- The Octopus Game by Nicky Beer
As its title suggests, Nicky Beer’s The Octopus Game playfully explores the figure of the octopus (as well as the occasional cuttlefish and squid) in all its exotic grandeur. At times esoteric, her narrative-driven poems are largely accessible and inviting, particularly in their wide range of octopus-inspired associations. As Beer noted in a recent interview with The Rumpus, “one of the things that attracted me to the octopus was its malleability; its ability to manipulate its own form into something else, often for the sake of illusion.” Beer meditates on the octopus as a way to explore human life. The Octopus Game achieves a concentrated study of the external, fleshy self in relation to the internal, protean self.
The image of the octopus over the course of the collection is kaleidoscopic. The octopus is both a “marine Prometheus” and “Disembodied / dishwasher hands.” It is a “pupil-Pandora,” a “beast,” “Medusa,” “mechanical / threat”—an apocalyptic monster. Yet, it is also a “circus tent,” a “self-tossed / parachute,” “a willow tree.” Most often, though, the octopus takes on distinctly human forms: a “proprietress” and hostess, a priest-like figure, “a drunken friend” and victim, a rambling “crackpot,” erotic lovers past and present, a “sideshow freak” and “tattooed girl,” a celebrity, a “sadist, apologist, revisionist, hypocrite (my double? my sister?), adulteress, assassin.”
Beer works out the figure of the octopus through a deluge of poetic speakers, references, and languages, ranging from a documentary voiceover to an insomniac to Robert Frost to a lover to the octopus itself. [End Page 151] The various speakers embody a multiplicity of approaches: technical explanation, introspection, insult and morbid grandeur, kinky fantasy, sassy yet chilling retort, as well as snippets in a range of languages: Latin, French, Japanese, Spanish, and German. Many of the poems serve as responses to different media, including news reports, films, paintings, and art criticism. The implication of multiple individual perspectives that are not universally comprehensible is that the octopus, the self, is an entity we can, at best, understand only partially and fleetingly; we can understand compartmentalized parts of ourselves but struggle with our whole.
The collection begins with a quotation from Pia Tafdrup that speaks to both humans and octopi: “You embrace me, many armed, / so hard that I grow a heart on both sides.” Two further epigraphs elsewhere in the book echo the book’s variety: “I marvel at thee, Octopus; / If I were thou, I’d call me Us,” from Ogden Nash’s poem “The Octopus,” and “Everything becomes shadow and ardent aquarium,” from Rimbaud’s more somber “Bottom.” Across the collection, we see sonnets, pastorals, prose poems, tercets, couplets, stitchic verse, nonce forms, a pantoum—as well as a poem Beer jokingly dubs a “can’toum” for a failed pantoum. The multiplicity of forms, or in the case of the “can’toum” the creation of one, creates a plethora of shapes on the page. Beer’s malleable use of forms is well suited to the malleable nature of the octopus, providing clever camouflage for the elusive creature.
Of course, we see formal camouflage within single poems as well. “Black Hole Itinerary” comprises a series of self-contained couplets that begin with the anaphoric “Today.” The content varies wildly with each new stanza, creating a disorienting effect. In “Poem,” the text appears in landscape, rather than portrait, orientation, which renders the text’s meaning momentarily hidden behind its rotated lines. Although “Frost on the Octopus” is a Shakespearean sonnet, it pushes against tradition by disguising the octopus as a “sideshow freak” in the first quatrain, a murderess in the second, and “tattooed girl” in the third. In the collection’s title poem, “The Octopus Game,” the couplets, tercets, and quatrains visually chronicle a couple “becom[ing] each other’s arms” and—both literally and metaphorically—becoming one another, a functional unit. This poem is emblematic of what I admire most about The Octopus Game: it succeeds in taking on a concentrated subject and in perpetually recreating the angles at which we view it both formally and contextually...