Monday, October 24, 2005

Poem of the Week 10/24/2005: Starfish


The stellar sea crawler, maw
Concealed beneath, with offerings of
Prismed crimson now darkened, now like
The smile of slag, a thing made rosy
As poured ingots, or suddenly dimmed --

I appreciate the studious labour
Of your rednesses, the scholarly fragrance
Of your sex. To mirror tidal drifts
The light ripples across or to enhance darkness
With palpable tinctures, dense as salt.

You crumple like a puppet's fist
Or erect, bristling, your tender luring barbs.
Casual abandon, like a dropped fawn glove.
Tensile symmetries, like a hawk's claw.

You clutch the seafloor.

You taste what has fallen.

Eric Ormsby 1990

Good evening friends and family! Those of you that know me may know that I love starfish, and so a poem about starfish is very exciting. This poem, however, has more going for it than my affection for sea creatures; Ormsby gives us a meaty, tightly coiled, sensual description of this starfish. His tense diction, image patterns, and consistent use of paradox present us with a starfish that is at once tenacious and physical.

Even the starfish's color is moving and luminous. He imbues it with energy in the first stanza, writing of its "prismed crimson now darkened, now like / a smile of slag, a thing made rosy / as poured ingots, or suddenly dimmed --". To begin, "prismed" is an interesting word choice. It is either a made-up (or perhaps composed if you want to be a little more poetic) adjective or a subject-less verb. In either case, though, its association with light adds energy to the starfish. A prism makes the starfish seem special, precious even. All of the descriptions in the first stanza, in fact, use light-based descriptions. "Slag" is a volcanic rock, which was once glowing hot, while "poured ingots" connote a cooling piece of metal or, more specifically, gold. The next description, "suddenly dimmed", points out another of the animatory techniques Ormsby employs; he shifts descriptions of the starfish, knitting different observations together with "now" and of course "suddenly". The starfish is indeed, as the first line suggests, stellar both in its luminosity and its energy.

Several things happen in the second stanza - To start, Ormsby continues with the light metaphor from the first stanza. The starfish has different "rednesses" and reflects tidal drifts as the light ripples across it "with palpable tinctures, dense as salt." This last description demonstrates the starfish's naturalness with its environment, for even its color repeats and indeed deepens the water patterns. Perhaps more compellingly, though, the narrator describes the starfish with distinctly odd word combinations. I have thought long and hard over what "the scholarly fragrance / of [its] sex" could be, but couldn't figure it out until I looked up some information about starfish. There are males and females (starfish are not hermaphrodites), so this probably isn't an issue of gender. A Google search, however, revealed that "at the time the eggs of starfish ripen, the male merely releases great quantities of sperm cells into the ocean water, and a tiny but sufficient number of them find and penetrate distant eggs". If you think about it, smell does nothing more than detect particles flying through the air and interpret them as "vanilla" or "shortbread." And so these creatures reproduce by letting particles go in the water, and their act of procreation could be kind of underwater fragrance. Calling this act "scholarly" is off putting as well; it could allude to the individuality of the procreative act for, though I don't agree, the word scholar can sometimes bring to mind a reclusive researcher. A final note about "scholarly fragrance" for a starfish: this image begins a chain of paradoxical images in the second half of the poem. After all, it is impossible for a human to smell underwater; try as one might, one's nose simply has no use underwater (Think about it). The fact that this paradox makes sense for this animal, however, establishes the starfish's alienness. Its "fragrance" is imperceptible to a human and yet works in its world.

If the above statement was paradoxical to an extent, the third stanza is rife with paradox. "Crumple like a puppet's fist" mixes a weak action (crumpling) with a strong image (the fist); fists generally "clench" or "tighten". However, if you have ever seen a starfish either on video or in real life, you may know what the narrator is talking about. Starfish skin does have a certain cloth-like quality, just like a puppet's fist might. And cloth certainly doesn't "clench." The paradox, perhaps more obviously, alludes to the starfish's simultaneous power and delicacy. Some starfish are so poisonous that they are deadly to humans, but starfish have no hard parts other than (sometimes) prickly skins.

There is tension, too, in the line "tender luring barb". Who has ever heard of a tender barb? I think the "tenderness" actually reveals the narrator's perspective. He sees the delicacy of the starfish's jutting angles as softly as we might see feathers on a bird. The next two lines lie in contrast with one-another. A starfish may be as casually abandoned as a "dropped fawn glove" or as rough and leathery as a "hawk's claw". It is important to note as well, though, that both images are those of fingers or feet. The shapes are carefully chosen to line up with that of a starfish. The word choices have appropriate textures, too; as my little 6-year old sister could tell you, starfish can be leathery and tough or as smooth as the softest velvet. I also love the choice of the word "tensile", for it implies a sinewy, mutable, coiled strength. Starfish have very unique vascular systems, so the internet tells me, but I would have thought the word apt anyway.

Until now, we have simply been discussing the rhetorical devices Ormsby gives the narrator to describe the starfish. We can look at what the starfish is by examining tone as well, though; it helps us understand both the narrator and the starfish itself. It seems, in the beginning, as if the narrator will simply discuss the starfish, albeit in beautiful, lyrical style. It fascinates him more and more, however, and the poem calls out to the starfish. By using apostrophe, the narrator establishes a relationship with the starfish. He ponders its color and its idiosyncrasies for a stanza or two, the sea star eventually takes hold of his imagination. Because the last two lines start with "You" and sit alone on the page, we see that the starfish almost consumes him. It has become the sole object of the poem; the "you" dominates the all-important final lines. Even without this privileged position, the statements have energy; "clutch" and "taste" are intensely physical verbs. In fact, the entire poem is devoted to the sheer physicality of this starfish - its unusual and powerful behavoirs, its scholarly sex, its luminosity. The final two lines reinforce this, for it is as if everything other than the starfish's movements have been stripped away, and we watch with the narrator, breathless.

It has been wonderful to spend some time with the starfish in this poem - I hope that you enjoyed it as much as I did. I encourage you all to go learn about starfish, for they are beautiful and fascinating. I tend to like celestial imagery in poetry, so I will leave you with the final fact that a sea star's scientific name is "Asteroidea". I like thinking that the starfish is some tensile, alien being that shot down from above and plunked in the sea.

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