Stacy Carson Hubbard: On "An Octopus"

One need only peruse Moore's notes to her poems and her reading notebooks to see how thoroughly their collages of quotation commingle the exotic and the mundane. "An Octopus" (1924), written after Moore participated in a climbing expedition on Washington's Mount Rainier, provides one of the more fascinating examples of Moorish plunder. Its quoted fragments derive from many sources, including Richard Baxter's The Saints' Everlasting Rest, Cardinal Newman's Historical Sketches, Clifton Johnson's What to See in America, two different articles on cephalopodia (octopi), one from The London Graphic, the other from The Illustrated London News, and even a casual comment overheard at the circus. Aside from direct quotation, much of the imagery of the poem, which details the natural landscape and animal occupants of the mountain from the many viewpoints of the climber, can be traced to Moore's reading at the time, extensively documented in her notebooks for 1921-22. This reading includes books and articles on architecture, fashion, advertising, marriage, poetics and natural history, among them The Psychology of Dress by Frank Parsons, The Art Of Courtship by W. L. George, A Book of Old Embroidery edited by Geoffry Holme, several articles about D. H. Lawrence's ideas on women and marriage, Sidney's Apologie for Poetrie, Shelley's "Defense of Poetry," a review of Ford Madox Ford's A Blunt Old Tory: Women and Men, Sheridan's The Rivals, Spenser's "Amoretti," reviews of works by Roger Fry and Gordon Craig, an article on South American archaeology, and Henry James's The Golden Bowl.

 

The primary sources for the poem's details about wildlife, weather and rock formations are the photographs Moore took during the climb, the postcards she purchased at the time of the climb and one year later on a return trip to the region, and the 1922 Department of the Interior Rules and Regulations, Mt. Rainier National Park pamphlet. This 52-page pamphlet, co-authored by a park ranger and a Department of Agriculture biologist, among others, was admired by Moore for its phrasing and for its precise descriptive details: the title of the poem is taken from the pamphlet, which describes Mt. Rainier as a "glacial octopus," and much of the poem was pieced together from phrases which Moore underlined in the pamphlet's text, notes and bibliography, and which she later wove together with her own words, and the words of Newman, Ruskin, and others. The poem, which Moore began drafting in the margins of the parks pamphlet, mingles paraphrase with quotation, sometimes set off by quotation marks and sometimes not. As Margaret Holley notes in her discussion of "An Octopus," "As often as not, we are dealing with quotation as a formal appearance rather than as a literal practice. Quotation in Moore's text looks like repetition but often is really revision; it looks like transcription but is, in fact, transformation" (66). That is, it may look like "probity," to use Moore's word, but is more often deliberate mistake.

 

The result is a poem which blends the naturalist's passion for precise lists of characteristics together with the poet's (and the park ranger's) propensity for startling analogy, as well as the tourist's interest in the mountain as a public facility, one regulated by human rules and marked by human uses. Clearly this poem's borrowings do not function as Stewart claims allusive quotations do, "to point to the abstract exchange value of printed works, their value as statements of membership and class" (36). There is nothing particularly elite, or recognizable, about most of the poem's sources. Neither can this kind of quotation be said to participate in any of the dynamics of literary inheritance, influence, haunting or echo by which we traditionally understand poetic intertextuality. Indeed, it is precisely such indebtedness which Moore was attempting to forestall when, in an earlier period, she began writing rhymed, syllabic lines: her rejection of traditional English metrics, particularly the pentameter, was meant to innoculate her poetry against unconscious echo (and it is remarkable, in fact, how seldom Moore's poems quote poetry). Similarly, her complex rhyme patterns work to ward off a strong tendency to mimic admired prose (see Slatin 87-88). Moore's borrowings from non-literary sources, as well as those from less than recognizable portions of recognizable authors' works, may also function to protect the poems against uncontrolled influences. Thus Moore's formal choices are designed to preclude both Bloomian influence and Hollanderish revisionary echo, and her explicit quotations--her marking, displaying, and indexing of other texts and voices within the poems--involve her in a dynamics of authority distinct from that of traditional allusion. Moore's poems do not, as a rule, accrue resonance and complexity by metonymically calling up a recognizable context; rather, they forego the nostalgia of restoration, opting instead for the construction of new meaning through extraction and arrangement, organization and cataloging. For this reason, it is the collection with its invented context, the point of which is not remembering, but "forgetting--starting again in such a way that a finite number of elements create, by virtue of their combination, an infinite reverie" (Stewart 152) which provides the model for Moore's eclectic constructions. As Stewart says with reference to Walter Benjamin, such collections of quotations "illustrate the infinite and regenerative seriality of language itself" (156).

 

"An Octopus / of Ice"

 

I want now to explore such multiplications of perspective and their relevance to what I am calling enhanced vision by a closer look at "An Octopus," in which the sublime spectacle of Mt.Rainier is telescoped into a series of semi-detached details, destructive of scale, and ultimately blinding in their disorienting complexity. "An Octopus" was in early draftings a part of "Marriage," Moore's parodic rewriting of Paradise Lost, but was later broken off and set down in its own post-Adamic "paradise." "[T]his amalgamation which can never be more / than an interesting impossibility," "This institution, perhaps one should say enterprise / out of respect for which / one says one need not change one's mind" is marriage ("Marriage," Poem 63); but in early drafts marriage is "a road uphill" and it is Mt. Rainier which is said to be "enterprising" (Rosenbach VII:04:04-1251/7, 10; 27-28). The "interesting impossibilit[ies]" of "Marriage" become possible in the world of "An Octopus," and "chang[ing] one's mind" becomes, not a prohibition, but an obligation, in response to a mountain which is itself "Maintaining many minds" (Observations 85). Like the mind which "feel[s] its way as though blind," yet "walks along with its eyes on the ground" in "The Mind is an Enchanting Thing," exactitude of perception in Moore's poems has at its furthest reach a blindness in which that classic instance of meticulous detailing--the "white on white" which we have already seen in "The Paper Nautilus" and which reappears in poems such as "New York," "Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns," and "Marriage" -- threatens to dissolve discrimination and undo perceptual certainty.

 

The poem's opening description of the glacier makes it a little harder to see:

 

An Octopus

 

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

                                                                            pseudopodia

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 vigor of the python,

it hovers forward "spider fashion

on its arms" misleadingly like lace;

its "ghostly pallor changing

to the green metallic tinge of an anemone starred pool."

 

The glacier is, in these lines, something deceptive in it multiple likenesses--an octopus, a python, a spider, "[d]eceptively reserved," "misleadingly like lace"--and at the same time, something "clearly defined," measurable in inches and feet, "a much needed invention" like bendable glass -- or like a distorting lens. The glacier's inherent multiplicity -- its capacity to deceive as well as what the poem later calls its "capacity for fact"-- is paralleled by the poem's own many-armed embrace of borrowed utterance; fully two-thirds of the poem is quotation. There is both precision and deception at work here, for Moore's quotations are themselves often not what they seem; she fails to set quotation marks around some of what the poem quotes, while placing marks around much of what has been rephrased, or telescoped into more workable rhythms. The poem's construction reflects a tension between the found and the usable, the natural and the man-made, which renders it comparable to the mountain. The glacier's twenty-eight ice-fields are echoed in the twenty-eight sentences of Moore's poem. Further, the octopus's eight glass arms, at once capable of crushing like a python and "'Picking periwinkles from the cracks,'" bear some relation to the glass-shelled paper nautilus whose eggs are "Buried eight-fold in her eight / arms" (Poems 121), and who embodies a specifically feminine formidableness. Perhaps we, like the "devil-fish['s]" "freight," will be "hindered to succeed," made to circle about the mountain until we "have been deceived into thinking that [we] have progressed" (Observations 84). The poem aligns the reader with the tourist who is said to "'doubl[e] back and forth'" (86) along the mountain trail, circling around and viewing from many angles the glacier whose own "arms," in a phrase lifted from the parks pamphlet, are said to "'approach from all directions'" (89).

 

The Rules and Regulations pamphlet which Moore used as a verbal screen or lens through which to view Mt. Rainier is itself preoccupied with the difficulties of accurate perception, and the insufficiency of language to perceptual experience, in this case the experience of sublime multiplicity and sublime grandeur. The illustrations with which the pamphlet begins suggestively prefigure the problems of perspective which inform the pamphlet's written descriptions, and of which Moore made note throughout her annotations. On the cover is a photograph of Mt. Rainier taken from its base, with the spectacle neatly dividing itself into three fields: in the foreground are meadows dotted with variegated grasses and flowers; in the middle distance thick stands of firs; in the background the mountain's rocky, ice-capped peak. This three-part vision is echoed in the conclusion of "An Octopus," which describes the mountain with "the lightning flashing at its base, / rain falling in the valleys, and snow falling on the peak" (90). The opening section of the pamphlet, however, sets against such photographic realism (and conventional pictorialism), with its reproduction of a viewpoint potentially accessible to park visitors, an aerial geological map of the mountain showing, in detail, the distribution of its major ice fields, and featuring at its center the mountain's gigantic crowning glacier looking very much like an octopus or a symmetrically-petaled flower. This view is, of course, made available only through the combined efforts of the aerial photographer and the cartographer; it is not a part of the visual experience of the ordinary tourist. It is this image which seems to have inspired the pamphlet's description of the glacier as "an octopus of ice," the phrase which Moore borrowed for her title; it may also have suggested the poem's description of the glacier as a "fossil flower" (89). Thus the pamphlet begins by offering the tourist/reader two powerful, and incompatible, pictorial images of Mt. Rainier (as well as several names: Mt. Rainier, Mt. Tacoma--The Mountain That is God), suggesting that in order to see the mountain one must look simultaneously from a variety of perspectives, all more or less mediated by prior observations, human and mechanical.

 

The poem's viewpoint shifts without transition between the two perspectives represented by the pamphlet's illustrations, the one looking up towards the peak from the meadows below, the other looking down at the glacier from directly above. It also incorporates a third perspective: that of the climber with a close-up view of the mountain's surface minutae--birds, fungi, flowers and water-stained rock. No one perspective can be said to be truer than another and each, as they appear in the parks pamphlet, depends upon some type of translation or technological mediation--the camera aided, in the first instance, by the photographer's knowledge of composition (and, presumably, of painterly conventions for representing the sublime); in the second, by the airplane and the cartographer's skilled "translation" of the photograph.

 

Perspectival multiplicity and mediation control the unfolding descriptions of "An Octopus." Though neither the poem nor Moore's notes towards it explicitly mention the pamphlet's illustrations, these provide a pictorial demonstration of the paradox which preoccupies Moore throughout the poem and which shapes her response to both the pamphlet and the mountain. Winding her way through the pamphlet, "hunting without a rifle" for the living elements of her poem, Moore levels her sights on the mountain through the lens of the pamphlet itself, treating the visitor's guide as one piece of necessary equipment, like the amber-colored glasses which it tells us are issued to climbers at the mountain's base, which makes it possible to view the potentially blinding splendor of the peak. Moreover, Moore's use of the pamphlet as primary source for the poem's language prevents her from being blinded by prior poems, in particular those which pit their linguistic powers against similar summits, such as Shelley's "Mont Blanc" or The Prelude's famous descriptions of Simplon Pass. Scrawling her nascent poem between the lines of the park ranger's prose, Moore treats the naturalist's account much as the poem treats the mountain--as a remakable or a rewritable thing. Yet, as Hugh Kenner argues, Moore's relation to natural objects is not that of the romantic eye which "half perceives and half creates," but rather that of a scientific eye seeking "a way to cope with the perceived world's multifarious otherness," not by abolishing that otherness, but by bringing it intact into the space of the poem (95; 116-17). Paradoxically, in her emphasis on the always already mediated status of the natural, Moore manages to multiply its qualities of otherness rather than suggesting its domestication. Perhaps this is because language itself remains as strangely other to Moore as nature is. Her poetry "compels our minds to move across an opaque and resistant surface, that of the printed language, in emulation of the eye's experience moving across the contours of a pangolin's armor," or a glacial octopus (Kenner 117). "An octopus" provides evidence of the extent to which nature perpetually escapes human attempts to harness and explain it; the otherness of nature persists and is intensified by all the signs of human endeavor which encrust it, and all the ways in which it seems to mimic us. On Moore's Mt. Rainier, a glacier mimics an octopus, which behaves in strangely human fashion; a road mimics a snail shell; beaver and birds mimic the behavior of men; spotted ponies seem to wear calico; a lake looks like the imprint of a human's left foot. In other poems, a pangolin resembles "the Thomas- / of-Leighton Buzzard Westminster Abbey wrought-iron vine" (Poems 117); a jerboa stands upright like the "foot" of a Chippendale chair (Poems 15); and a monkey puzzle tree is a "curio" "contrived in imitation of the glyptic work of jade and hard-stone cutters," resembling a monkey, tiger, dog, or lion--an "interwoven somewhat" (Poems 80).

 

Though "the visitor is invited to leave a record of his climb upon the mountain," according to the parks pamphlet, Moore inscribes the record of her climb upon a record of the mountain instead, thus suggesting not only that the pamphlet itself is a sort of landscape to be worked over and imprinted with the traces of one's reading, but also that the mountain is already a text, an illustration, a visual and verbal tapestry--itself "an interwoven somewhat"--and that to climb it is to practice a method of reading. The footprints of the reader are all over Moore's mountain, from its base in Paradise Park (where she and her family spent the night at an inn before their climb), to the road on which one toils upward, past the words of Greek philosophers towards the crowning figure of Henry James, to the final "curtain of snow" which anticipates the blankness of the page and which mimics, in reversed fashion, the "cloud of ink" released by real octopi in making their escapes (a fact gleaned by Moore from an article in The Illustrated London News).

 

5. "THE CAVALCADE OF CALICO"

 

What Moore elsewhere calls, quoting Henry James, the tourist's "accessibility to experience" (Poems 54) parallels the mountain's own "relentless accuracy ... / with its capacity for fact" (Observations 89). The poem catalogs the mountain's appearance with "relentless accuracy," expounding lists of flowers, minerals, animals and those other ubiquitous creatures, the "mountain guide evolving from the trapper" and the "business men ... requir[ing] ... recreation" (85, 86). These catalogs fail to distinguish between natural or indigenous elements and the sights and sounds of human habitation, just as Moore's treatment of her materials fails to distinguish between direct observation and the depictions offered by guidebooks and postcards. In fact, the failure to distinguish one thing from another is the experience most thoroughly documented by the poem: for example, each fir tree is "'like the shadow of the one beside it'"; the fields of flowers are like precious stones set in same-colored enamel--rubies in red, diamonds in white; and the spotted pack ponies are

 

hard to discern among the birch-trees, ferns and lily pads,

avalanche lilies, Indian paint-brushes,

 

bears' ears and kittentails,

and miniature cavalcades of chlorophylless fungi

magnified in profile on the mossbeds like moonstones in the

                                                                                    water;

 

the cavalcade of calico competing

with the original American menagerie of styles (86-87)

 

The difficulty of perceiving borders and margins and the relation of the particular to its context figures the poem's alertness to the deceptions of the eye and the "'collision of knowledge with knowledge'" (88) which occurs in its multiplications of fact and viewpoint. To handle as many facts--and as many texts--as this poem does is to come face to face with the elusiveness of true knowledge, its dissolution within a menagerie of styles and observations.

 

The poem collects its sights as a series of details, cataloged close-ups of a peak whose "grandeur and mass" might have suggested sublime spectacle, but which is reduced instead to a collection of minutae by the poem's telescopic (or microscopic) reductions of perspective. The distance from Milton's paradise to Moore's Paradise Park can be measured in the distance between a classical, and implicitly masculine, rhetoric of sublimity and a "decadent," and implicitly feminine, rhetoric of ornament. The discourse of the sublime in the eighteenth century and after was, as Naomi Schor argues, "a masculinist aesthetic designed to check the rise of a detailism which threatens to hasten the slide of art into femininity" (22). "[T]he invasion of the barbaric or upstart feminine detail" "entails a dangerous blurring of the line between the principal and the incidental event," a disruption of proper perspective and hierarchy (21). What is primary and what is secondary, what is central and what is peripheral, is made impossible to see in the riot of detail with which Moore blankets the mountain/poem. As Stewart says, too much detail violates "the social convention of adequacy," and threatens us with the possibility of infinite digression, "of remaining forever within the detour."

 

Instead of offering the reader transcendence, the digression blocks the reader's view, toying with the hierarchy of narrative events. What counts and what doesn't count must be sorted. The digression recaptures the tedium of the journey, the incessant and self-multiplying detail of landscape, a detail which nearly erases the landmark by distracting the reader's attention. (30)

 

Moore's reading notebooks from the period of the poem's composition are filled with quotations from accounts of art auctions and books on architecture, embroidery, and fashion. That Moore had in mind something like the complex texturing of embroidered fabric or heavily detailed objets d'art as a way of thinking about both the mountain's appearance and the poem's language is evident in early drafts of the poem which begin with comparisons of the glacier's "pseudopodia" to a piece of "tailor's cloth," or a garment with "rosettes around the waist / & rosettes on the shoulder" (Rosenbach VII:04:04-1251/7, 5) and references to "cross stich" (sic), "needlepoint," "wool embroidery" and "crystal chalices encrusted with big pearls" (Rosenbach VII:04:04-1251/7, 53, 61, 65). Traces of such imagery appear in the poem's instances of "Japanesey" detail: the "'irregular patches'" of "indigo, pea-green, blue-green, and turquoise" in the middle of the wind-rippled lake; the "'blue forests thrown together with marble and jasper and agate'" (84); the "conspicuously spotted little horses" (86); the "cavalcade of calico" (87) produced by the mountain trail's visual riot of plant-life; the "Larkspur, blue pincushions, blue pease, and lupin" like "Persian designs of hard stones with enamel" (87); the bears' dens "Composed of calcium gems and alabaster pillars / topaz, tourmaline crystals and amethyst quartz" (84); and the "black spots balanced with black /... where fires have run over the ground" (87). One might say that in the mountain Moore details in "An Octopus" has not only "decorum" (it is "'damned by the public for decorum,'") but also something like "decor" or "decoration." To borrow a term which Remy Saisselin uses to characterize the collecting practices of women in turn-of-the-century America, Moore accomplishes the "bibelotization" (53-74) of the mountain--and the poem.

 

The image of the glacier as "misleadingly like lace" probably has its origins in the parks pamphlet's description of the strange action of the mountain's volcanic interior upon its icy exterior, in which "Jets of steam melt fantastic holes in the snow and ice" (8), resulting, one presumes, in a pattern of openwork in which the snow alternately covers and reveals the mountain's surface or, more precisely, the vaporous expulsions originating deep within. These internal fires unite with occasional external fires to produce the visual complexity of Mt. Rainier's surface, the variegations of which document temporal patterns of erosion, destruction and accrual. Likewise, "the mountain guide evolving from the trapper," one figure for the poet within the poem, wears "'two pairs of trousers, the outer one older, / wearing slowly away from the feet to the knees'"(85) which give him the "lacy" look of an animal shedding its winter coat. As the inverted commas reveal, most of these phrases descriptive of visual "embroidery" participate as well in the poem's verbal variegation by which discrete patches of language are rendered visible behind, within, or among the poem's "own" words. The quotations might themselves be perceived as part of the poem's ornamental surface or textured fabric; they too pose the problem of the proper relation between figure and ground. Moreover, the inverted commas and quotation marks which riddle the visual field of the poem serve, like the ornamental stitchings on a quilt, to both yoke and conspicuously divide. Like the "inch of canvas and acre of embroidery" (James, qted. by Moore, Prose 317) which was Henry James's decorative style, Moore's patchwork elaborations proceed through fancy stitching to play her own words off and around scraps of borrowed text. Her handwriting between the lines of the original parks pamphlet at the Rosenbach Museum begins the work of "making over" its "rules and regulations" into the fancy garments of poetry.

 

Significant among the instances of objects lost among the mountain's, and the poem's, "'menagerie of styles,'" and indicative of Moore's reworking of the traditional imagery of the sublime, is the profusion of white figures all but lost against white backgrounds or behind vaporous foregrounds (and reminding one of the "ivory white, snow white, / oyster white and six others" of "Marriage," (Poems 63). The glacier is enveloped in "a sea of shifting snow-dunes" (83); the white rhododendron flowers are set against leaves whitened by ice (87); the white mountain goat "stands its ground / on cliffs the color of the clouds" (85); and the poem concludes with the "crystal peak" obscured behind "'a curtain of powdered snow launched like a waterfall'" (90). Indeed, playing as they do around the edges of an obliterating blindness and setting up "a momentum of infinity" (Costello, "Sublime" 10) in their proliferation of minutely differentiated details, such images suggest a version of Edmund Burke's sublime obscurity. Yet the insistence on the detail as such in Moore's catalogs, rather than as a means towards the grandeur of transcendent vision, suggests, as Bonnie Costello has argued, that Moore is not a practitioner of either a Wordsworthian or an Emersonian egotistical sublime. "Moore offers no simple transcendence to restore the sense of power to the perceiver.... The beholder in Moore's sublime remains overwhelmed by the disorienting prospect of the mountain and the sacrosanct remoteness of its details. Scope eludes her, except as it is established in the poem itself' ("Sublime" 10). Moore's details remain within the realm of a fallen world, where refracted vision is not a condition to be transcended through dramatic acts of dissolution and recovery, but rather a permanent state. If Moore is practicing any version of the sublime (and Costello argues that she is), it is one closer to Hazlitt's "gusto" or Keats's "negative capability," a "being in mysteries and uncertainties without any irritable reaching after fact and reason" ("Sublime" 11). For Moore, transcendence is always hindered by the splitting of vision, by the microscopic reduction of a potentially sublime whiteness to the decorative detailing of "white with white spots, / 'as satin needlework in a single color may carry a varied pattern'" (Poems 54). As Costello says, "There is something mock-heroic about this humanized sublime" (Possessions 83).

 

6. "INCAPABLE OF THE SHUT DOOR IN ANY DIRECTION"

 

"An Octopus" ends in an avalanche of contradictory imagery which links the octopus itself to Henry James, that "characteristic American," and allows us glimpses of The Golden Bowl somewhere behind the parks pamphlet as a substratum of the poem:

 

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 was 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.

............. I...................

the white volcano with no weather side;

the lightning flashing at its base,

rain falling in the valleys, and snow failing 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." (89-90)

 

The appearance of Henry James just prior to the falling of the poem's white curtain may suggest that one of the things the poem's language simultaneously covers over and reveals is its debt to The Golden Bowl. James's novel is only one of several books which Moore was reading in 1921-22 on the subject of marriage, but a number of images suggest that it was central to the way she approached this theme in "Marriage" and "An Octopus": the novel features an American Adam in the figure of Adam Verver, the collector; the golden bowl which symbolizes the marriage of Maggie Verver and Prince Amerigo is really a piece of cracked crystal covered with gilt, possibly one source for Moore's image of marriage as a "crystal-fine experiment" with a flaw; the significance of silence as a sign of impassioned feeling in The Golden Bowl connects it to the "restraint" of the mountain in "An Octopus" and to the many silences of "Marriage"; and Moore's copying into her notebook of a passage from the novel describing Prince Amerigo as carrying about him a tropical "green light" (Rosenbach VII:01:03, 81-82) links him to the "'green metallic tinge of the octopus in her poem. Most of all, one thinks of the curtain of snow by which James's Italian prince represents to himself the obscurities of the American mind:

 

He remembered to have read as a boy a wonderful tale by Allen Poe, his prospective wife's countryman--which was a thing to show, by the way, what imagination Americans could have, the story of the shipwrecked Gordon Pym, who drifting in a small boat further toward the North Pole--or was it the South?--than any one had ever done, found at a given moment before him a thickness of white air that was like a dazzling curtain of light, concealing as darkness conceals, yet of the color of milk or of snow. There were moments when he felt his own boat move as upon some such mystery. The state of mind of his new friends ... had resemblances to a great white curtain. (56)

 

The "deceptively reserved" nature of the Americans in The Golden Bowl, the obliqueness of their speech which seems always to circle about hidden reservoirs of meaning, their obscurities, their "motives behind motives" (Burke 89), suggest something of Moore's own strategies of displacement and concealment. Indeed, it is possible that this allusion at one remove to a classic American scene of sublimity is merely meant to "put us on the scent" (Poems 45) of another such scene, one with more immediate relevance to "An Octopus." I have in mind the appearance of the "strange spectre" of the squid (cuttlefish or octopus) in Moby Dick, a creature whose appearance is "deceptive" enough to invite confusion with the white whale himself.

 

In the distance, a great white mass lazily rose, and rising higher and higher, and disentangling itself from the azure, at last gleamed before our prow like a snow-slide, new slid from the hills.... It seemed not a whale; and yet is this Moby Dick? ... Almost forgetting for the moment all thoughts of Moby Dick, we gazed at the most wondrous phenomenon which the secret seas have hitherto revealed to mankind. A vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream-color, lay floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas, as if blindly to clutch at any hapless object within reach. No perceptible face or front did it have....

 

This mountainous octopus is, like Moore's octopus mountain, "stealth[y]" and snake-like, "ghostly" (Observations 83) and grasping easily mistaken for another sort of creature altogether. The "sailors who look upon this white ghost" (Melville 1089) with "no perceptible face or front" have only "the most vague ideas concerning" its "true nature and form," much as the visitor to Moore's mountain can find "no weather side" and must watch as the mountain eludes all attempts to fix it or label its attributes ("Is tree the word for these strange things / 'flat on the ground like vines,'" 89). Starbuck says of the "portentous" "great live squid," that "few whale-ships ever beheld [it], and returned to their ports to tell of it" (1089). The visitor to Mt. Rainier, though not likely to be engulfed by the octopus glacier itself, may be rendered equally incapable of "telling," for the peak is "distinguished by a beauty / of which 'the visitor dare never fully speak at home / for fear of being stoned as an imposter'" (85). The poem's abundance of language risks identifying its poet as "an imposter," as its multitudinous indirections evade a threatened silence. Once again we see how Moore's "nested effects" (Prose 399) of citation, her multiple removals of the poem from potentially silencing sources, reveal "motives behind motives"--Melville by way of Poe, compliments of James. Moore permits Melville's snow hill/squid to lurk somewhere behind Poe's "great white curtain," like an "Octopus / Of ice" "beneath a sea of shifting snow dunes" (83), but she invites it to keep its distance as well.

 

That The Golden Bowl should make its oblique influences felt more in "An Octopus" than in "Marriage" is itself another sign of Moore's tendency to displace subject matter and veil debts (although one might also think of the dialogic structure of "Marriage," in which both Adam and Eve get their say, as owing something to the two-part structure of The Golden Bowl, in which the first part of the story is told from the Prince's perspective, and the second from Maggie's). While Prince Amerigo is said to be "a perfect crystal," and an "authentic" piece (James 138-39), Moore takes as the centerpiece of "An Octopus" the figure of the cracked crystal echoed in the "cut claw" of the glacier, indicating that the poem's realm is that of flaws, deceptions, obscurities and fakes rather than perfections, clarities and "real things."

 

Moore portrays the mountain as a reserve of passionate feeling and a site of danger though disguised in the cloak of its austere beauty, what the poem calls its (and James's) "decorum." The parks pamphlet assures visitors that "it is entirely safe to visit" this volcanic peak (8), but Moore's own marginal note to the effect that "It's now only dormant, one gets on / & gets off" casts doubt upon such complacency. Decorum, or rather "not decorum, but restraint," is the mark of passionate, perhaps even volcanic, emotion -- or gusto -- as we learn from two poems which Moore was developing in her notebook alongside "An Octopus." In "Silence," we are told that "'The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; / not in silence but restraint'" (Poems 91); and in "The Student" that the student can appear untouched "not because he / has no feeling but because he has so much" (Poems 102). Hence, the mountain's very dormancy is, in Moore's emotional vocabulary, the sign of its explosivity, the signal of danger which invites one to both "get on" and "get off." "Marriage" makes reference to Paradise, or perhaps to marriage itself, as "that experiment of Adam's / with ways out but no way in" (Poems 65), and Moore's working draft of the poem contains a note to the effect that "we are looking out for a garden with ways in but no way out" (Rosenbach VII:04:04-1251/7, 42). However, Moore's comments on the art of poetry which, as Darlene Erickson argues, she considers in the light of a magician's trick, imagine the garden/poem as something more ambiguous than either safe haven, prison, or lost Paradise, something resembling a garden with a revolving door. Discussing "intentional anticlimax" in the essay "Feeling and Precision," Moore quotes Kenneth Burke to the effect that "'the hypnotist has a way out and a way in" (Prose 399, emphasis added). Anticlimax, despite its appearance as a fall or a falling off, may serve very well to get us out of a poem, or out of Poetry itself, that territory which Moore is perpetually drawn to visit, but never quite willing to call home.

 

"An Octopus" invites visitation, not residency, as does the speaker of "Silence" who slams that poem shut with the announcement that "Inns are not residences" (Poems 91). Paradise Park is not Paradise, but a later edition, one written over with human history, and allowing, unlike that first paradise, both "a way out and a way in." The mountain "receives" us only to violently expel us: "'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. . .'" (89). A living contradiction, "intact when it is cut," "with no weather side" (89, 90), approaching us from au directions as we take our circular approach to it, the octopus mountain fits James's definition of the American, which Moore applied to James himself: "'intrinsically and actively ample, . . . reaching westward, southward, anywhere, everywhere,' with a mind 'incapable of the shut door in any direction'" (Prose 322). And just as "it is over-difficult for Henry James, in his portrayals of us, not to be portraying himself" (Prose 316), so it is difficult for Moore to speak of James without finding in him a figure for herself. The glass octopus cut "'with a sound like the crack of a rifle'" figures the shattering of that crystalline garden where "Adam was alone" and everything was "plain to see and / to account for" (Poems 41). "[I]ncapable of the shut door in any direction," and acting upon an "instinct to amass and reiterate" (Prose 316), Eve as "characteristic American" writes her way out of the sublime enclosure of Adamic language into the welcome multiplicities of a fallen tongue, a writing "reaching westward, southward, anywhere, everywhere" for which eight arms are just barely enough.

 

Excerpted from "The Many Armed-Embrace: Collection, Quotation and Mediation in Marianne Moore's Poetry." In Sagetrieb 12:2 (Fall 1993).

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Criticism Overview
Title Stacy Carson Hubbard: On "An Octopus" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Stacy Carson Hubbard Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 19 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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