Last night, as the snow fell and kept falling here, I read in the Washington Post that Pandora has died. She was a matriarch of our National Zoo's invertebrate exhibits, all 15 pounds of her, all 7.8-foot arm span. Her death was not unexpected--she'd been sluggish and, at five years old, was approaching old age for an octopus. But she'll be missed. Her rosy pink hue and outgoing manner charmed everyone. Including me, who went to watch her feed on a chilly Thursday in November 2012. That was an unusual detour from my usual stops to the aviary and the cheetah enclosure. It was exactly a week after Thanksgiving, my first week of being engaged. No ring. We hadn't told anyone yet. It was our secret.
I stood with my hands jammed into the pockets of my black shearling coat, not sure what to expect. The keeper speared a bit of scallop meat on a long wire and dangled it in the water, wiggling it to make it lively. Pandora approached.
Once she was confident of her prey, she began to waft the loose folds of skin between each tentacle, billowing her body wider and wider.
As her skin stretched, it whitened, and the bait disappeared from sight. If it had been a crab or fish, it would have had no hope of escape.
It was utter. And then she returned to her leisure, sprawling out to eye us, showing off the 250+ tentacles on each arm.
Some years back, I wrote a poem called "In the Deep," inspired by a trip to the National Aquarium--a dank, grim, undernourished and underground box of sad-looking sea creatures--down on 14th Street. I had recently read an article on giant octopi that talked about their intelligence, their skill as escape artists. At the aquarium, I eavesdropped on some raucous kids, bored on a Saturday, looking for anything worthy of their attention. "In the Deep" appeared first in Hayden's Ferry Review, then in I Was the Jukebox.
IN THE DEEP
The boys are fifteen
Fuck the glass fish,
they say, bodies pulsing
with injected neon;
fuck the nautilus, nursing
its bubble of salted air.
What they love is
this crumple of muscle
suctioned to the tank’s
Fuck her blue rings.
Fuck her three hearts.
The octopus cradles
a baby doll, the doll’s head
stuffed with krill. Fuck
yeah, they say, watching
as she pokes one eye
out, then the other.
I'd write a different octopus poem today. That's not to disown "In the Deep," but simply to admit that the heart notices different things at different times. Did you know that a mothering female strings together 20,000 to 100,000 eggs? Once she has laid them, she doesn't eat in the seven months that lead to their hatching. She cleans them, she aerates them, she broods, and shortly after their birth, she dies.
Pandora never mated in DC's captivity. She released her eggs in April 2013, unfertilized. According to the article, each would have been the size of a grain of rice.
There is a long tradition of animals being the subject of poems. In addition, there is a specific cohort of female poets--poets of my generation--who invoke creatures as tangible actors or omens in their first and second books. I'd argue that we do this at an unusually higher proportion or frequency. I'm thinking of myself, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Paula Bohince, Traci Brimhall, and Rebecca Hazelton among others. These works are otherwise interested in the psychic interior, works where I'd argue the driving urge is to share something about one's own relationship to the world. (Maybe that's overstating the point, because isn't poetry always about such an urge? Still.) So we point to bright particulars of these beasts as if to guard against the accusation of being self-involved; or, to prove our abilities as biologists and zoologists; or, simply for the pleasure of those particulars. We resist the confessional even as we flirt with it.
I recognize this trend without judgment, because even within it there are strong poems and weak poems, variance, individual voices. But I notice it, and I'd love to sleuth out its origins. In the post-confessional morass, is it an issue of agency--do we more easily give ourselves permission to project character onto animals than we would fellow humans? Do humans seem, in fact, a little boring by comparison? Did Disney forever change out perception of an animal's capacity to think, feel, and love? Did Elizabeth Bishop wave her magic wand above our heads? Would we have been another generation's nature writers? No answers here on this quiet day, only questions.
The octopus was a namesake of Earth's first woman, crafted from clay. Pandora was endowed by the gods with all the gifts--beauty, cunning, mastery of music and art, and as a curse, curiosity. Despite her husband's advice she took the top off the vessel, sent by Zeus, that released the world's plagues and worries.
Watching Pandora that feed that day at the zoo, I pictured what it would look like if a woman tried to catch all those ills, to swallow them back inside herself. She'd have to balloon, stretching herself so thin her skin changed color, turning her body into a ladle to scoop through the sea and air. Not that it'd be her job. But she'd try anyway.