Paralyzed by a glob of toxic spittle, a lobster or a crab makes a fine meal once its crustacean shell is penetrated by the octopus’s hard beak and its salty flesh imbibed. If disturbed by a predatory stingray or shark, the octopus vanishes in a puff of ink or contorts its boneless molluscular body into the colors of a coral reef or even the shape of a sea snake. Landwise, a fisherman fingers a long-handled blade, rolls a cigarette, chops herbs and garlic by a charcoal fire. Dozing in the sun, with the blade on his lap, he dreams of turtles and clams and crayfish, of arms lashing about his neck, of a knife entering a soft hulk, of an octopus broken on a rock, its bleached flesh hanging out to dry in the Polynesian sun, then served cold with a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. In a crook of rocks below the surface, the octopus seals shut the cave’s mouth, lays her sole batch of eggs, which she will clean and protect until they hatch as specks of new life inclining to the surface. The fisherman awakes and stabs the sea with a spear, draws up a pretty mollusk, which he tenderizes with the skill of one who has spent his entire life dreaming of pounding a carcass against stone.
Review by Frederick Pollack
English is less congenial to prose poetry than are Romance languages. While French has a canon of prose poets from Baudelaire to Char, whoever attempts the form in English must effectively reinvent it. So must every critic. My own criteria for this genre are: 1) Stylistic consistency. One can be abstract and elliptical (like Ashbery in his “Three Poems”), sensually meditative (Merwin), or funny (Russell Edson), but not by turns in one work. 2) Tension and forward movement, whether propelled by incident, image, or idea.
“Octopus” meet the second standard more than the first. Consider the first line: Paralyzed by a glob of toxic spittle, a lobster or a crab makes a fine meal once its crustacean shell is penetrated by the octopus’s hard beak and its salty flesh imbibed. Presumably the reader knows that lobsters and crabs are crustaceans. What, beyond a pointless coyness, is the function of that adjective – or, later, of “molluscular” applied to an octopus? Note also the awkwardness of the passive voice here, and the repetition: makes a fine meal … is imbibed. Nothing would be lost if the sentence were changed to “Paralyzed by a glob of toxic spittle, the salty flesh of a lobster or crab makes a fine meal when an octopus’s hard beak pierces its shell.” Other editing seems called for: an octopus may “contort” into a new “shape,” but does it do so into a new “color”? “Landwise” is overclever and inapt. If we see the flesh of an octopus hanging in the sun …, don’t we assume that it’s hanging out to dry? And why is the sun “Polynesian”? The ambience and its incidentals (including that glass of Cabernet) seem more plausibly Greek. The ending – the skill of one who has spent his entire life dreaming of pounding a carcass against stone – raises questions: Does this fisherman only dream of killing octopi? Does he dream of only one carcass? Again a casual intensifier, “entire,” adds nothing. Why not “ … the skill of one who has spent his life pounding carcasses on stone”?
Stylistic objections aside, “Octopus” is thematically absorbing. It shows us several hunters: the octopus, who eats shellfish; the shark and stingray the octopus fears; and the fisherman, who hunts octopi (and “a pretty mollusk”). The octopus we meet at the beginning is not (presently) caught by the fisherman; while he dozes, she returns to her cave to lay her eggs. Then he awakens. This sinuous narrative turn reflects the overall theme: human intellect and culture are disturbingly enmeshed in a universe of predation. Thematic consistency is another reason to drop “dreaming” from the last line: the word could suggest escape, transcendence, and in this universe there is none.