Theodicy: David Cravens

November 27, 2017




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)
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
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)



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