February 7, 2013, by Kathryn Steenson

“No Turtle is an Island”

One of the benefits of working in Special Collections is serendipitously finding an intriguing, amusing or surprising book amongst the 50,000 volumes held here. Whilst answering an enquiry recently, a member of staff came across this quirky poem by Melvin Plotinsky. ‘Requiem for a Turtle’ memorialises a turtle (tortoise), killed crossing a road in May 1954, and proves that poets can find inspiration in the most unlikely of places!

Requiem for a Turtle

Was it to win your steady race
You won your emerald and untimed finish?
Ambition, masochistic, beat the beast it rode,
Searching a luster time could not diminish,
Finding their appropriate place.

Sirena II: A selection of poetry. Front Cover.

Or did you cross your darkling road
Like the irrational chicken? Then dim desires
Of bluer lands across receded, weary, you knew,
In that eternity of oil and tires,
Redundant, imminent abode.

Generations have tried to make it new
Here, where the turtle’s voice is heard no more.
You, sudden phoenix of your local habitation,
Tried mutability, here, as before,
Untransmogrified, unblue.

Or wrought your shell this dislocation?
You thought it impervious, and died in error.
No turtle is an island. Perhaps you plumbed in the end,
Having the promise, sounding then the terror,
Complete, belated education.

You thought they’d stop? Never, my friend,
They never stop; they neither think nor feel-
You know machines. Though fortune’s fair have felt her spite
There’s one that still prevails, and that’s the wheel.
You chose a bitter bow to bend.

Rest easy turtle. Tender night
And flocks of angels rest your victor’s brow.
You, time’s best nonconformist, never changed your face,
But let them moil above you. Let them now,
And sleep in peace, defunct, but right.

Portrait of Professor Reginald Mainwaring Hewitt, Head of the Department of English, c.1928

It is taken from a volume entitled ‘Sirena II’ (East Midlands Collection pamphlet Not 5. N2 SIR), a selection of poems by staff and students of the University of Nottingham (and its predecessor, University College, Nottingham) written between 1928 and 1956. As the title suggests, this was the second volume of poetry published. Almost 30 years previously, the Head of the Department of English Professor Reginald M Hewitt (c.1887-1948) edited ‘Sirena’ (East Midlands Collection pamphlet Not 5.N2 SIR), a volume of poetry to mark the occasion of University College of Nottingham moving to new premises at what is today known as the University Park Campus of the University of Nottingham. ‘Sirena II’ is dedicated to the memory of Professor Hewitt. 

Melvin Plotinsky came to the University of Nottingham on a Fulbright Scholarship, and studied the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins for a year. After returning to the United States, he earned a law degree at the New York University School of Law before gaining a PhD in English from Harvard University in 1962. He taught English at Indiana University for over thirty years, until his retirement in 1997.

Manuscripts & Special Collections holds the institutional archives of The University of Nottingham and its predecessor, University College Nottingham, many of which can be accessed in the Reading Room. More early photographs of The University of Nottingham, its staff and students are available from our Historic Collections Online gallery.

Posted in From the collectionsUniversity archives