I still fear the snapping turtle. Summer evenings, my older brothers would come striding back from the creek muddy and grinning with their poles and tackle and an old chemical bucket filled with chubs and crappies to the rock retaining wall where they would descale and fillet their catch. Sometimes they let me help by fishing knives and pliers out of their tackle box. Once, I freaked-the-shit-out to find a small gaping snapper at the bottom of the box while my brothers rolled on the ground in hysterics.

Maybe it happened more than once (I was a stupid, trusting kid) but the fear was quickly established and provided endless amusement for my brothers. Often, one brother would pin me to the ground while the other would hold a scrambling snapper inches from my nose. Good times.

Stanely Moss’s poem in the December 1, 2008, issue of the New Yorker likens Time to

“…a great snapping turtle
opening its mouth wagging its tongue
to look like a worm or leech
so deceived hungry fish, every living thing
swims in to feed.”

Not only does it add texture to the poem for me that it probably (hopefully!) doesn’t for you, it also just gives me the willies. The image also preys on my recent insecurities with the aging process. For the first time, under the harsh overhead lights of an Embassy Suites, I looked at my reflection in the mirror and saw what other people must see: a middle-aged man. Ugh. We’re all swimming into its gaping mouth so, as my daughter likes to say, “you get what you get so don’t get upset.”

But really this poem has nothing to do with my insecurities and fears, but in a distant future where “war is over, there are no more battles, / but simple murders are still in” and where the very word “war” has morphed into very different meanings like “dog shit” and “nonsense” and “a verse form, obsolete” and “a whipped-cream pastry.” 

The real pleasure of this poem, though, is not in its humor and vision, but in the way Moss can make an argument without being didactic. There are few moments in the poem that suggest the absence of war has a direct relationship to the absence religion. The first is in the third line where Moss states Time is the “No God”. The world has been stripped of religion; we’re operating solely on scientific principles. Following the creepy snapping turtle extended metaphor for Time, Moss then easily conflates particle physics and what would be old religious maxims. For example: “protons do unto neutrons / what they would have neutrons do unto them.”

And then finally the final definition for the word war: 

“in Arabic and Hebrew, with the same 
Semitic throat, harb and milchamah, is defined
as ‘anything our distant grandfathers ate
we no longer find tempting—like the eyes of sheep.’”

It’s a wonderful poem with a wonderful vision that is sabotaged by the final line: “And lions eat grass.” You’re rolling along feeling pretty good about Moss’s future world and then you read that final line and the rug is yanked from under your feet and you find yourself marvelling how you could fall for such a vision, like a young boy trusting his older brothers by reaching in a tackle box for a pair of pliers, a snapping turtle lying in wait.

Further Reading

Stanley Moss’s weird website.

A blinding review of his New & Selected Poems.