A Review of The Octopus Game by Nicky Beer
Words By Alison Auger
Please note that this review was originally published on our old website in 2015, before our parent nonprofit—then called Tethered by Letters (TBL)—had rebranded as Brink Literacy Project. In the interests of accuracy we have retained the original wording of the interview.
Nicky Beer, the author of The Diminishing House and professor at the University of Colorado Denver, has recently published her second book of poetry, The Octopus Game. Beer commands clear control of language and form, careful weaving of concrete images and abstract ideas, and has a way of making even the most philosophical ideas in the book clear and accessible to anyone who picks it up—which we strongly encourage you to do.
The Octopus Game includes, you guessed it, a lot of octopuses. And while Beer’s impressive vocabulary, scientific terms, and use of form may seem at first like she is leading us into a heady, philosophical space, what’s unique about this book is that she uses the image of the octopus to guide us through all of that. The octopus in this book is used as a fulcrum from which to do the poetic work; to be a guide through Beer’s world of deception and unmasking that is both paradoxical and essential.
In the beginning of the book, particularly the first three poems, Beer employs a delightful style of writing that’s very contrary to popular contemporary styles: she doesn’t infer situations, or use abstractions, or end inconclusively. Rather, she begins by presenting an octopus as an octopus, establishing its beauty in the literal before the metaphorical. She conveys a sense of bare truth about the world of the book and the octopus by simply talking about it. Though her descriptions may be meandering and beautiful, they still have the effect of unmasking our assumptions about what poetry is by making beauty directly applicable to a very concrete subject. In “Octopus Vulgaris” she describes the beauty of the octopus without complications:
“…Trebled, as if by volition,
Now spread against almost the entirety
Of the glass, she obscures her habitat and commands
You to the entirety of herself, her self-
Tossed parachute of cream and coral.”
Even in poems like “Annotations” and “God of Translation” that are absent of sea creatures, she utilizes form to pick apart familiar phrases and continue this sense of directness and unmasking. She very directly annotates common phrases and provides alternate meanings to them. In the poem she defines the sexual phrase “all night long” as really meaning “Twenty to forty-five minutes” and redefines the folk tale trope “the boy who was never heard from again” as someone who “hanged himself in full view/ of his mother and his sweetheart.” Creating this blatant understanding about the world of the book, first through language then through form, Beer invites the reader in and ushers them on to more complex and intricate ideas. Though the representations and meanings of the octopus slowly become more and more complex, Beer keeps her poetry grounded and accessible throughout The Octopus Game.
While still being used as a grounding element, the octopus takes on a number of different roles to accommodate for the changing themes throughout the book. While the animal can be beautiful and enchanting, like in “Octopus Vulgaris,” it is revealed that the octopus is also a “skin-changer,” a creature likely to become like a rock, or squeeze themselves into an impossible situation, or become Salvador Dali’s next obsession (from one of my favorite poems, “Pescados De Pesadillas”). Beer uses this characteristic to complicate our ideas of the real, or challenge what we think we know about the world by dressing the octopus (the most real or grounded image in the book) in various forms and situations. What does that mean for us, the readers? It means that we have to learn to expect the unexpected from the octopus. Because the animal’s actual nature is of camouflage and mimicry, it lends itself perfectly to being dressed or masked in themes like sexuality, film media, and mystery itself.
The best example of the octopus’ shapeshifting nature and surprising reassignment of meaning is in the poem “Skin Trade:”
trustworthy would be as consistent
as an octopus’s skin; a lost
cause would be like trying to find
a frightened octopus; the Dalai Lama
could urge us to adopt the empathy
of the octopus in our encounters
with strangers. But I’m content to cross-
reference you with scapegoat, gull, sitting duck, clay
pigeon: in mid-century pulpo pulp fiction
cover art, you obligingly incarnate
whatever terror the age required.”
The idea that the octopus can be attributed to anything—good or bad—forces the reader to question these ideas: the “real” or original meaning of the octopus, and its newly assigned meaning or theme. The surprise of Beer’s poetry comes from reconciling the known with what we are being shown.
The final form of the octopus is a mirror of ourselves. Because it’s written and rewritten into a conversation about what we know versus what we are shown, it follows that the octopus and its many human themes become a reflection of the darker side of humanity—our mysterious, sexually deviant, duplicitous facets. The way that Beer slowly blends the creature with uncomfortable themes like sexuality and duplicity forces us to look to our own tendencies to “mask” and “unmask” ourselves: “To know what you [octopus] are/ now, we must know/ what we fear first.” (26). In “Phlogiston Footage” she writes:
“Which of our own human wonders may be little
more than chemical whiff,
an odd kink in the genetic helix?
The thought’s enough to make us shut
our eyes, pull our ignorance a little closer…
Perhaps the light ruptures the darkness
so that we may better know the darkness
in the palm of our own hand.”
In this passage, the duplicity and sexuality portrayed throughout the book culminates in her descriptions of the Cuttlefish’s mating habits—a flamboyant and extravagant version of our own.
It’s important to note before reaching a conclusion about The Octopus Game that Nicky Beer is without doubt a skilled wordsmith. Reading these poems out loud, one can hear the rhythm and control in each line—even though we may stumble on all the words we’ve never heard of. Reading the poems out loud, I couldn’t tell if her vocabulary was so large that it bordered on hindering the reading or if I just needed to expand my own vocabulary. Regardless, one thing is clear: Beer doesn’t play with words, she dominates them. The language of the poems is so successful not because of her massive and daunting vocabulary but because of its directness—though ornate and beautiful, the language is centered on the subject. Instead of adding to confusion, the beauty in her descriptions clarify the subject in a paradoxical but masterful way. In a sense, her language enacts the heightened beauty and physical malleability of the octopus and all its themes throughout the book.
Nicky Beer’s The Octopus Game is glamourous but complicated. It takes the reader on a journey through masking and unmasking little-thought-of aspects of ourselves through the octopus—from the cinema to the bedroom to the bottom of the ocean, there’s something to find in every poem. It is a book that is even greater and more beautiful than the sum of its parts.