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Her sensitivity to detail might suggest an interest only in surfaces, but she had a clear sense of the limits of detail and an awareness that not all external marks could be so clearly seen. In "An Octopus," for example, which moves through eight pages toward the compliment that "Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus / with its capacity for fact," Moore was more interested in capaciousness than in accuracy. Over and over, she insisted that there is no way to accurately measure the twenty-eight ice fields she detailed. At the start, the "octopus" is described as "deceptively reserved and flat"; "Completing a circle" around it, she claimed, "you have been deceived into thinking you have progressed."


The "octopus" is unapproachable, a place where all our observational skills are unreliable and even water is "immune to force of gravity in the perspective of the peaks." Spotted ponies, "hard to discern," fungi "magnified in profile," inhabit a landscape that is tricky, changeable, and impossible to accurately fix in view. She pictured the octopus-glacier "'creeping slowly as with meditated stealth, / its arms seeming to approach from all directions.’"


Here is no "deliberate wide-eyed wistfulness'" in the description of nature but rather a constant iteration of the impossibility of "relentless accuracy" in seeing and capturing anything in language, although she refused to resolve "'complexities which still will be complexities / as long as the world lasts.'" "An Octopus" is a view of the inscrutability of nature imagined by a woman and as a woman. The glacier is "of unimagined delicacy," "it hovers forward 'spider fashion / on its arms' misleadingly like lace." It is "distinguished by a beauty / of which 'the visitor dare never fully speak at home,’" "odd oracles of cool official sarcasm," which nonetheless differ from the wisdom of those "'emotionally sensitive'" whose hearts are hard.


Hovering forward with arms approaching from all sides, this imagined glacier would appear to be the very image of the engulfing mother, yet unlike Whitman’s old crone out of the sea this feminized landscape is imagined not so much as personally threatening but as stalwartly resistant. Its mysteries are those of "doing hard things," of endurance, of unimaginable resistance to the poet's imaginative grasp. They are mysteries appreciated and confirmed here by this woman poet who imitated them.


From The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press.