The lovely and inimitable Betsey Brock recently demonstrated how a video of a boy seeing lobsters for the first time lets us witness firsthand a human experiencing the Sublime. Edmund Burke describes such an experience this way: “The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.” (Burke, On the Sublime)
Like the boy first encountering crustaceans, cephalopods offer a frequent opportunity for the sublime in young and old. Cephalopods (meaning head-foot) are the class belonging to the phylum mollusca and include octopus, squid, cuttlefish, and chambered nautilus. Invertebrates with intelligence, even their physical facts astonish: three hearts, blue-green blood (copper-based rather than iron-based like ours), and a completely soft body except for their beaks (!) and perhaps one accoutrement (a pen, a cuttlebone, a golden ratio). They express themselves through gesture and complex color. They change the texture of their skin, they mimic, they disappear by glowing, they release a shadow self in ink. They learn, they use tools, they play. They squeeze through a tube no larger than a quarter. They take out a shark. They steal your camera. They see you, they recognize you, they watch you as you watch them. Some of them fly. Some of them are giant.
And that’s just a start! No wonder they have the ability to fill one’s mind “so entirely… with its object” — to nearly capsize our imagination.
I should confess here that I am already a longtime fan of cephalopods and a founder of the Cephalopod Appreciation Society which meets each spring in Seattle. Our last meeting at the NW Film Forum featured cephalopod expert Roland Anderson who told us about his new book Octopus co-authored with fellow scientist Jennifer Mather, a show-stopping Dumbo Octopus Rap by Levi Fuller (whose Colossal Squid song is also available on his new album), a Sea-Shantacular Sing-Along, a rare book tour stop from Captain Ahab, many original cephalopod-inspired poems by such talents as Cody Walker and Deborah Woodard — and more!
Each year I gather these artists, scientists, and cephalopod enthusiasts of all ages to help me celebrate these amazing creatures. But I also invite these people to help me articulate my own wonder — because even after all of these years of fascination, I still find it difficult to write about cephalopods in my own poetry. Mostly I have approached it obliquely; they make camouflaged appearances in metaphor, in tentacle, in inky idea-form.
Here are some of the poets I look to for inspiration, who have been able to translate the sublime into beauty, without forgoing the terror the original encounter holds. A few excerpts to lure you further:
From The Octopus by James Merrill
There are many monsters that a glassen surface
Restrains. And none more sinister
Than vision asleep in the eve’s tight translucence.
Rarely it seeks now to unloose
Its diamonds. Having divined how drab a prison
The purest mortal tissue is,
Rarely it wakes. Unless, coaxed out by lusters
Extraordinary, like the octopus
From the gloom of its tank half-swimming half-drifting
Toward anything fair, a handkerchief
Or child’s face dreaming near the glass, the writher
Advances in a godlike wreath
Of its own wrath. Chilled by such fragile reeling
A hundred blows of a boot-heel
Shall not quell, the dreamer wakes and hungers…..
* * *
From The Paper Nautilus by Marianne Moore
For authorities whose hopes
are shaped by mercenaries?
Writers entrapped by
teatime fame and by
commuters’ comforts? Not for these
the paper nautilus
constructs her thin glass shell.
Giving her perishable
souvenir of hope, a dull
white outside and smooth-
edged inner surface
glossy as the sea, the watchful
maker of it guards it
day and night; she scarcely
eats until the eggs are hatched.
Buried eight-fold in her eight
arms, for she is in
a sense a devil-
fish, her glass ram’shorn-cradled freight
is hid but is not crushed;
as Hercules, bitten…
* * *
From the delightfully unwieldly 15-line sonnet by Alfred Lord Tennyson:
Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light…
* * *
From Love at Thirty-two Degrees by Katherine Larson
Today I dissected a squid,
the late acacia tossing its pollen
across the black of the lab bench.
In a few months the maples
will be bleeding. That was the thing:
there was no blood
only textures of gills creased like satin,
suction cups as planets in rows. Be careful
not to cut your finger, he says. But I’m thinking
of fingertips on my lover’s neck