Take Heart: A Conversation in Poetry: Death And The Turtle

Edited and introduced by Wesley McNair, Maine Poet Laureate

The seaside town of York will be the setting for the May Sarton Centennial from May 3-6, exploring Sarton’s contribution as a writer and poet. For details, go to the Centennial’s website: http://www.maysarton100.org. In today’s poem Sarton shapes the small event of a turtle’s death into a commentary on mortality and the meaning of life.

Death and the Turtle by May Sarton

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Those withdrawn paws stretched out to grasp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 rich store, and bring it home.

Take Heart: A Conversation in Poetry is produced in collaboration with the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. Poem copyright © 1993, 1988, 1984, 1980, 1974 by May Sarton. Reprinted from Collected Poems: 1930-1993, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Questions about submitting to Take Heart may be directed to David Turner, Special Assistant to the Maine Poet Laureate, at poetlaureate@mainewriters.org or 207-228-8263.