Octopus arms

My to-do list today says, “Cephalopod poem,” as in write one.

I’ve been thinking about cephalopods because I just read Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. I’ve always loved octopuses; I might be genetically inclined to adore them, and I don’t mean to eat. I have a dim memory of seeing a tiny octopus in a tide pool in my hometown (Goleta/Santa Barbara), and still think of it as one of the most exciting things that’s ever happened to me. (Seeing nudibranchs is also very exciting—check out the Spanish shawl, Flabellina iodinea).

In the fall, I was invited to the island of Lefkada for the opening of the Sikelianos Museum, my great grandfather’s childhood home having been turned into a place to meditate on his life and work. I got permission to visit the poet Nanos Valaoritis’s family island—a tiny thing between Lefkada and the mainland that can be walked across in about 20 minutes. As we boarded the boat to go back to Lefkada, I suddenly saw a shadowy movement against the rocks in the harbor. How can I say this? Even its shadow looked intelligent! It realized that I’d seen it and quickly spidered off. “This will be funny,” said the boatman, and threw a hook into the water. I panicked, but for no good reason. The octopus was as smart as its shadow, and made haste across the rocks.

Marianne Moore wrote:

            it hovers forward “spider fashion
            on its arms” misleading like lace

What an apt capture of its movement and shadow-shape. (The funny thing about the poem she titled “An Octopus,” however, is that it was “about” Mt. Rainier.)

I have been thinking about non-human animals since I can remember thinking, and animals have populated my poems for as long as I can remember writing poems. My most recent book, inspired in part by the notion of autopoiesis, or how an individual creature self-regulates (and what that means about our daily lives), contains a section engaged in devotion to animals gone extinct in recent times. My current work, a long poem called “Your Kingdom,” was jump-started by watching a salamander crawl over a log and meditating on how shoulder girdles came about (amphibians invented them). The poem has become a paean to all the animals’ work we carry around inside. In this recording, I’m talking about and reading from the first part of the poem

My notes from a few weeks ago say, “No, no, no, Dr. Williams, the poem is not ‘a small (or large) machine made out of words.’” What I was thinking was: the poem is an animal. What I mean by that is: the poem is a living thing, energy transferred from one animal to another (to update an old idea), subject to the heat and cold and jiggling of living flesh. To be fair, Williams is using the models of his day, and his description of a machine-poem is more organic than metallic: “As in all machines its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character” (emphases mine). Poems, like animals, are highly organized structures (sometimes fat and sometimes sinewy, sometimes spined or spiny and sometimes all undulating flesh) engaged in fabulous adaptabilities and seeking to communicate both internally and externally. Poems and animals, though organized, make mistakes, which means discovery or death.

First, single-celled animals signaled to each other, “I’m going to devour you,” “I’m over here!” “Let’s hook up,” etc. Then, as cells began to organize into more complicated bodies, the cells remembered how to signal to each other, but now for interior coordination: “You go make a foot and I’ll do the toes!” (The gene for getting toes in the right order, on all animals with toes, is called Sonic Hedgehog, if you care to know.)

 In a poem, words gather toward each other, sending similar chemo/magnetic signals, or sometimes they divide and create new structures, so that rivers become riveters (as in Etel Adnan’s “motion(less) rivers/riveting meadows of/want”).  Poems maximize the adaptability of language, and, as we know, adaptation is key to animal survival. And, obviously, a poem desires to send signals out to those around: “Help! This world is not what I expected!” or “See how beautiful! We’re alive!” If the poet is a bowerbird, collecting bright bits of language, the poem is our love nest—made not just decoratively, but to continue the species. And, as in gene copying, a swerve in a poem, a so-called mistake, can mean a whole new creature.

Some biologist-philosophers posit that experiencing pain means an experience of self.

Switzerland just passed a law banning boiling lobsters alive, but American scientists aren’t as sure lobsters feel pain, or if they do what the least painful form of death would be, since they don’t have a centralized nervous system. I have a deep childhood memory of going down to the pier with my mother to the lobster shack. When they dropped the lobster in the pot (which is just an “e” away from “the poet”) the lobster began to scream and I began to scream.

What does it mean to feel a self? Do we have to know something feels pain to call it a being? Can I claim that a poem is sentient? What do words feel?

I certainly experience a feeling of language (“a feeling of of,” as William James would have it), and I experience it acutely in a poem. Even if I can’t defendibly claim the poem as an animal, it is an extension of my animal brain, and it has traits in common with living organisms. It doesn’t exist independently of living organisms—in that sense, we could say that the poem is symbiotic (its symbionts being language, sound, and humans). It doesn’t feel pain but I can feel pain through it, avatar-like. And we all know that words do hurt.

Likewise—to swerve a little—science metaphors matter.

The physicist I sat next to at dinner in November, Jim Gates, was upset that the sound of two black holes colliding, captured by “a pair of delicately positioned mirrors track[ing] the squeezing and stretching of space as gravitational waves go by,” was metaphored into an unsightly sound. Black holes are unheard. “Those LIGO folks [Laser Interferomenal Gravitational-Wave Observatory] should have gotten a composer on board, to find a pleasing tone!” he said. Now it sounds like monstery heavy breathing at your night door, a monster with a liquid heart monitor on. The deep water of dark space. This silent sound is ancient, and the energy it unleashed was 50 times greater than all the observable stars.

If “every vegetable and animal constitutes a machine of greater or lesser complexity, composed of a variety of parts…acting all of them to produce a certain end,” as the nineteenth century had it, it was a machine to be used by humans, and that’s where things get dangerous. My physicist says only math is not metaphoric. But language, which includes numbers, heaves to carry meaning from there to here.

The biologist Lynn Margulis, who championed symbiogenetic evolution, took issue with Darwin’s adopted tree image. No! she said, not a tree, but a net, because everyone is and was sharing everything all the time, sliding intimate materials between us, sucking off the same mouth of invention. Unless a tree has liquid, dripping branchings. It’s a man-made metaphor, and she can make a woman one.

I first heard about Margulis from Peter Warshall, the ecologist and activist who was Joanne Kyger’s ex-boyfriend. He gave these great lectures every few years during Naropa’s Summer Writing Program, on things like Beatrix Potter’s knowledge and paintings of lichen (“She was the first person in Britain to speculate in a scientific paper that lichens are symbiotic life forms”), or the 24-hours of dawning that happens as the planet spins, and the 24-hours of bird dawn-song that greets it. The image of the earth spinning in space with light and birdsong touching a new inch of territory at all times is worth holding in mind. I love Margulis’s books in part because they have chapters with promising titles like “Life from Scum” (not, of course, the Valerie Solanas type).

Margulis updated us on evolution in the mid-60s when she gathered and expanded stray theories of symbiogenesis: we came about not only through competition but through acts of cooperation. We carry evidence of species merger in our cells, and of species relation in almost every structure we daily rely upon. Is there one piece of us that doesn’t also, in some form, belong to someone else? Your fingers ghosting chimp as they slender in the air. Lobe-finned fishes did protolungs, acorn worms might have done something like a heart. The more complex organs, like eyes, had to be developed many times, but jellyfish saw first, and not for us. Biology is remembering. Our cells remember ancient chemical interactions, pre-life, and our limbs remember salamanders. A poem remembers our past in language and posits a future in the simplest sense, like a to-do note, hoping that it will be read at some point hence, reminding us of something worth knowing. It can cast back between the “its” and the “octopus” in the second paragraph of this blog and remember the relation. In addition, it’s an ecosystem that, ideally, like any functioning ecosystem, deals with its own waste.

Like the octopus’s smart shadow, a poem’s shadow also always knows more than we do.

Did I write the cephalopod poem? Yes, but poems, like cephalopods, have minds of their own. It didn’t turn out anything like the poem I imagined. Somehow, just as luminous bacteria take over the Physiculus japonica fish and make us think it’s the fish that’s glowing electrophoretically, it felt like Ron Padgett took over my poem. (Thank you, Ron!) It begins,

I write something down for my future self.

I want it to change what my self does later.

I want it to make my future self know the past thought.

Rude time has a role in this.

It’s been me-now and me-then all along

In a feedback loop—

Weird—the “then” can occupy the future or the past.

Now I’m writing, “To do: write cephalopod poem”

And it ends,

Here, I’ve written it: Cephalopod Poem.

Originally Published: February 19th, 2018

Eleni Sikelianos was born and raised in California and earned her MFA from the Naropa Institute. She is the great-granddaughter of Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos and the niece of Anne Waldman. She is the author of eight poetry collections, including Make Yourself Happy (2017), The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead (2013), Body Clock (2008),...