by Gail Mazur
In ancient Greece, a man could withdraw into the desert
to praise his gods in solitude—
he’d live out his days by himself in a cave of sand.
Eremos, Greek for desert—you could look it up.
Hermit crabs live mostly alone
in their self-chosen hermitages, they learn young
to muscle their soft asymmetrical bodies
into abandoned mollusk shells.
Without shells, those inadequate bodies
wouldn’t have survived the centuries,
so they tuck their abdomens and weak back legs inside
the burden they’ll carry on their backs.
It was Aristotle who first observed
they could move from one shell to another.
But sometimes a hermit crab is social—
sometimes a sandworm, a ragworm,
will live with it inside a snail shell.
And sometimes when the crab outgrows its shell
it will remove its odd companion
and bring it along to a new larger shell.
(The Greeks who taught the Western world
what could be achieved by living together
were also the first in that world to work out
a philosophical justification for living alone.)
If the home it chooses isn’t vacant
it will use its large pincer claw to extract
the old inhabitant—usually a dead, or dying,
or less aggressive hermit crab.
Then it drags its spiral shell, its adopted history,
sideways, scrabbling across the wet sand.
That’s where you see them,
when the tide is out, on the flats.
At high tide, the weight of the shell
is lessened by the upward pressure of water,
so he can forage for plankton, algae,
sea morsels on the ocean floor.
Actually, he neither “chooses,” nor “inherits,”
the mollusk’s shell, he has no choice
but to live in it, to lug it with him
everywhere until it’s his time to move again.
No shell he inhabits will be his home forever.
Restless, driven, Darwinian,
where he lives today might not please
or fit him tomorrow. I could tell you more,
the flats are seething with unlikely creatures
and remnants of life where life’s been unfastened.
According to Tarot, the hermit has internalized
life’s lesson to the point where he is the lesson.
And you, Gail, though you seem almost frozen,
are you sure you won’t abandon
the crowded, calcified armor of your story,
of what was given, what freely chosen—
Copyright © by Gail Mazur. This poem is from Figures in a Landscape, University of Chicago Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission.