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Carapace Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In “Carapace,” Levertov writes about her response to the world’s political tragedies. A carapace is the hard shell of an animal, such as a turtle or crab, that protects the soft inner part from harm. The poem’s persona announces that she herself is growing a shell, even though she regrets the shell-like exteriors of other people that render them insensitive to the world’s problems. In the poem, she contemplates children. She begins as though the poet and a child were talking about a situation. The child has seen her own father shot by police; the poet asks the child if she knows what the word “subversive” means. The child’s somewhat attentive somewhat sardonic reply indicates that despite her youth, this child is already an adult, a product of modern inhumanity.

The poet then goes back to contemplating how well her shell is growing and how superior it is to mere skin. Speaking as though she could control the growing of a body part, she remarks that there will be chinks in the armor where the sections in the carapace do not completely meet. Whether or not the insinuation here demands that these are welcome points of entry where someone could still reach the soft underbelly is debatable, as one could read that act as one of violation or one of nurture. Yet, the poem’s ending is telling, depending upon how one invokes the tone.

Another child enters, this boy only nine years old. When asked how he feels about his missing father, who has “disappeared,” he replies with a shrug and says only that he is sad. The repeated violence that the boy has seen in his short life has rendered him unemotional about even his own father.

The poem ends with an urging to the shell to grow faster. At the same time, the world’s problems still intrude. Levertov seems to write of two minds here: She wants to hide from the evil that destroys the wonder of the world; at the same time, she realizes that it is impossible to so do. If the shell encased her like a suit of armor, then she would entirely lose the sensitivity to life and the will to try to change things.

The probable political message here is one of a poet responding not only to the explicit situations of missing persons in Central America but also to all inhumanity. The concrete situations and the dialogue, written in everyday language, paint clear images. A man is shot as he is escaping over a wall, and a young person responds to deep grief with only a shrug. The visual structure of the text itself resembles the subject, a shell. The two scenes with the children are inset, while the comments on the growth of the shell surround them, in the same way that the growing shell covers the vulnerable animal inside. The form and the subject mesh, as the poet arranges these scenes to force the reader to contemplate such inhumanity.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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