“An Octopus” is a long, meditative, free-verse poem of 193 lines of varying length. Though meditative, it is not a reflective poem but one of active processes. Like many of Marianne Moore’s poems, the title runs immediately into the first line of the poem, thereby limiting any sense of positioning the poem or preparing the reader. The reader confronts a series of shifting possibilities as suggested by the first sentence: “An Octopus/ of ice.” This incomplete opening sentence establishes a metaphoric comparison that will be explored—but not fully or completely—in the poem.
The poem is a continuous shifting of perspectives, not on a single subject, but on the movement of analogies. Thus, after the poem’s description of Mount Rainier and its surrounding ice fields as an octopus and its tentacles, it quickly compounds the activity of description with questions of travel, of perception, the difficulty of art, and the appropriation of nature as an aesthetic object.
“An Octopus” resists division into component parts of a whole argument; however, there are implicit shifts of focus. These shifts may be briefly outlined in the following manner: The first thirteen lines displace the reader because the metaphoric comparison of the mountain to the octopus is suspended. Lines 14 to 22 counterbalance the first section, for they become increasingly descriptive. At line 23, Moore self-reflexively shifts, stating: “Completing a circle,/ you have been deceived into thinking that you have progressed.” The poem offers both descriptions and challenges to making the mountain, nature, or the other familiar and thus reduced to merely the scenic and clichéd.
The poem continues in this long section offering descriptions and suggesting that such descriptions are inadequate in various ways—grottoes that “make you wonder why you came” (line 62) or a beauty never fully spoken of “at home/ for fear of being stoned as an impostor” (lines 73-74). At line 75, the poem shifts from these questions of travel—that is, descriptions of the mountain in relation to a “you”—to a larger human presence among the various wild creatures, who themselves have become anthropomorphized. It is at line 75 that Moore names the site of this meditation, Big Snow Mountain; this is Mount Rainier, which she visited in 1922. Thus far, the poem’s focus has been the mountain, with varying layers of particularized description. The poem nevertheless poses the paradoxical condition of knowing the other that is always difficult to apprehend: “conspicuously spotted little horses are peculiar;/ hard to discern among the birch-trees, ferns, and lily-pads” (lines 117-118).
The poem’s single break follows line 127, which marks the poem’s shift from the descriptive to the conceptual. Moore derides any pastoralism or appropriation of the landscape for moral purposes in the opening lines of this section. The Aristotelian ideals of attaining knowledge and propriety are contrasted to the “odd oracles of cool official sarcasm” (line 154); Moore shares with the Greeks the desire for accuracy and the understanding that knowledge will never be complete. This meditation continues with her linking Henry James’s writing to the mountain, in that both have a “Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!” (line 172). The Greeks’ love of “smoothness, distrusting what was back/ of what could not be clearly seen” (lines 140-141), serves to draw Moore’s sensibility into agreement with James and the Greeks.
The poem, however, closes with a long meditation on the ability of a word to signify an object: “Is ‘tree’ the word for these things” (line 180). The full understanding or perceiving of the mountain, or anything, can never be concluded. Moore’s “Relentless accuracy” (line 173), like that of the Greeks or James,...
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prohibits full closure.
“An Octopus” can be viewed as a collage; it contains citations from various sources, as indicated in the notes Moore provided to accompany the poem. These citations, set apart by quotation marks, introduce a sense of an assemblage of multiple perspectives or multiple voices other than the conventional lyrical “I.” The quotation marks also create a tension between the apparent author and the cited words. Nevertheless, the various citations are seamlessly incorporated into the flow of the poem’s descriptions. As a collage, the poem fits into a modernist aesthetic that sought to both create poems that were objects and to draw into poetry the daily and mundane and transform it into art.
“An Octopus” contains numerous examples of various tropes. Paradox is perhaps the striking trope outside of Moore’s use of images. Again, the opening line provides an example of what is prevalent throughout the poem: The octopus is of ice—though significantly Moore omits the verb “is” so as to draw the juxtaposition of living creature and a lifeless elemental into a new thing. What she views—or how she views the mountain—is highly mutable, for “its clearly defined pseudo-podia/ [are] made of glass that will bend—a much needed invention” (line 4). The metaphor of the glacier as an octopus is further complicated by the metaphoric comparison of it as having the “crushing rigor of the python” and then further shifting the comparison to “’spider fashion/ on its arms’ misleadingly like lace” (lines 9-11).
The poem celebrates the mountain through extraordinary images. Moore accumulates images through the use of catalogs, including catalogs of colors, “indigo, pea-green, blue-green, and turquoise” (line 34), of animals, “bears, elk, deer, wolves, goats, and ducks” (line 40), of gems, “calcium gems and alabaster pillars,/ topaz, tourmaline crystals and amethyst quartz” (lines 49-50). Her use of images often fuses with the paradoxical, as in “cliffs the color of the clouds, of petrified white vapor” (line 64). Here, as throughout the poem, the paradox is alchemical in that it transforms and fuses the opposing elements of stone and vapor. Indeed, she points to this idea of drawing together disparate elements: “moisture works its alchemy,/ transmuting verdure into onyx” (lines 126-127). The full landscape is always in the process of transformation.
It is also characteristic of this poem, and of many of Moore’s works, that the syntax cannot be simplified. Sentences are often complex, compound structures that depend upon momentum and the moment. Their form and logic is associative and accumulative, often carrying the reader away from the subject. Though Moore also includes short, direct sentences, none are statements of truth. The unfolding structure of Moore’s sentences is thus also an aspect of the verbal collage’s juxtapositions and the transformative processes of metaphor and image. Moore’s sentences, however, do not lead to obscurity, rather they attempt a precision of observation and a desire for fact. The weaving of various citations with the observer’s voice reinforces the drive for “Relentless accuracy.”
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