The Octopus Museum by Brenda Shaughnessy

omI started reading Brenda Shaughnessy’s 2019 poetry collection The Octopus Museum a few weeks after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. By the time I finished it on March 20th, over 200,000 coronavirus infections had been reported globally and over 2,000 people were dead, over 400 dead in Italy that day alone. And the numbers continued to rise.

Human life on earth as we knew it has changed, and we humans are to blame for the mess: There are too many of us. We live too close together. We conduct our business in environmentally destructive ways. We travel too often and unnecessarily. And we don’t maintain social safety nets for the citizens of our countries to ensure we have health care when we need it. Over time, people of comfortable means have developed a sense of entitlement to the status quo, and that smug entitlement, in recent weeks, has started to look even uglier than it already did.

I’m writing this essay for my low-residency MFA program in poetry at New York University where I am in my first semester, fully realizing there will likely be no face-to-face residency in July anywhere, let alone in Paris where my campus is. (I live in Europe, so that location was a factor in attracting me to the program.) It feels selfish to even be thinking about my studies when I can’t even be sure all of us will survive the next few months.

But it makes me all the more thankful for poetry. I have continued reading and done my best to continue writing. (Though that’s been a bit more challenging.) It makes a difference. Poetry won’t save anyone from coronavirus, but it may save us from despair as the society we’ve grown used to grinds to a halt.

The Octopus Museum, published by Alfred A. Knopf in hardcover, is Brenda Shaughnessy’s fifth poetry collection. To quote the front flap’s blurb, The Octopus Museum is “a bold and scathingly beautiful work that imagines what comes after our current age of environmental destruction, racism, sexism, and divisive politics.” Sadly, here in the world that exists outside literature, now we know. Shaughnessy’s fictional account of cephalopods ruling humankind doesn’t seem as far-fetched after this past week’s news. Think about the fact that the coronavirus pandemic we’re now in the midst of would have felt like a work of science fiction a few months ago. Yet we are now faced with accepting it as real.

In the book’s Acknowledgments pages, the author tells us these poems were inspired by Station Eleven, a 2014 post-apocalyptic novel by Emily St. John Mandel that takes place after a fictional flu pandemic has ravaged the world. (In horrifying irony, a mini-series based on that novel began filming in Chicago only in January.) Another inspiration for Shaughnessy was Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith, a book about the development of consciousness which compares cephalopods with mammals and birds.

My copy of The Octopus Museum is hardcover and oversized. The only other format I’m aware of is the ebook. The large page size enables Shaughnessy to work in long lines, which serves the work of mostly prose poetry well.

Instead of a table of contents, The Octopus Museum opens with a “Visitor’s Guide to the OM Exhibits.” OM is short for Octopus Museum and is one of several acronyms used throughout the book. The Visitor’s Guide tells us there are five exhibition spaces with three more under construction, suggesting the museum is still expanding.

Early on, in the section/exhibit called “Gallery of a Dreaming Species” is the poem “There Was No Before (Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles).” In it, Shaughnessy writes of the COO (Cephalopod Electro-Overlords) who are now in charge of the world:

Likewise, COOPS are now called COPS, installed in watchtowers and moats in every human settlement. Most of us work in their salinizing centers. Before, we dumped our waste and garbage into their oceans, and ruined that delicate world.

Their vast home of millions of years destroyed, the COO came ashore. We knew they were intelligent. They could open jars and pretend to be more poisonous creatures than they, ostensibly, were. We found them darling, delicious.

Below are close readings of two other poems from the collection, “I Want The World” and “Blueberries for Cal.”

“I Want The World” from “Special Collection: As They Were” p. 22.

“I Want the World” spreads across two pages. It opens with an argument that each time you say goodbye, it’s the last time at least “for that particular goodbye.”

As the narrative develops, the speaker’s daughter (who overlaps with Shaughnessy’s real-life daughter Simone, to whom the book is dedicated) is complaining about not having enough choices. The daughter still doesn’t know at this point in the larger story, just how bad things are going to be: “The Legos are boring? Imagine no toys of any kind,” the speaker says.

And regarding choices, it’s heartbreaking as the child wonders what color lunch box she wants to have for a first grade that might not even exist in the fall. (Admittedly this hits home for me as one of my daughters is the same age as the child in this poem, and as I write, my own daughter’s very first year of school has been completely upended.)

In “I Want the World”, the daughter is blissfully naive, still able to believe she might get what she wants. The mother knows that in this post-apocalyptic world people are lucky to get anything at all. The mother understands but still wants her daughter to hold some of her false beliefs because they represent “A thread of hope wound, inextricable, all around and through her very person.”

The tragedy of the poem is that while the mother is at work (at a company called FedPlex) the girl will lose that thread, and the mother will come home to someone “broken off from my old girl, six years old.”

The poem ends with the mother giving the girl a pencil to chew on: “Soon you’ll be able to draw whatever you want,” she says, an invitation to the girl to enter a world of imagination, where she can make things herself because that will be the only way.

“Blueberries for Cal” from “Found Objects / Lost Subjects: A Retrospective” p. 54

The first thing that strikes me about “Blueberries for Cal,” the final poem in part four, is the title’s similarity “Flowers for Algernon,” a short story I read as a tween. That story, one of the saddest I have ever read, is about a developmentally-disabled man named Charlie who receives a surgical procedure to increase his intelligence only to eventually see it decrease again all while fully aware. Perhaps the title’s similarity is not accidental as Shaughnessy surely must have been aware of “Flowers for Algernon” as it was a much-anthologized part of the American curriculum in the 1970s and 1980s when we were growing up.

Because “Blueberries for Cal” is one of few poems in The Octopus Museum written in verse (“The Nest”, which precedes it, is another) it stands out. Additionally, the poem can be seen as an extension of the long poem “Our Andromeda,” (the title poem of Shaughnessy’s 2012 poetry collection.) “Our Andromeda” is in the form of direct address to Cal, and imagines a different universe in which things are different than they are in this one.

In “Blueberries for Cal,” the speaker is watching another child (Henry) eat blueberries. Neither of the speakers’ kids can/will eat them. Henry and his sisters Lucy and Jane are able to eat goldfish crackers and drink juice. The phrase “Tiny things” hanging at the end of the line describing how the two girls are interacting is a key. The children themselves might be seen as “tiny things,” but additionally the other things she’s describing can be viewed as tiny (blueberries, for example). But in this poem, as in the world, tiny things can be what matters. Here, they have never been so large.

The speaker wishes for these tiny things but then adds her wish that her “son had a nervous system that let him walk…” If that’s not huge, I don’t know what is.

The speaker wants to “curse everything I can’t give him” showing just how much she wants to give it to him, to have him be normal. “Admire / compare / despair” which begins stanza seven could be taken as a summary of the poem structure so far. And the speaker notes that it is wrong, that truthfully she’s able to share Henry’s joy as he enjoys the blueberries.

She points out that if not blueberries for all, then at least there’s enough “energetic sweetness” (perhaps a substitute for blueberries) to go around, even for her son. Another energetic sweetness might be “music and frosting” which her children seem to subsist on.

My children seem to subsist on music and frosting.

Where there’s frosting, there’s cake.

Where there’s music, someone chose to make a song

over all other things on this earth.

This poem ends with a reminder of why art is important, or rather essential, especially in times of despair or difficult times such as what we are facing as a species today.

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