Netsuke [ octopus ]

April 14, 2012

It seems the sea can be a silent voice.
The fisherman’s wife feels the waves extend
her presence, so she kneels as if the choice
were hers alone. We watch her pretend
that the wedding is hers to consummate.
For while she has our skin, we know she hides
our tiny self so deep inside her she must wait
alone, alone  like  us inside the tides.

Our tentacles and beak can bring her back
to the sea again. She kneels and spreads her legs.
Look at Hokusai’s woodcut. Look at the lack
of perspective in each wave. Being begs
forgiveness. I would spare you this, she seems
to say. But loneliness is found in dreams.

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11 Responses to “Netsuke [ octopus ]”

  1. extrasimile Says:

    The netsuke thing I think is pretty much played out. The relationship between poetry and sculpture, though, is very much alive in my mind. So, we’ll see…
    It is stormy here on Long Island this morning. Big cracks of thunder. It pleases me tremendously, by the way, to have you reading what I write. Thanks. Wow. Here comes the rain. Jim.

  2. fivereflections Says:

    i’m usually here in the back ground – i’ve learned a lot about netsuke – since you have posted them, which i’ve enjoyed – and i also learned how well your master the craft and creativity of poetry! i would wish to see many more of your netsuke originals too.

  3. extrasimile Says:

    Evelyn–
    Thank you. Sometimes with all the analysing we forget that poetry is about beautiful lines–however we concieve breauty.
    Thomas–
    Yes, there may be more. After all, I can’t turn down a Thomas Davis request now, can I?
    John–
    I just stumbled on it myself. It is actually quite a work of art. Hokusai–once you get past the ‘great wave’ picture, is not that well known (in the ‘west’? I think he is very highly reguarded in Japan.)

  4. Evelyn Says:

    Very powerful, haunting…
    “The fisherman’s wife feels the waves extend
    her presence”
    that is a beautiful line.

  5. Thomas Davis Says:

    I hope this isn’t the end of this sonnet sequence, Jim. It’s been entertaining.

  6. John Stevens Says:

    I’ve now googled Hokusai and the dream of the fisherman’s wife. I’d not seen it before. How did I manage to be so naive?!

  7. extrasimile Says:

    Bravo! Bravo! Anna, John and Thomas!
    I think this will be the last of the Netsuke poems—I may change my mind—so let me thank you all for some wonderful readings. Rather than try to be synoptic here, I think I’ll just try to toss out a couple of ideas.
    1. Of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, the first one is the big one. It used to be translated as the ‘essence of life is suffering’ and Christians would regularly deplore it as being so negative. The translations have gotten more sophisticated these days, but the point I would like to make is this: that the Buddha was pointing to a situation where suffering is caused by our expectations and the frustration of those expectations. We need to distinguish between pain and suffering and we need to further refine our idea of ‘expectations’—what, for example, is their relationship to ‘cravings’? But the ‘purity’ found in the netsuke could be analogous to the purity as conceived by the Buddha: it must include the rot. The ‘stay, carrion, stay and sit beside me’ is similar to the practice of keeping a mento mori (traditionally, a skull) on your desk. The denial of suffering and death is very much a part of Buddhism’s analysis of our (non-Buddhist) life in this world. In so far as the Buddha is a symbol of purity, it is also a critique of our notion of what this purity might be. The carrion is part of the deal.
    2. A little more on Buddhism. I remember reading (in ‘Tricycle’ I believe) an article about a heartfelt discussion going on in the American Buddhist community as to who was to be considered a Buddhist. This was a response to a conflict between the people who had been brought up in traditional Buddhist countries and those Buddhists who were American born—and originally Christian or Jewish. This discussion was sparked by a legitimate problem, but I remember thinking how ironic it was that Buddhism which contained such a radical critique of the ‘self’ should be unraveling itself over questions of identity. Who is a Buddhist? Indeed. When you find the Buddha, kill him.
    3. Poetry and sculpture. As a working definition of poetry, I propose that it’s using words in a sculptural manner. (Now all we have to do is figure out what it might mean to use words in a sculptural manner.)
    4. I completely missed the Selkie dimension in these poems. I may get back to this. There’s a rather interesting film by Neil Jordan called Ondine (I think…something like that) that I recommend. It’s surprising to me how often I have a poem set on the edge of some body of water. While it’s true I do live on an island, it’s a big island (Long Island) and I don’t actually go to the beach often. When I was younger, I spent a great deal of time canoeing, but that was a long time ago. Still, our bodies are mostly water, life originated in water, emerged from water, is made possible because of water…and so on. When the words are flowing…
    5. The relationship between the basal ganglia and poetry, between sickness and poetry, between alienation, depression, bi-polar conditions, epilepsy, etc…while interesting, strikes me as a somewhat barren trail to get too involved with. It’s terribly romantic, and Thomas Mann pretty much exhausted the subject. Still, I have no choice but to follow the Parkinson’s path and see where it leads. Better bring the machete. I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot of clichés to hack through.
    6. Thomas, yes, you should be given a great deal of credibility when judging poetry…but, you’re a very generous man, and I must take this talk of ‘great’ poetry with a certain amount of salt. That we are engaged in an enterprise of ‘poetic thinking’ might be a better way of characterizing what we are doing. There is value in this project, even if we are not the next Keats.
    7. And to you all… goodnight.

  8. Thomas Davis Says:

    Hmmmm, Jim. I am beginning to see this sonnet sequence as a meditation on the poem as sculpture. I may be wrong, but that’s what it’s beginning to seem. Fascinating.
    I agree with Anna and Steven that this is a challenging sonnet. However, there is a feeling of mastery about it that belies that conclusion.
    The sonnet is telling Hokusai’s visual story about the fisherman’s wife from the perspective of the octopus, as I read this. The sea, in the sonnet, is a silent voice–thus we are left to deal with the encounter between the octopus, his son, and the fisherman’s wife.
    As the octopus sees things
    The fisherman’s wife feels the waves extend
    her presence, so she kneels as if the choice
    were hers alone…
    as if the encounter she is inviting is her choice.
    We watch her pretend
    that the wedding (union between the octopi and the fisherman’s wife) is hers to consummate.

    For while she has our skin, we know she hides
    our tiny self so deep inside her she must wait
    alone, alone like us inside the tides.
    The sense I get from these three lines is that when the fisherman’s wife goes down to the water, hiding the octopus’s tiny self deep inside her, she, like the octopus is at the mercy of the tides as she waits, initially alone, for the union of the sea, two octopi, and her forbidden passion. Humanity always waits alone inside the tides of the sea of life.
    Our tentacles and beak can bring her back
    to the sea again. She kneels and spreads her legs.
    Her passion always brings her back to the tides again to wait, alone, for the octopus and his tentacles.
    Then the final four lines:
    Look at Hokusai’s woodcut. Look at the lack
    of perspective in each wave. Being begs
    forgiveness. I would spare you this, she seems
    to say. But loneliness is found in dreams.
    “Being begs forgiveness.” I read this as the key to the sonnet. The fisherman’s wife is going beyond the norms of human society, but loneliness, and eventually the relief of loneliness, if only for moments, even if the relief is an act so strange that it can only by mythological, is found in dreams–perhaps only in dreams. To be who each of us is begs forgiveness even when we go down to the sea for an encounter with an octopus and his tiny son.
    Now, what does this have to do with poetry as sculpture? Well, “look at the lack of perspective in each wave.” In the poet’s or sculptor’s or artist’s craft, no matter how strange or beautiful or memorable, there is a lack of perspective in each wave of its expression. But, of course, this lack of perspective leads to the first line of the sonnet: “It seems the sea can be a silent voice.” It can be witness to the actions of the fisherman’s wife and octopi, but does not communicate in a human way and is therefore silent. Still, this silence does not change the reality of the sea. It is only in the act of art that the lack of perspective interprets the realness of the sea by telling the tale of the fisherman’s wife, the octopus, and his son.

  9. extrasimile Says:

    Okay. I don’t want this to turn into a treasure hunt, but…try googling—Hokusai the fisherman’s wife—and see if this clears things up. Warning: the image you will find is X-rated.

  10. John Stevens Says:

    Well, this is very mysterious, Jim. It has a sure tone of voice that draws us in to read and keep reading, even while the subject matter eludes us.
    I think Anna Mark gets as close as one can: the idea of longing for the sea, almost union with the sea. There’s no doubt that the sea has a profound fascination for anyone who has lived within its reach and it provides a constant source of inspiration for images and dreams. (How do people manage who have lived their whole lives on the Great Plains?)
    This poem of yours puts me in mind of Wallace Stevens’s Idea of Order at Key West: not just the sea itself, and not even the figure of a woman, but the sense of reaching out for something, of puzzling out something – plus that tone of voice, because your lines have a similar feel of measured pace and elegant syntax.
    But your own thoughts remain mysterious.

  11. Anna Mark Says:

    I know that responding to poetry is just as much an art as the poem itself. I am aware, always, of my own lens, but I also want to allow your poem to speak to me on its own, so to speak. I am mentioning this because I will start my response to this poem with a connection to my own lens, my own experience with the theme of the Selkie. While reading your poem I pick up on the idea of union with the sea, longing for the sea, a kind of dream which can be very lonely, indeed. I think I’ll wait now for John Stevens to comment. My eyes widen with more observations.


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