Taffy Martin: On "An Octopus"

As if to counter the dismal effect of "Marriage," Moore follows the shock of her conclusion with another long, dense poem, "An Octopus," which begins somewhat ominously and quickly turns that mood into joyful appreciation of the indecipherable density of Mount Tacoma's glacier. Every specimen of disarray offers a form of delight, precisely because of its inherent and unfathomable contradiction. A visitor to the glacier finds that its density of growth makes vision difficult, even misleading; but he enjoys the opacity, which he finds

 

under the polite needles of the larches

"hung to filter, not to intercept the sunlight"—

met by tightly wattled spruce-twigs

"conformed to an edge like clipped cypress

as if no branch could penetrate the cold beyond its company"

 

It is thus contrarily pleasant to discover that "Completing a circle, / you have been deceived into thinking that you have progressed." The confusion "prejudices you in favor of itself." Throughout the poem, Moore holds in suspension and demonstrates the simultaneous presence of the two opposing qualities of the glacier. Although "damned for its sacrosanct remoteness," it attracts those who damn that remoteness while engaged in attempts to "'conquer the main peak of Mount Tacoma.’" Nevertheless, combined with that remoteness, "Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus / with its capacity for fact." Offering partial shelter, the mountain "receives one under winds that 'tear the snow to bits / and hurl it like a sandblast / shearing off twigs and loose bark from the trees.'" It also challenges its visitors' perceptions, producing questions such as this one.

 

Is "tree" the word for these things

"flat on the ground like vines"?

some "bent in a half circle with branches on one side

suggesting dust-brushes, not trees;

some finding strength in union, forming little stunted groves

their flattened mats of branches shrunk in trying to escape"

from the hard mountain "planed by ice and polished by the wind"--

 

The poem ends with an explosion of motion that finds mysterious calm and self-possession on the mountain, even in the midst of unpredictable violence. The "symmetrically-pointed" octopus survives the violence of an avalanche because of its "curtain of powdered snow launched like a waterfall." Moore wants us, in the words of another poem of impossible opposites, to "believe it / despite reason to think not."

From Marianne Moore: Subversive Modernist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. Copyright 1986 by U of Texas Press.

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