My acquaintances among you will have glanced at the Table of Contents for the 22 July TLS, seen a poem titled “Elegy” and guessed right away that I would love it – but in this one isolated instance, you’d be wrong! No, my poetry pick of the issue – in fact, my favorite poem of the year so far in any forum – is called “Blue-Ringed Octopi” by John Kinsella:
To hunt shores at night evokes a word we lack:
as greater frustrates lesser, both having deadly
bacterial bites: the painless nip that makes paralysis
look inward though wide awake, watching your
tranquility of demise. This isn’t purely fact
collated from texts, but first-hand news: hand
touching the hand that touches the skin and agitates
a calm rockpool near mangroves to rings of bright
blue that mesmerise: liquid eyes of peacock tails.
Dying mixed metaphors, lays you out flat on the sand.
Welded mouth-to-mouth. Twenty-four hours,
a single breath. Not a breath to be had outside
the host’s, breathless you give nothing back.
A marriage against convention and Nature.
That’s your brother at twelve saying, “Watch it move!”,
flattened swirls across needles and jags of rock,
eight small legs that collect a space to hold
the pulsing head. Inkless inscription warning
small boys it will strike fingers through water
bending with the sun. Blue wedding rings.
And waiting for an electric shock that never
manifests, to pass through body unto body,
my pulling him away to break the shock.
You rarely feel the bite. And too late
if you do, as there’s no cure but breath.
And repeated in cold southern waters, where
the lesser lurks in bottles and shells, neat beak
that rips a tiny crab apart, vacuuming flesh. The swell
incites rockpools, and tides bring on the scuttle.
To treasure such poisons – tetrodotoxin, maculatoxin –
the child who picks over innocence, loves risk,
loves fear, half-lulled by the ravaging of that great
amnion, the ocean. Or surrounded by mangroves
up north where it’s hot and putrid and salty, where
infection sets into the smallest cut – mangroves’
false sense of security, mudflats stretching out as far
as tides can ever go – blue-ringed octopi lying low
in brine tepid with waiting. Hungry but shy.
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