An Octopus Poem by Marianne Moore

An Octopus

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of ice. Deceptively reserved and flat,
it lies 'in grandeur and in mass'
beneath a sea of shifting snow-dunes;
dots of cyclamen-red and maroon on its clearly defined
made of glass that will bend–a much needed invention–
comprising twenty-eight ice-fields from fifty to five hundred
feet thick,
of unimagined delicacy.
'Picking periwinkles from the cracks'
or killing prey with the concentric crushing rigor of the python,
it hovers forward 'spider fashion
on its arms' misleading like lace;
its 'ghostly pallor changing
to the green metallic tinge of an anemone-starred pool.'
The fir-trees, in 'the magnitude of their root systems,'
rise aloof from these maneuvers 'creepy to behold,'
austere specimens of our American royal families,
'each like the shadow of the one beside it.
The rock seems frail compared with the dark energy of life,'
its vermilion and onyx and manganese-blue interior expensiveness
left at the mercy of the weather;
'stained transversely by iron where the water drips down,'
recognized by its plants and its animals.
Completing a circle,
you have been deceived into thinking that you have progressed,
under the polite needles of the larches
'hung to filter, not to intercept the sunlight'–
met by tightly wattled spruce-twigs
'conformed to an edge like clipped cypress
as if no branch could penetrate the cold beyond its company';
and dumps of gold and silver ore enclosing The Goat’s Mirror–
that lady-fingerlike depression in the shape of the left human
which prejudices you in favor of itself
before you have had time to see the others;
its indigo, pea-green, blue-green, and turquoise,
from a hundred to two hundred feet deep,
'merging in irregular patches in the middle of the lake
where, like gusts of a storm
obliterating the shadows of the fir-trees, the wind makes lanes
of ripples.'
What spot could have merits of equal importance
for bears, elks, deer, wolves, goats, and ducks?
Pre-empted by their ancestors,
this is the property of the exacting porcupine,
and of the rat 'slipping along to its burrow in the swamp
or pausing on high ground to smell the heather';
of 'thoughtful beavers
making drains which seem the work of careful men with shovels,'
and of the bears inspecting unexpectedly
ant-hills and berry-bushes.
Composed of calcium gems and alabaster pillars,
topaz, tourmaline crystals and amethyst quartz,
their den in somewhere else, concealed in the confusion
of 'blue forests thrown together with marble and jasper and agate
as if the whole quarries had been dynamited.'
And farther up, in a stag-at-bay position
as a scintillating fragment of these terrible stalagmites,
stands the goat,
its eye fixed on the waterfall which never seems to fall–
an endless skein swayed by the wind,
immune to force of gravity in the perspective of the peaks.
A special antelope
acclimated to 'grottoes from which issue penetrating draughts
which make you wonder why you came,'
it stands it ground
on cliffs the color of the clouds, of petrified white vapor–
black feet, eyes, nose, and horns, engraved on dazzling ice-fields,
the ermine body on the crystal peak;
the sun kindling its shoulders to maximum heat like acetylene,
dyeing them white–
upon this antique pedestal,
'a mountain with those graceful lines which prove it a volcano,'
its top a complete cone like Fujiyama’s
till an explosion blew it off.
Distinguished by a beauty
of which 'the visitor dare never fully speak at home
for fear of being stoned as an impostor,'
Big Snow Mountain is the home of a diversity of creatures:
those who 'have lived in hotels
but who now live in camps–who prefer to';
the mountain guide evolving from the trapper,
'in two pairs of trousers, the outer one older,
wearing slowly away from the feet to the knees';
'the nine-striped chipmunk
running with unmammal-like agility along a log';
the water ouzel
with 'its passion for rapids and high-pressured falls,'
building under the arch of some tiny Niagara;
the white-tailed ptarmigan 'in winter solid white,
feeding on heather-bells and alpine buckwheat';
and the eleven eagles of the west,
'fond of the spring fragrance and the winter colors,'
used to the unegoistic action of the glaciers
and 'several hours of frost every midsummer night.'
'They make a nice appearance, don’t they,'
happy see nothing?
Perched on treacherous lava and pumice–
those unadjusted chimney-pots and cleavers
which stipulate 'names and addresses of persons to notify
in case of disaster'–
they hear the roar of ice and supervise the water
winding slowly through the cliffs,
the road 'climbing like the thread
which forms the groove around a snail-shell,
doubling back and forth until where snow begins, it ends.'
No 'deliberate wide-eyed wistfulness' is here
among the boulders sunk in ripples and white water
where 'when you hear the best wild music of the forest
it is sure to be a marmot,'
the victim on some slight observatory,
of 'a struggle between curiosity and caution,'
inquiring what has scared it:
a stone from the moraine descending in leaps,
another marmot, or the spotted ponies with glass eyes,
brought up on frosty grass and flowers
and rapid draughts of ice-water.
Instructed none knows how, to climb the mountain,
by business men who require for recreation
three hundred and sixty-five holidays in the year,
these conspicuously spotted little horses are peculiar;
hard to discern among the birch-trees, ferns, and lily-pads,
avalanche lilies, Indian paint-brushes,
bear’s ears and kittentails,
and miniature cavalcades of chlorophylless fungi
magnified in profile on the moss-beds like moonstones in the water;
the cavalcade of calico competing
with the original American menagerie of styles
among the white flowers of the rhododendron surmounting
rigid leaves
upon which moisture works its alchemy,
transmuting verdure into onyx.

'Like happy souls in Hell,' enjoying mental difficulties,
the Greeks
amused themselves with delicate behavior
because it was 'so noble and fair';
not practised in adapting their intelligence
to eagle-traps and snow-shoes,
to alpenstocks and other toys contrived by those
'alive to the advantage of invigorating pleasures.'
Bows, arrows, oars, and paddles, for which trees provide the
in new countries more eloquent than elsewhere–
augmenting the assertion that, essentially humane,
'the forest affords wood for dwellings and by its beauty
stimulates the moral vigor of its citizens.'
The Greeks liked smoothness, distrusting what was back
of what could not be clearly seen,
resolving with benevolent conclusiveness,
'complexities which still will be complexities
as long as the world lasts';
ascribing what we clumsily call happiness,
to 'an accident or a quality,
a spiritual substance or the soul itself,
an act, a disposition, or a habit,
or a habit infused, to which the soul has been persuaded,
or something distinct from a habit, a power'–
such power as Adam had and we are still devoid of.
'Emotionally sensitive, their hearts were hard';
their wisdom was remote
from that of these odd oracles of cool official sarcasm,
upon this game preserve
where 'guns, nets, seines, traps, and explosives,
hired vehicles, gambling and intoxicants are prohibited;
disobedient persons being summarily removed
and not allowed to return without permission in writing.'
It is self-evident
that it is frightful to have everything afraid of one;
that one must do as one is told
and eat rice, prunes, dates, raisins, hardtack, and tomatoes
this fossil flower concise without a shiver,
intact when it is cut,
damned for its sacrosanct remoteness–
like Henry James 'damned by the public for decorum';
not decorum, but restraint;
it is the love of doing hard things
that rebuffed and wore them out–a public out of sympathy
with neatness.

Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!
Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus
with its capacity for fact.
'Creeping slowly as with meditated stealth,
its arms seeming to approach from all directions,'
it receives one under winds that 'tear the snow to bits
and hurl it like a sandblast
shearing off twigs and loose bark from the trees.'
Is 'tree' the word for these things
'flat on the ground like vines'?
some 'bent in a half circle with branches on one side
suggesting dust-brushes, not trees;
some finding strength in union, forming little stunted grooves
their flattened mats of branches shrunk in trying to escape'
from the hard mountain 'planned by ice and polished by the wind'–
the white volcano with no weather side;
the lightning flashing at its base,
rain falling in the valleys, and snow falling on the peak–
the glassy octopus symmetrically pointed,
its claw cut by the avalanche
'with a sound like the crack of a rifle,
in a curtain of powdered snow launched like a waterfall.'

Ruta Mohapatra 24 June 2018

Lord! Thousands of words packed together! I got lost somewhere in the maze.

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Marianne Moore

Marianne Moore

Kirkwood, Missouri
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