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Turtle

Turtle

by Kay Ryan

Lines 5-13 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 5-6

Her track is graceless, like dragging
A packing-case places […]

  • That may be true, but it doesn't seem very nice to say so out loud! No girl likes to be called ungraceful. And it's certainly not this girl's fault that she has to drag a heavy shell with her everywhere she goes. Maybe we shouldn't be surprised by the rudeness of the remark in lines 5 and 6, given the speaker's disapproving attitude in line 1.
  • Though these lines describe the turtle as clumsy, the lines themselves are incredibly clever and polished. The slant rhyme formed by "graceless" and "places" strengthens the connection between lines 5 and 6, and alliteration links "packing-case" with "places." Line 5 has no punctuation mark at the end, a technique called enjambment (see "Form and Meter" for more on that). The turtle therefore drags her heavy shell directly from one line to the next, pausing only when she reaches the comma in the middle of line 6.
  • So there's a lot going on in these two little lines. On the one hand, we feel sorry for the beleaguered little turtle and maybe a little annoyed by the speaker's insensitive observation. On the other hand, the sounds of the words create a kind of music that dilutes negative emotions and enhances our sheer delight in the language of the poem.

Lines 6-7

[…] and almost any slope
Defeats her modest hopes.

  • Things are not looking good for this turtle. "Defeats" is an awfully strong word, suggesting a harsh finality. And we're only halfway through the poem. Is the speaker really writing off this little creature's chances so soon?
  • That lack of faith in the turtle would not be inconsistent with the speaker's attitude thus far. After all, the speaker advised us from the get-go that a turtle's life was the pits, and the speaker's images of the turtle could be interpreted as disrespectful caricatures of the creature's ungainly struggles. 
  • Still, the phrase "modest hopes" marks a slight, but significant, shift in tone. The speaker could have used a derogative term, such as "foolish," to describe the turtle's hopes; instead, the speaker chooses the word "modest." Most of the word's connotations—humble, simple, reasonable—are relatively positive. Someone with modest hopes has nothing to be ashamed of, whether or not those hopes are realized in the end. Is it possible that the speaker actually has a little grudging respect for the turtle after all? Let's read on…

Lines 7-9

[…] Even being practical,
She's often stuck up to the axle on her way
To something edible […]

  • There's nothing wrong with being "practical" either, but the image of the turtle "stuck up to the axle" can't help but remind us of the speaker's earlier wise-guy tone. In fact, the word "axle" recalls the automotive associations of "barely mobile hard roll" in line 2, as "roll" can mean "move on wheels" or "drive in vehicle" (as well as "small, round piece of bread").
  • Like the roll on wheels or the four-oared helmet, the image of the turtle "up to the axle" may make you giggle a little in spite of yourself. (Admit it, you can't help but snigger when someone slips on a banana peel, too!) Even the phrase "on her way / To something edible" sounds a little funny for some reason, even though the turtle's survival is at stake. Does this reaction mean that we, as readers, are insensitive? Have we gone over to the dark side, become as callous as the poem's mocking speaker?

Lines 9-11

[…] With everything optimal,
She skirts the ditch which would convert
Her shell into a serving dish […]

  • The word "optimal" reminds us of the odds that are stacked against the turtle; her survival depends on best-case scenarios. When you're lugging an ungainly shell, it takes luck as well as motivation to keep your footing. 
  • Lines 10-11 spell out the potentially fatal consequences of bad luck. If the turtle tips into the ditch, she could find herself upside-down. In this helpless position, her domed shell would resemble a bowl. We don't even want to think about how predators might help themselves from that "serving dish"!
  • In line 10, the word "skirts" clearly means "avoids." Readers, though, may momentarily register the more common meaning of "skirts"—garments worn by women. If the poem's turtle were male, this meaning probably wouldn't occur to us. But the close proximity of the pronouns "she" and "her" to the word "skirts" may even cause the image of a turtle wearing a little skirt to flash across our minds. Some readers might go a step further, arguing that these associations conjure the disturbing image of a woman lying helpless in a ditch, her skirts in disarray, vulnerable to male predators.
  • How did we reach this dark place? Just a couple of lines ago, we were giggling. And, truth be told, lines 10 and 11 are delightfully clever in the way they're written. How can we possibly be having fun at a time like this? 
  • Ask Kay Ryan, and you'll discover that this emotional duality is deliberate. Sometimes readers have a delayed reaction, finding a poem merely amusing on first reading but sensing darker implications the next time they read it. "People come up [after a poetry reading] and say, 'Oh, your poems are so funny,'" Ryan reports. "I tell them, wait until you get home."

Lines 11-13

[…] She lives
Below luck-level, never imagining some lottery
Will change her load of pottery to wings.

  • Here's that "luck" motif again, recalling "the chances she must take" in line 3. Throughout the poem, the speaker has emphasized that the odds aren't in favor of the turtle—living "below luck-level" sounds pretty hopeless. Is the turtle, in fact, doomed to defeat, as line 7 suggested?
  • Up until now, the speaker has painted a fatalistic picture, suggesting that the turtle is destined to a life of frustration and failure. But how does the turtle feel about her situation? Line 7 told us that her hopes were "modest," and lines 12-13 also suggest a humble, resigned attitude. The "load of pottery" in line 13 recalls the serving dish metaphor, emphasizing the turtle's lowly, vulnerable status, which lies at the opposite end of the spectrum from "some lottery."
  • But why doesn't the turtle imagine winning the lottery? Lots of people buy lottery tickets, knowing they'll probably never win, but that fact doesn't keep them from fantasizing about winning. Don't turtles have dreams? She's not saying. But the speaker steps in, supplying a fantasy of "wings." Like many of the other word pictures in the poem, the image of a turtle with wings may strike you as cute or even funny. But wings also have other connotations—escape, freedom, imagination—that are relevant to serious ideas in the poem.
  • Before we leave these lines, read them aloud, and listen for the alliteration that weaves together the words and ideas (for more on this technique, check out "Sound Check"). How many L sounds do you count?

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