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Russian Tortoise

by Gardner McFall



A brown bird outside my window
has sung the same tune all morning.
He thinks, like someone speaking English
in a foreign country, if he sings louder
I will understand. He darts from roof

to sill. Does he flick a wing or tip
his head to underscore the meaning?
His five notes — three ascending,
two down, at least, demand: rise,
come to the window. Yet when I do,

he flings himself into a nearby fir.
Left on my own, the sight is what
I expected: terrace, emerald lawn,
and, hard to bear, the marble fountain
where I sat in moonlight, empty,

the girl I once was gone. He’s back,
in consort with a friend, asking,
what difference does it really make?
The trees are immense, the sky blue.
The fountain will fill. His five notes:

Haven’t you grasped anything yet?
Your life is halfway up; open
the latticework; let all the air in
now, the air that’s new and stings
with memory. Trust yourself; begin.


The poems in Gardner McFall's second volume address questions of death, faith, and love. As in her first book, The Pilot’s Daughter, McFall investigates and responds to the natural world with her finely tuned senses. Her deepened sense of time and mortality is reflected in the poems about her mother’s death, her journey to Vietnam forty years after her father's service there, and her exploration of love and family. Russian Tortoise celebrates beauty and mystery, whether in an Audubon plate, a tortoise her daughter brings home from school, or a man shouting "Alleluia" on the street.


Experienced and acclaimed poet Gardner McFall brings readers another collection of poetry with Russian Tortoise, a collection of poems expressing her emotions and opinions on the world around her and everything about it. Russian Tortoise is a collection that is poignant and wise, recommended.
Midwest Book Review


The poems in Gardner McFall's Russian Tortoise are informed by a sense of fragility and loss. In this they may be said to be elegiac in tone. But these elegies are concerned not so much with lamenting the dead than with using the example the dead have provided to celebrate lives of common beauty and to do justice to the odd, the wayward, and the broken. The result is a wise and moving book.
— Carl Dennis

I have admired Gardner McFall's work since I first read The Pilot's Daughter—her first and important book, with its poignant poems exploring the love and grief of a daughter who lost her father to the conflict in Vietnam. I have long waited for her next book, and now, happily, here it is, filled with the rich, wise, and beautiful poems of maturity. Gardner McFall's poems tell us much we need to know about full vision, blocked vision, and the partial vision of being human.
— Jan Heller Levi


Wanting answers seems to me essential to Gardner McFall's work, which is deeply curious, deeply speculative. She asks a question and strives to frame the response through an act of imagination. Her poems pose serious questions without overdramatizing their urgency. What were a mother's last thoughts? What did a father see from his bomber over the rice-fields of Vietnam? What difference does time make? At the end of "Begin" (the first poem in her book), she writes: "Haven’t you grasped anything yet? / Your life is halfway up . . ." and answers with: "Trust yourself; begin." This is good advice for us all, I think.
— Jane Shore


Their patient gravity enlivened by sly flickers of humour, the best poems in Gardner McFall's second collection turn an attentive gaze on creatures (the eponymous tortoise; a house cat; a water buffalo) whose significance feels totemic. . . . Many of these poems have an undertow of sorrow and loss, the more effective because of their restraint.
— Rachel Hadas, The Times Literary Supplement



This book is available in Kindle, Nook, Sony, Kobo, and Apple E-book formats, for purchase, and through public libraries' Overdrive account, for loan.


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