Theodicy: David Cravens
David R. Cravens received his B.A. in philosophy from the University of Missouri, and his master’s degree in English literature at Southeast Missouri State University. Several of his poems were recently chosen to appear in the new Vincent van Gogh anthology, Resurrection of a Sunflower. His work continues to be published in literary journals throughout the U.S. and abroad. He teaches composition at Mineral Area College.
T h e o d i c y
Yount Community Cemetery (June 2003)
“[We are men] to whom Zeus has given the fate of winding down our lives in painful wars, from youth until we parish, each of us.” –Odysseus, Iliad 14.85-87
for Emily Kent 1999 – 2005 and for my best friend, Tanner McDavid
a turtleshell by the Kuhlman graves lying on its back the italo-byzantine spandrels of Basilica di San Marco— vacant pendentives lying in wait of saints or of angels or mud [i] I was with my uncle Tib that day in what was once St. Mary’s Township Mount Pisca Lutheran Church
Johannah and Karl Kuhlman (Tib’s great grandparents) had changed their names to Charles and Annie but it wasn’t enough to prevent confederate deutsch-hating guerillas from trying to string Charles up— so when their daughter was five (Tib’s grandma Anne) she would sit on the rooftop watching for dust and yell at the sight of riders— Charles would make for the woods hide in a hollow sycamore clutching a Colt and silverware until the danger passed— just down the road from here the Castor runs through Amidon lovely pink shut-ins ancient granite even in the eyes of turtles where my girlfriend Anne Yount and I sat in the Hahn graveyard talking of how we’d one day be dead— like my buddies from dive-school Simon Rashkin and Evan Park cul-de-sacs of evolution (as the best of us tend to be) [ii] Evan – who’d once told me in class while watching a turtle [iii] use its tongue for a lure:
“we got brains and opposable thumbs everything else got the cool shit” [iv]
sepulchral oblivion like the Grounds boy at the shut-ins
that’s what Jeffie Hahn called him he and his friend’s forenames having been lost in history’s local backwaters his buddy might have been ten maybe eleven (the Bess boy) when Jeffie said guerillas hung him by his feet held a knife to his throat until his mother divulged some money— the rebels had camped by the spring (where Joe Hahn’s store would be) and that fall near the mill he was with Grounds who’d climbed up in a tree to drop grapes to him when those same rebels happened along and shot Grounds from the tree but having been paid for they’d allowed Bess to live plomo o plata
when the boy had been killed Tib’s other great grandpa William Freeman had been off in the cavalry Third MSM (counter guerilla warfare) infiltration ugly business for deception’s nature’s art— sixty-one men died by the sword one hundred and three by way of disease and weather
a bellicose celtic proprietor of reluctantly yielding soil hard drinking and hard riding a man not of culture nor victorian restraint he’d been a friend of Henry Yount namesake of the village (buried here too) who’d come back from the war a rebel slug in his arm— unable to farm he’d opened a store that he ran near fifty years and it was in this mercantile when Tib’s dad – Art Sr. (my great grandfather) was maybe six and walked in with William (his grandfather) when a man named Milas Dollar told William his only courage was in his rifle so William handed his gun to Yount took hold of the other man’s splintered it over a table and offered to lay what was left across his adversary’s head— Tib said his dad – as an old man would tell this story as if it had only just happened [v]
William’s first grandson (Art’s cousin Chris) carried a bullet as well— he’d moved from Yount to Cape bought a restaurant – the Crescent and on a Sunday outside the cafe in nineteen and fourteen he came to blows with John Taylor blood spilled Taylor pulled a gun— the bullet – too deep to salvage shattered Chris’s wrist plowed through his lung— and to the joy of family children when visiting at hospital Chris would light a cigarette and blow smoke out his bandaged chest
but again with the cul-de-sacs— I’d been meaning to talk about turtles
the story started at Zeus’s wedding after he’d invited all the animals but the turtle never showed preferring its home to Zeus’s palace so to the end of time Zeus bade the turtle bear it [vi] comfort of the womb of stasis both blessing and curse though apparently the shell was soft something of a tent or so my girlfriend Oboshi told me the day I’d chanced upon one a seaturtle carapace fixed upon a pedestal in a village on the Gulf of Guinea sticky libations to Nyame (good fortune at sea) adinkra symbols everywhere and I’d walked down to the beach found a live one on its back a massive creature gasping for air natives had sent for a butcher so while they circled round and laughed at me the fat oburoni soft from western lucre I bought it and got it back in the sea though they’d all quit laughing when I offered the only one that wasn’t an extra twenty dollars to help me flip the animal over and carry it into the surf— back on campus Oboshi told me a story seems Nyame’d asked the animals to bring him the drum of Osebo (the arrogant leopard) but all of the animals failed the python – elephant – monkey all but the clever turtle who’d used his cunning to pull it off and as a reward Nyame’d hardened his shell a sensible gift as Darwin said the shield was as important as the sword— the Trail of Tears came through here too back before the rebellion and the Cherokee made camp at that same spring (the site of Joe Hahn’s store) and they told a story as well seems the turtle’s hardened shell had once been smooth when his friend – the possum like that Grounds boy had climbed up in a tree and was tossing persimmons down to the turtle who was catching them in his mouth but a wolf came along leapt in the air started stealing the persimmons so the possum got mad pulled a bone from his pocket and threw it so hard that it plugged the wolf’s throat— the turtle too was angry so he cut the dead wolf’s ears off used them for hominy spoons but word quickly spread and the other wolves caught wind of the turtle’s boasting found him – took him captive flung him into a river to drown where he shattered his shell on a rock— but he made it back to shore sang a medicine song as he sewed his shell back together (though the scars remain) and long before the Trail of Tears this cemetery was Osage land and in the Wi’-gi-e of the elder water people Wakonda says of this bony mosaic these geometrical scutes upon the turtle’s carapace that they’d had a purpose something of a map for us to use as a means to reach old age— negligible senescence an inevitable consequence of the law of accelerating returns and we’re looking now to turtles to try and figure it out— and this evolution of the shell has continued to develop (as stories are wont to do) into something about neurals fusing with thoracic vertebrae endochondral ossification prechondrocytes growing laterally after entering the shell-dermis bone ballast turned to plastron amalgamated gastralia yadda this – yadda that and though allegory gains wider distribution than fact both accounts hold in that turtles are a product of toil and violence as armor is not developed in consequence of kindnesses be it bullets or wolves or guerillas or gods or leopards something’s always out to get us and a little hardness – a proper hauberk covering the correct places will help us along on our journey— I’ve watched even dogs lifelong comrades turn on a wounded companion at the first sign of weakness the smell of blood and they’re so much better than we are
Tib’s now followed our ancestors into the wake of the good hereafter but I still have the shell from the church a palimpsest of metaphor martyrium of the baseness of nature draconian chrysalis both citadel and oubliette history embossed upon it enemy of reverence a 200 million-year mytheme of strength, will, and endurance battlescars and longhealed maps fissures and sundry knawings remnants of lupine history stories wound in calligraphic braille circumventing lies of meek and the earth for rational truth as Blake had said seems not the truth of Christ but the truth of Pilate
“Strictly speaking…the term ‘turtle’ is correct when applied to any shelled reptile.” –The World of Turtles and Tortoises, John Lehrer
1. In 2005, six year-old Emily Kent and her mother pulled over to help a turtle that was crossing a busy highway. Emily jumped out of the Jeep before her mother could stop her and was struck and killed by another vehicle as she was running out to save the animal. She will never have children.
2. In 2012, Blake Shelton Tweeted: “Does anyone know if the Eastern Box turtle is protected in Oklahoma? If so I didn’t just swerve to the shoulder of the road to smash one...” His response to one detractor was: “Before u make an even bigger dipshit of urself you should research on how much money I have raised to feed homeless animals…” While I was writing this poem in 2016, I was standing in line at the grocery store when I saw him grinning from the cover of Life & Style next to some blonde cunt. They’ll likely reproduce – if not with each other, then with others similar to themselves.
3. In 2014, eighteen year-old Jennifer Emoke Greene and her fifteen year-old friend recorded themselves dousing a gopher tortoise with flammable liquid and setting it alight. “Burn baby, burn baby,” one girl says. “Now you are scared of us, huh?” “He’s fuckin hissing still,” one says as she picks the turtle up. She throws it while the other girl laughs. “Let’s do it again,” the one with the camera says. “Let me do it. He’s not dead. He just went in his shell.” The turtle is again thrown down the street, and one of the girls eventually stomps it to death. “His heart came out with a bunch of grass,” one of them says as she laughs and kicks it. “He’s dead. That’s funny.” In response to outrage about the video on facebook, Jennifer wrote: “Make a better one for y’all tomorrow.” These are the types of people that generate the most offspring, as yet there are no laws preventing it.
the alligator snapper – Macrochelys temminckii
“For the animal [the turtle] shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they moved finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”–Henry Beston, The Outermost House
“There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.” –Cormac McCarthy, from “Cormac McCarthy’s Venomous Fiction” The New York Times, 1992
“Were there no turtles living, we would look upon the fossil turtles as the strangest of all vertebrates – animals which had developed the strange habit of concealing themselves inside their ribs, for that is literally what turtles do.” –Samuel Williston (1914)