At the San Francisco aquarium,
the celebrity inmate is in maximum
security lockdown. A serial
escapist, he keeps giving them the slip.
Neuroplasticity to the nth degree,
each limb a multi-tool, a career
burglar’s bump key that his jailors
can’t bed check away, he pours
himself into the water circulation system,
sensing his path through the maze
of inlet and outlet pipes, probing
by trial and error, for the real bay.
The octopus is an offshore corporation,
a shadowy network of subsidiaries,
its governance hard to fathom.
Directives come down from HQ
but the details of their execution
are at the individual limbs’ discretion.
Cut one off (it will grow back),
the severed appendage shrinks
from the scalpel and slithers away.
If it meets something it considers
food, it will seize it, try to deliver
the morsel to where the mouth –
not unlike a parrot’s beak – ought to be.
All octopuses are venomous.
It’s best to keep at arm’s length.
Day one of the summit: the city on loan
to dignitaries and their entourages,
the remote choreography of limousines.
Outside the security fence, kids
face off with police in black Kevlar.
Inside, refreshments are served.
For some the mob is a magnet;
it tugs at the iron in their blood.
They are kettled into its maw.
The girl lobs a cocktail
and flames splash over
the roof of the cruiser.
Two squad cars abandoned
in the major intersection,
seats burnt down to the springs.
Passing cops in full riot gear pause
the drumming of batons on shields
to snap pics with their cellphones.
The order is given to fire
beanbag shotguns and teargas
into the sea of waving placards.
Cast from clear acrylic five inches thick,
the tunnel’s conceit is that we are
strolling on the bottom of the bay,
immersed in its teeming life.
Skates and bat rays glide above us,
amorphous schools of anchovies
swirl and flicker past on all sides,
and the guileless, cruising sharks –
sevengills, leopards, and soupfins.
The tunnel leads to the mastermind’s lair.
To enter, we must pass between
two floor-to-ceiling cylinders.
Translucent, bell-shaped jellies
float in the columns; ambient
lighting cycles through the visible
spectrum – ROYGBIV, repeat –
so that their bodies and stinging
filaments change colour and glow.
Beyond these living lava lamps,
the prisoner we’ve come to see
languishes like a deposed monarch,
biding his time. Already he has us
in his sights, focusing his dominant eye
down the length of the darkened gallery.
His glass cage sits on a raised dais,
the set piece of a 50s sci-fi flick,
the room pulsating with mysterious
energies – cue the theremin – that we,
his minions, are powerless to resist.
His majesty has a minder.
A volunteer from the university,
she keeps visitors from blinding him
with flashes and the piercing red beams
that help cameras see in the dark.
Between us and the farthest thing from us,
the thinnest of membranes. The supreme
being reads our faces in turn. Sentenced to life
in the public eye, he manages somehow
to make every person who files by feel seen.
Run your tongue over your teeth,
the roof of your mouth.
The octopus’s arms are tongues:
it tastes what it touches.
Suction cups – like the back
of a rubber bathmat – taper
to tiny nubs near the tips.
Gentle but insistent, the animal
gets under your skin, your chemistry
laid bare in its embrace.
Detach one arm – suckers popping
like electrodes, leaving little hickeys –
and another is there to take its place.
The invitation to the $500 a head fundraiser
teases “an evening of edible amusements.”
Attendees are encouraged to s’il vous plaît
leave their table manners at the door
and embrace their inner carnivore.
A dripping wall of roast pork
forces guests in their finery
to carve meat from the bone.
Whole lobsters and king crab
legs arrive heaped on silver trays
sans shell crackers, forks, or picks,
the waitstaff instructed to play coy.
In the balcony, paid
performers dressed as
peasants in couture rags
beg to be thrown the scraps.
But the octopus chandelier
steals the show – 10 or 12 feet across,
suspended from steel wires
and lit by spotlights, it writhes,
reaching in all directions for the sublime.
The unruly mass of purple arms
artfully arranged on meat hooks
and skewers, so that the creature appears to
swim in the air above, threatening
to drop down on the patrons’ heads.
Look how the princes and princesses
of the 10 percent world revel
in its bruised, carnal light. With heavy-duty
commercial kitchen shears, they snip off
pieces and chew – the party
only a few hours old when it begins to stink.
The teenager makes a sign
with Bristol board and markers,
takes a bus from the burbs
to join the protests. A rookie
cop pepper-sprays her in the face.
“The situation is fluid,” says a voice on comms,
the rest of the message lost in a burst of static.
In any large group, there are undercurrents,
riptides – even a strong swimmer
can get carried away. One minute
you’re in shallow water near to shore, the next
in over your head, fighting to breathe.
The bloc breaks off from the main body,
a mind of its own – black hoodies, ski masks,
and sunglasses to conceal their identity.
With hammers, flag poles, and pried-up
paving stones, they target the multinationals –
Starbucks, Nike, Urban Outfitters, McDonald’s –
smashing windows up and down the street.
Underwear-clad mannequins stolen from
American Apparel and used as battering rams.
When the police move in, they change
their clothes – civilian camouflage – and melt
into the peaceful, chanting crowd.
Without the burden of bones,
a 100-lb octopus can squeeze
through a gap the size of your fist.
In its element, it boils and oozes;
jet-propelled, it sprints headlong
after its prey, uses suction to lock on,
pull shrimp, lobsters, even sharks
into its mouth. An opportunistic cannibal,
other octopodes are on the menu.
It doesn’t let the searing air
dissuade it: when needs be, it humps
the drenched duffel of itself
across rocky shelves to reach
the next tide pool with its captive
audience of crabs and whelks.
It’s been known to crawl
up flights of stairs, drag itself over
concrete floors, leaving a trail of slime.
One got as far as the parking lot –
not much of a stretch to imagine it
making a getaway in a stolen car.
Last seen heading for the beach.
The old gods, famous for
shapeshifting and manifold
incarnations, are often
depicted as having many arms.
One embraces the stranger,
another takes aim, squeezes
the trigger and still
a lapful left to glean
the grain, slay the dire
wolf at the door, finger
his mistress while brushing
his wife’s long black hair.
The sum of our neurons
crammed into the cranium –
all our eggs in one basket.
An octopus’s nervous system
sprawls across eight archipelagoes,
the topography subject to change
without notice: color, shape, texture –
all erupt in impromptu tectonics,
the surface of the skin a mood ring.
The normal signposts won’t do –
no way to tell when you’re leaving
one jurisdiction and entering another.
How to take the measure
of such a being? If it lived longer,
we’d call it a god.
But then, we eat our gods –
the body and blood,
our bread and wine.
And so, we serve it
grilled with shrimp and mussels
in a squid ink paella.
Isn’t anything fair game
since we Dunning-Krugered
to the top of the food chain?
The gods, eternally bored,
would sometimes assume
animal form. How people behaved
in their presence, what they revealed
of their essential nature – whether
the immortal judged them
thankful or selfish, humble or superior,
humane or cruel – could have
debilitating or fatal consequences.
In the evening of the second day, it rains,
it pours, drenching the police and penned-in
protestors to the bone. A hard, cold
rain turns streets to rivers, washes
the blood, spit, and snot from padded elbows
and knees, black boots and Plexiglas shields.
In the intersection, blocked on all sides,
righteous chants fizzle, fiery rhetoric
drowns in the deluge. The crowd sullen,
shivering in soaked shorts and t-shirts.
Push came to shove a long time ago,
now everyone just wants to go home.
The funnels dropped down from the clouds
like so many arms to gather us up.
Against the lead sky, even our trash
shined as it rose, glittered as it blew away.
The survivors are interviewed
standing in front of what’s left:
roof gone; exterior walls erased
like an artist’s cutaway.
Chifforobe and king-sized
bed on the lawn as if staged.
The neighbour’s stately elm wears
a blow-up kiddie pool like a beret.
Funnels like arms, arms like tongues:
they tasted us to our foundations
and found us wanting.
Steve McOrmond is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Reckon (Brick Books 2018) and The Good News about Armageddon (Brick Books 2010). His work has been anthologized in Best Canadian Poetry in English 2016, I Found It at the Movies: An Anthology of Film Poems, and Breathing Fire 2: Canada’s New Poets. He lives in Toronto. Website: http://www.stevemcormond.com. Twitter: @Steve_McOrmond.
Robert Frede Kenter is a widely published writer, editor & visual artist, Pushcart nominee, grant recipient (Ontario & Toronto Arts Councils), and EIC/Publisher of Ice Floe Press http://www.icefloepress.net. Books/anthologies incl. The Book of Penteract (Penteract Press, 2022); EDEN, a Hybrid (2021), avail: http://www.rareswanpress.com (2021), & Before I Turn into Gold, FeversOftheMind (2021). Recent journal appearances incl: Acropolis, CutbowQ, Streetcake Magazine, Feral, WatchYrHead, Anthropocene, Scissors & Spackle, Cough, BurningHouse, Anti-heroin chic, etc. Robert has lived/worked in Toronto, NYC, San Francisco, London, UK., etc. Living with ME/Fibro, Robert is sometimes sidelined, but never out of the game. Twitter: @frede_kenter, @icefloeP. IG: r.f.k.vispocityshuffle. Mastodon: https://zirk.us/@robertfredekenter
Art: Hellscape Series (Octopus Musings) 1-6 analogue and digital series (c) (2022) Robert Frede Kenter