Poetry Shelf Classic Poem: Johanna Emeney picks Michael Jackson’s ‘Green Turtle’

 

Green Turtle

 

Sam smashes its head in

with the same sledgehammer

I used this afternoon

to ram our tent pegs home.

 

A hemisphere turns

turtle; Sonny hacks

its mildewed, sea-marbled

breastplate free.

 

It recoils from the sky.

Head lolls.

A flipper feebly pushes

Sonny’s knife away.

 

They empty

the long gray rope of its life

onto the sand by the thudding boat

that holds two more

 

And its carapace is a vessel

filled with a wine lake

in which clouds

float, birds fly, leaves fall.

 

Michael Jackson

From Walking to Pencarrow: selected poems Cold Hub Press (2016)

 

 

This poem was occasioned during Jackson’s one-year stay with a Kuku-Yalanji family in the Bloomfield rainforest. The butchering of the turtle was carried out by his host’s brother and brother-in-law, and it was an incident that clearly raised conflicts within Jackson, both cultural and emotional. It is described in his nonfiction books The Accidental Anthropologist (Longacre, 2013) and As Wide as the World Is Wise: Reinventing Philosophical Anthropology (Columbia University Press, 2016). Jackson includes the poem in the memoir and the textbook.

The speaker’s complete vulnerability to the experience (not openness, vulnerability) is one of the main things that makes the poem so powerful for me. The narrative position of the speaker is that of an outsider endeavouring to be respectfully uninvolved in the spectacle. The reader can feel his reluctance to place judgement on this cultural encounter. However, it impossible not to intuit the initial shock of the first lines and the reverence of metaphor describing the turtle—I see him almost like an old general being denuded of his armour when “Sonny hacks/its mildewed, sea-marbled/breastplate free”. The diction and imagery create a perfectly credible awkwardness and humility to the speaker in the face of the turtle’s brutal death.

The other aspect of “Green Turtle” that I find very powerful is the transcendence of the final image. The last stanza is a distillation of everything that has gone before, and, as an ending to the poem, is exquisite, raising the narrative recollection of the killing of the turtle to a lyric contemplation of this event in the scheme of things, especially within a Western, Christian model. Here, in the final lines, is the shell of the turtle, a vessel containing a blood-wine, literally reflecting the things of the world that go on as normal despite the creature’s violent death just moments before. With this ultimate image, the poet invites his readers to undertake their own reflection on humankind and nature, on life and death, on religion and culture. The poem ends with such opening out, and such unexpected beauty.

Johanna Emeney

 

Jo Emeney holds a PhD in Creative Writing, and has taught at Massey, Albany, for the past nine years. She also runs the Michael King Young Writers Programme with Ros Ali.
Jo read English Literature at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and then taught senior school English Literature for twelve years. She has written two books of poetry (Apple & Tree, 2011; Family History, 2017), and one nonfiction book on the topic of lyric poetry and the medical humanities (2018). She has just finished drafting a chapter for Routledge on Disability and Poetry.

Michael Jackson is internationally renowned for his work in the field of existential anthropology and has been widely praised for his innovations in ethnographic writing. Jackson has done extensive fieldwork in Sierra Leone since 1969, and also carried out anthropological research in Aboriginal Australia, Europe, and New Zealand. He has taught in universities in New Zealand, Australia, the United States and is currently Distinguished Professor of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. His most recent books include The Varieties of Temporal Experience (2018), Selected Poems (2017), and The Paper Nautilus: A Trilogy (2019). Cold Hub Press author page.

 

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