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Pickle Me This

April 27, 2008

The Octopus by Jennica Harper

I used to have this sticker with a picture of a boy and a bear standing on the top of Planet Earth, set against a black starry sky and the bear was pointing up. The words coming out of his mouth said, “Look up there.” The image to me is the definition of “wonder”, and it kept occurring to me as I reread Jennica Harper’s book The Octopus yet again.

Wondrous things dominate this collection: prairie skies, cinema, rocket ships, spacemen, music, snowstorm, beaches, breasts, mothers, and extraterrestrial life. Some of these things ordinary but made new through widened eyes. From “Cinema Paradiso”: “Only a true believer/ sits on the edge of her seat at the movies/ like they do in the movies./ I am such a believer.”

In the long poem “The Octopus”, this wonder is questioned, as two former lovers have the same conversations they’ve always had. “Something we could not let go:/ all the time spent, the conversations/ run and rerun, we didn’t think we would/ have the strength to have them/ with another person.” The other love who sees such wonder as self-indulgent, who “can’t condone the reckless hope/ of finding some other life out there.” He points elsewhere instead: “If Sagan and his crew really wanted an alien,/ you say, they would look to the octopus…” He is “afraid all this probing/ will have been a waste.”

But to our narrator, the wonder has been enough, and so too the wondering: “the girl on the beach… but is it a waste that I got to dream her?” Pointing up, and wondering what is out there in the universe, asking where did we come from and where are we going. Questions that apply just as much to outer space as to our own histories; the secret to our origins might lie in the stars, but we seek the same answers in our mothers, our families, in the world all around us. In this context everything is worth examining; indeed a praying mantis is a “tiny robot”, we are made up of our elements. And then we can dare to “admit we’re not the only subject/ and can sometimes be the searcher, the verb”.

Harper writes, “All of this talk is just talk./ The truth is, we will never know/ our own future, not even/our own past”. The talk, however, and all the wondering, and the poetry– all this stand as evidence, as an arsenal against empty claims of nothingness. Making it certain: “We Are Here.”

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