Joanne Feit Diehl: On "The Paper Nautilus"

With its unpredictability and sheer force, the octopus is a maternal creature whose embrace can kill. In "The Paper Nautilus," enfolding arms represent a desire for absolute love that engages related issues of maternal steadfastness and the tenacity of maternal affection. Like "An Octopus," "The Paper Nautilus" approaches, through elusive and at times evasive images, an alternative aesthetics that is gender-identified and political. If in "An Octopus" the appropriative, capitalistic mountaineers threaten the mountain's flora and fauna and ultimately the origins of artistic life itself, the paper nautilus rejects a commercial, suburban set of values, choosing in their stead an anti-authoritarian, maternal world of symbiotic nurturance and intimacy. Here the central trope is the creation of new life within and from a creature, the carefully balanced mutuality of the eggs and their maternal source. . . .

Turning away both from the generalized commercial values of society and more specifically from those writers who are trapped by false lust for fame and ease, the paper nautilus, with delicate tenacity, constructs something that will endure long enough to sustain life and become an object of loveliness. This entrapment contrasts with the freedom of the mother who releases rather than smothers her young. Aware that what she has to give is "perishable," the paper nautilus constantly guards her thin glass shell. . . .

Such vigilance is a testament to the fragility of her creation and a tribute to her loyalty. And yet the image of the maternal is not without its dangers, dangers strongly reminiscent both in visual and in psychological terms of the glacier as octopus. Like the octopus, the nautilus has eight arms, and again like the octopus, the danger, although here a danger evaded, is that she will crush what she strives to protect, the precise risk that the glacier as octopus presents to what flourishes through and in her potentially devastating presence.

The suddenness with which maternal devotion shifts from a totally benign to a much more ambivalent description is signaled by the image of entrapment. Again, Moore draws upon Greek myth, provocatively comparing the maternal paper nautilus's relation to her eggs to Hercules, who, according to legend, was the strongest man in the world and a figure of supreme self-confidence.

Moore's simile alludes to Hercules' second labor, the killing of the nine-headed Hydra (a difficult task, both because one of the heads was immortal and because as soon as one head was chopped off, two grew in its place). In the original story, Hercules is helped by his nephew Iolaus, who brings him a burning brand to sear the neck as he cuts the head so that it cannot sprout again. "When all have been chopped off he disposed of the one that was immortal by burying it securely under a great rock." In Moore's recasting, the crab's bite contributes to Hercules' success because of the evident disparity between Hercules' physical strength and his activity in the world and the apparent fragility and stasis of the paper nautilus. Yet it is this paradoxical relationship that best expresses Moore's understanding of the alternative powers of maternal effort of the natural as the primary trope for artistic creation. Hers is no idealized maternity, but a complex understanding that combines the inherently adversarial potential in the relationship between daughter and mother with an abiding awareness of the dangers embodied in the mother. If, in "An Octopus," the arms that reach out create the abrasions of both potential destruction and the possibilities of renewed life, in "The Paper Nautilus" a similarly ambivalent mutuality between the mother and her eggs occurs:

    as Hercules, bitten

    by a crab loyal to the hydra,  was hindered to succeed,     the intensively     watched eggs coming from the shell free it when they are freed,--

In the poem's final lines, the vision of what remains after the eggs are freed, interdependence and the need for security, is reinscribed upon the shell itself:

    leaving its wasp-nest flaws     of white on white, and close-

    laid Ionic chiton-folds  like the lines in the mane of      a Parthenon horse,      round which the arms had  wound themselves as if they knew love      is the only fortress      strong enough to trust to.

These wasp-nest flaws preserve the scene of birth as they mark the scars of separation, While the "Ionic" folds and the Parthenon horse not only return us to Hercules and ancient Greece, the poem's close describes a powerful dependency that clouds the earlier vision of mutual, simultaneous freedom. "Chiton" reiterates the pattern of intimate dependency, referring both to "a gown or tunic, usually worn next to the skin" and to a "sea cradle, a mollusk of the class Amphineura, having a mantle covered with calcareous plates, found adhering to rocks." With her allusion to the chiton as garment and as "sea cradle," Moore undercuts the freedom of release through images that depict clinging, holding on for life. As a "cradle," a place for the newborn that is covered by plates, a cradle that itself clings, the chiton bears witness to the power of dependence.

Similarly, the arms, unidentified yet clearly human, cling even in statuary form to the Parthenon horse's mane for protection. And yet that idealized mutual liberation is undercut by the poem's close, which, in its allusions to "chiton-folds" and the arms that wind themselves around the Parthenon horse, reassert the need for protection. The knowledge Moore provisionally ascribes to the anonymous arms "as if they knew love / is the only fortress / strong enough to trust to" reintroduces the dangers of separation the poem had earlier cast aside. Like "An Octopus," that other poem of dangerous engulfment, "The Paper Nautilus" is both a refuge and a risk, offering, as it does, security from the outside world and the crushing pressure of dependency. If Bonnie Costello is correct when she asserts that in this poem "as always Moore directly associates these issues of protection and struggle with problems of language and interpretation," then the myth of poetic origins, as envisioned by Moore, is a maternal myth, wherein the mother proves as potentially dangerous as the world her daughter's words would inhabit.

From Women Poets and the American Sublime. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Copyright 1990 by Joanne Feit Diehl.

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Criticism Overview
Title Joanne Feit Diehl: On "The Paper Nautilus" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Joanne Feit Diehl Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 02 Nov 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Women Poets and the American Sublime
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