Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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— for Stephen Dunn
The cat curled against my wide foot’s sole idles himself to sleep.
I tell myself he loves me, past food, warmth, shelter,
past my fingers’ rough massage.
I think I know this to be true, but say
I tell myself to prove I’m no sentimental fool,
to leave me one ironic out.
When I cut my hand he lapped blood
where it pooled like cooling grease
but showed me more affection when I cried
for what I thought was loss of what I thought was love;
stared into my eyes, touched my cheek with one dry paw
until I looked away.
The paper tells the story: a giant sea turtle
carried a shipwrecked woman most of two days
before delivering her up to a fishing boat.
How would a biologist dismiss this
as coincidence of instincts, the woman saved
without the turtle caring?
How to explain the turtle’s choice,
that it rose beneath the woman twice
before she let herself ride that hard back;
that it didn’t dive once in two days;
that as much as we want to say so and do not,
it saved her life because it wanted to?
On every God-road known, compassion’s the highest good.
I’ve never made or saved a life.
But, well-fed in calm salt water and good weather,
that turtle had no stronger thirst that day
than to try on a cast-off human goodness
to see how well it swam.
When this slack-ribbed cat, almost twenty, hearing gone,
gets up to walk his bones across the room, then stops,
seems to slowly reconsider, limps back to where he’d started,
I think it better to assume that when he seems to think
he thinks; that when he seems to love
he loves; that the turtle knew exactly what it did
and what would happen if it didn’t.
Richard Lehnert’s poem “Essay on Compassion” [July 2003] caught my eye because it was dedicated to poet Stephen Dunn. I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Dunn when he came to speak at my college. I was assigned to be his escort for the day, and I was in awe of him. In his keynote address, he read his poem “Loves,” which he’d conceived as a challenge to himself: to write until he had exhausted all examples of things that he loves. That poem, so simple in style, yet so complicated in imagery, inspired me.
Lehnert’s “Essay on Compassion” was reminiscent of Dunn’s “Loves,” and rich with its own kind of imagery. Thank you for reminding me of a day that helped rekindle my interest in poetry.