Elegy for a Tortoise by Christine Godinez -Ortega: An Analysis

Elegy for a Tortoise

In Siquijor I watched
Some old men hunt
The tortoise-
His crawl of half-a-century
Poised upon that moment,
Yellow folds on brown.
I saw the face
The beak that bore
The creases of the good years.

And when the oldest man
Raised his remaining strength,
The head of the tortoise rolled,
It rolled and stopped and watched.

The old man broke the shell
The bolo pierced the lungs,
Severed the heart, perhaps.
Before I closed my eyes,
I raised the tortoise and his tear
To straighten the curls
In my looking glass


While looking up works by Lina Sagaral-Reyes, the guest panelist for the 2012 Davao Writers Workshop, I came across a digital copy of a 1993 book entitled “Introduction to Poetry” by National Artist Edith Tiempo. I found her poem “Ichtys,” but I also stumbled upon this poem by Iligan Workshop Director Christine Godinez-Ortega, whom I met during the 2011 Iyas Creative Writing Workshop in Bacolod. “Elegy for a Tortoise”‘s deft use of ambiguity – along with fondness for ma’am Christine – caught my attention.

The body of poetry by Ma’am Christine that I’ve encountered has largely been felt, relying on image and musicality to evoke the experience. Her simple language allows for easier access into the scene she is depicting, and her poems give the reader the opportunity to experience even the simplest events in poetic vividness.

The same is true for “Elegy for a Tortoise,” which proceeds in a simple narrative form. The poem tells quite simply about how the persona witnessed a group of old men in the island of Siquijor hunting a tortoise.

The tortoise, ever the symbol of age, is described as of advanced years. But a striking poetic image is revealed in the lines “his crawl of half-a-century poised upon that moment,” revealing at once how every moment is the culmination of the life lived prior, and how death (which the tortoise will soon see) is the ultimate culmination.

The poem then proceeds to describing how the oldest of the men poises to strike the tortoise with a bolo, and the creature rolls its head and looks in anticipation.  Here, the poem takes on a different level of meaning.  With the shift of focus to the old man (revealing to us that the perspective is not limited to observing the tortoise alone) we realize that the first stanza’s personification of the tortoise is actually ambiguous. “I saw the face, the beak that bore, the creases of the good years” while immediately easy to attach to the tortoise for the word “beak” is in fact indirect in its pragmatic context.  Is the statement perhaps referring instead to the faces of the old men? The imagination who wishes to continue this line of interpretation can easily imagine the old man’s focused pout as he approaches the tortoise as a beak.

Further ambiguity is to be found in the last stanza, when the oldest man’s bolo has struck the tortoise. The blade is speculated to have “severed the heart,” a simply anatomical description of the tortoise’s evisceration on the literal level, but may be fancied as referring to the old man’s jadedness – or perhaps even the persona’s heart being moved – on a loftier level of meaning. When the heart of an animal being slaughtered is struck, is not the heart of the observer also struck by pathos, or the hunter’s own heart cut off from empathy?

The poem ends with a return to the persona, who raises “the tortoise and his tear to straighten the curls on her looking glass.” We can immediately think of a tortoiseshell comb with the description of “straightening curls,” and this gives room for interpretation of the persona’s own apathy. Upon seeing this scene, the persona combs her hair with a tortoiseshell comb – the observer’s heart too has been cut off from empathy!

It is rare to see ambiguity in poetry, and when it is found it is often provocative and magical. “Elegy for a Tortoise” captures in its clever ambiguity the apathy behind and arising from the materialistic slaughtering of centuries. A charming and enlightening read from ma’am Christine!



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