Andrew Motion Salt Water-Tortoise

This collection, “Salt Water” came out in 1997 when Motion was getting interested in Keats about whom he has written an  excellent ,well-received biography see:-

The following poem I found rather appealing:-


Here is a man who served his generals faithfully

and over the years had everything shot away

starting from the feet and working upwards:

feet, chest, arms, neck, head.

In the end he was just a rusting helmet

on the lip of a trench. Then his chin-strap went.

So he became a sort of miraculous stone,

miraculous, not just for the fine varnish

which shows every colour right to the depths

black,topaz, yellow, white, grey, green-

but for the fact that it can move. You see?

Four legs and a head and off he goes.

There’s only one place to find the future now –

right under his nose-and no question either

where the next meal might be coming from

jasmine, rose, cactus, marigold, iris, fuschia,

all snow their flowers around him constantly

and all in their different ways are so delicious.

It explains why there is no reason to hurry.

The breeze blows, the blossoms fall, and the head

shambles in and out as the mouth munches:

remorseless, tight, crinkled, silent, toothless, pink.

Life is not difficult any more, oh no; life is simple.

It makes you pause, doesn’t it? It makes you think.

The military metaphors in the first stanza are interesting and despite the armoured protection of the shell,”Then his chin-strap went” adds a sudden vulnerability or loss of protection.This is followed by the pellucid, lapidary quality reflected in the second stanza; limpid colourful and serene. The halting movement calls up motion! It also arguably, suggestive of ageing and seclusion in retirement.

The sixth line in each stanza consists of a staccato of five or six syllables. This seems an effective device and the snowing flowers cascading down adds a new direction and adds to the impression of acceptance, albeit reluctant. An exotic atmosphere is invoked; an elegant japonaiserie appealing  headily to the senses. But here the  remorseless shambling recalls a mutilé de guerre. Hesitation and thoughtfulness mingle with reflection and yet communicates beauty in survival. An effective poem-what do you think?

Author: penwithlit

Freelance writer and radio presenter

One thought on “Andrew Motion Salt Water-Tortoise”

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