The Octopus Museum: Poems
“Shaughnessy’s work is a highly original look at the world as it is today and the dangers we seem intent on inflicting upon ourselves. The poems in this book shout, ‘Pay attention!’”
Brenda Shaughnessy’s fifth poetry collection, The Octopus Museum, imagines a dystopian future in which octopuses rule the world. The human species has had its turn—and with hubris and ignorance greatly harmed the very planet that sustained it. So why not consider the possibility that intelligent cephalopods can do better?
Shaughnessy writes startling original poems that are both intellectually wide-ranging and emotionally riveting. She writes as a woman and a mother concerned about sexism, racism, gun violence, and environmental destruction. While writing about these difficult topics, she engages in puns and word play. Her poems are full of contradictions that lead to deeper thought.
Her preferred format is the prose poem; the poems in The Octopus Museum are full of music and imagery as well as questions and observations. A reader rollercoasters through the poems, trying to catch up, and the result is immersion in a world that is both familiar and startlingly strange. Some lines from her poem “No Traveler Returns” are illustrative.
“I thought thoughts I was ashamed to speak in case they were what everyone already thought or in case they were unthinkable thoughts nobody would dare think much less say which would blow up the world everyone else had to live in if I said them.”
“Once a wild tentacled screaming creature every inch a kissed lip of a beloved place, a true and relentless mind, all heart if heart is a dumb hope of reusable pump.”
The poems in the collection scrutinize our society, and some achieve this by showing the cephalopods’ scholarly analysis of the strange human culture. In “Are Women People,” a detailed examination of the status of women and other humans seems to be an effort to understand how humans have classified each other. This investigation branches out to consider the status of many kinds of humans, including children, people of color, body parts, eggs, sperm, etc. The conclusions are insightful.
Many of the poems serve as warnings. “Bakamonotako” is a fable-like poem that tells the story of a girl who had tried to become her best self by becoming unlike her true self. (Everyone who has ever been a teenager can identify with this!) She is counseled, in part, to “find the other half of yourself, of your private and deepest feeling.” As she collects sand dollars to pay for the advice, she finds that
“She had spent her future already, searching for sand dollars to pay the starfish for advice about her future, which had already been determined by her past.”
Have we spent our future already? Is it too late to ensure a more positive outcome for the generations to come?
In “Gift Planet” it is Time that tries to convey a warning.
“When I learned to tell time I told it. I told it so; I stopped listening to what it tried to tell me: You’re already losing everything as you go and go and go.”
Some may consider Shaughnessy’s latest collection the work of a Cassandra who has nothing positive to say. Others will see the book as the work of a brilliant visionary. But few can disagree that Shaughnessy’s work is a highly original look at the world as it is today and the dangers we seem intent on inflicting upon ourselves. The poems in this book shout, “Pay attention!” The poet’s job is to pay attention; others should, too.