Treasure Island

Joseph Harrison

(United States / Virginia)

To An Aldabran Tortoise, Dead At 250

The races of the swift,
Who swiftly come and go
Like fads or pop stars, trending out of sight
Almost before we see them, given their gift
For getting something right
For fifteen minutes or so,
The one-hit wonders, overnight sensations,
Pet Rocks and Salad Shooters,
Or former latest software innovations
For Pleistocene computers,
Seem briefer next to you,
Known as 'the only one,'
Adwaitya, oldest sentient thing alive
By eighty years or more, a tortoise who
Was once the pet of Clive
Of India. That sun
Set eons since, through veils of saffron dye
And wafture of a fan,
And while you cast a cold chelonian eye
On many a vanished man.
(Not least that lapsed grandee,
The prototypical
Nabob and potentate, big gun for hire
To profit the East India Company,
That junkie, thief, and liar
Who 'owned' you, whose steep fall,
Spectacularly public, stunned the nation,
Who did confess, when tried,
Astonishment at his own moderation,
Ending a suicide.)
Now you, whose lifespan spanned
Mozart and Bird and Cage,
Wordsworth and Motherwell, Turner and Kees,
Plus Kean and Keaton, Kierkegaard and Rand,
Forests of old-growth trees,
The whole Industrial Age,
Isms galore, old worlds and new world orders,
Epochs and epistemes,
Innumerable maps redrawing borders
For botched colonial schemes,
Lugging your great domed shell
For centuries, have crossed the finish line
Alone, one of a kind. Small things began
Your terminal decline:
For months you'd not been well;
A crack in your armor festered, gnawed by rats;
Your liver failed; you, too,
Succumbed to time, with no more caveats,
Dead at the Alipore Zoo.
Still your trajectory,
From coralline atoll
To editorial encomia
Upon your death, implies a larger story,
Of how you came to be a
Star of sorts, in the role
Of figure for time itself, through silent, sheer
Endurance of life's stages
On a vast, sidereal scale, year after year
Bridging the distant ages.
We fight, we cry, we laugh:
You turn your head and blink
And we are gone. Or were. For now you are
No longer our living, breathing chronograph,
Or Vishnu's avatar
(The second one, I think) ,
'Kurma,' the tortoise, sent to earth to plumb
The bottom of the ocean
For what we've lost. The cold depths. Chthonic. Dumb.
A whole world in slow motion.

Submitted: Thursday, April 10, 2014
Edited: Thursday, April 10, 2014

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