Loggerhead: originally an insult applied to people,
later a kind of cannon shot, the post on a whaleboat
anchoring the harpoon line, a bulbous-headed iron tool
used to heat tar
& the largest sea turtle in the world. Its jaws
can crunch through the thickest armor: queen conch,
giant clam. Like all sea turtles, it can’t retreat
into its shell,
but once grown too big for a grouper’s gullet,
aside from fishing nets & oil spills, it’s nearly
indestructable. When sharks attack,
it shows them
the flat side of its plastron or carapace &
their teeth snap on nothing. It’s built for combat:
even the females spar over feeding grounds,
& during coitus,
which can go on for hours, other males
will batter & bite, sometimes dislodging their rival
and taking his place, or slicing his forelegs
to the bone.
Lexicographers insist that this is not the origin
of the expression at loggerheads, though they
propose no other. Mating takes place in spring
& early summer,
from Greece to the Gulf of Mexico. Males remain
offshore while the females venture in to lay eggs
high on the beach, where most clutches
will be found
by raccoons or gulls, dogs or storms. The hatchlings,
too, run a gauntlet when they cross the night beach,
guided by the glint of lights on the water that are not
the moon or stars.
Then they swim straight out, find the floating
mats called sargasso, circle the ocean.
They may swim for 8000 miles, navigating
by magnetic fields.
Biologists refer to this period in a loggerhead’s life,
before it returns to coastal waters three to seven
years later, as the lost years. Its heart-
acquires a miniature reef, including algae
& barnacles — up to 100 species from 13 phyla.
The ancients weren’t so crazy when they imagined
the world riding
on its back. It can sleep underwater for hours
without breathing, its heart almost stopped.
It drinks seawater & excretes the salt
from special glands
next to its eyes. Biologists caution us not
to anthropomorphise, this is not what it seems,
this copious weeping has nothing to do
The great subjects of literature, they say, are love and death. But isn’t it time we added a third subject? To me, any contemporary poetry that does not in some way acknowledge extinction fails to rise above the level of a diverting parlor game. I mean the extinction of species; of ecological communities and the unique landscapes they give rise to; of unique human cultures, languages and ethnicities. Deliberate genocide and ecocide (as in mountaintop removal) are of course the most terrible and extreme forms, but even the wholly unintended loss of some obscure moth due to the insatiable demands of our consumer economy is an unpardonable sin. More than that: we should be sensitive enough to the vast stretches of time and the wondrous workings of chance (or divinity — I’m not always sure of the difference) required to bring about new life forms or new languages to understand that any extinction, even one in which human over-consumption or exploitation are not implicated, represents a loss of a completely different order from the death of an individual. If we are beholden as poets to mourn ordinary death and to celebrate the wonder and beauty of human love and life, aren’t we all the more obligated to respond in some way to the horror of extinction, and to celebrate non-human life in all its strangeness and beauty?
Dave Bonta edits the online magazine qarrtsiluni and has a new collection out from Phoenicia Publishing, Odes to Tools. He lives in Plummer’s Hollow, central Pennsylvania, in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and is president of his local Audubon chapter. Publication credits and links to all his online projects may be found at his Google profile.