Robert Lowell’s “Returning Turtle”

I should have known that as soon as I pronounced that all of Robert Lowell’s poems seemed too despair-ridden for my taste, I would find one, and more, that managed to find at least a little joy amid life’s gloom. Most of them seem to center around his daughter Harriet, though it’s certainly dangerous to speculate too much on the exact causes of joy in anyone’s life.

Whatever the reason, I found this poem, among several others in the section entitled For Lizzie and Harriet, rather uplifting after the constant barrage of despair in earlier poems:


Weeks hitting the road, one fasting in the bathtub,
raw hamburger mossing in the watery stoppage,
the room drenched with musk like kerosene “
no one shaved, and only the turtle washed.
He was so beautiful when we flipped him over:
greens, reds, yellows, fringe of the faded savage,
the last Sioux, old and worn, saying with weariness.
“Why doesn’t the Great White Father put his red
children on wheels, and move us as he will?”
We drove to the Orland River, and watched the turtle
rush for water like rushing into marriage,
swimming in uncontaminated joy,
lovely the flies that fed the sleazy surface,
a turtle looking back at us, and blinking.

It’s hard not to believe that returning the turtle wasn’t the idea of the narrator’s young daughter Harriet, since there’s little in earlier poems to suggest such concern for others. No matter whose idea it was, though, the very act of setting the turtle free, the act of caring for another living creature, seems to bring him an “uncontaminated joy” seldom seen in any of his other poems.

It’s the kind of futile and meaningless act that can renew our faith in mankind. Seen in the light of all the injustices that take place daily in the real world. It’s hard to make too much of such acts of charity. Still, they seem to offer some slim hope that our youth’s natural concern for those weaker than themselves might eventually grow to make this a better world.

Unfortunately, such optimism is short lived in Lowell’s poetry since the last book of poems entitled “The Dolphin” turns back to darker themes, perhaps because it was written after Lowell’s divorce and remarriage.