terror,

And less out of fear of physical harm,

I think, than the dread of becoming employed—

The dread of breaking their life-long Sabbath.

Soon heads will point from the swamp’s green mantle

Like so many fingers of accusation.

Then you clear the coast, and why do swimmingly

When we don’t have to swim at all, they will ask,

These face-painted adorers of Helios

In their one-soul solar-paneled Zen huts,

Who at daybreak rise and call it a day,

A day on a log in a warm flood of sun—

The highest they work their way up in the world.



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