8 ways to look at an octopus 

on viewing Octopus by Phyllis Stewart and Fisherman’s Hut by Samuel Elyard

written on Dharawal land


1.                                  The octopus is liminal — being of grass and air
     it occupies, it curls as the day curls around us. 

2.                                                    Wallaga Lake and I’m lost (already) 
         shore-walking the reed beds and whiney mangroves 
                           while in the she-oaks black cockatoos plee-erk seawards;  
suddenly I’m knee-deep then fully down-watered and quaggy. 
                  On the beach the dog puts up a wing of gulls 
                                                       — white on white in the blowing.

3.                                  The hut is a Cornish emigrant 
                  plonked on a hillside over deep time. Elyard licks his nib
         lifts his collar to the smatter of rain. He hurries now
                                     the fisher is back early cursing the Southerly
         and the shortened day: halfa box of Pilchards 
                                                      coupla Dory empty as dinner plates. 

4.       Imagine it on your hand: it rustles as it settles 
                                    though lighter than first thought. Off-handedly
       it circles your wrist, whispers new ideas of time 
                                   the artist rolling reeds on her instep
                           echoes of women’s laughter, kids
                                             the grass beak gentles your palm.

5.       Lift a stone and uncover an octopus; turn the page and dare a poem.

6.       Gallery glass fixes the art, but at night 
                  the lake overflows: mullet worry the net, 
                           Elyard’s hut is awash and the door missing. 
       She suckers up the glass, circles the light fitting 
                  an iambic plop across the floor
                                    then sashays down Burelli St to the sea.

7.       The whitewater lifts my foamie and I’m godbless Australia all the way to the sand. 
Cronulla 1970, and I’m fresh off the boat. They’d schooled us on the new country: funnel webs, bellied snakes, the jelly-box, the stonefish (any stone could be an agonised clamp) and, of course, the pocket octopus. 

The kids have found one in the green of the rockpool. A Greek boy (taller than us) grabs it, offers it round. Sput of ink. ‘Yar fucken skips,’ he laughs as we back off. Flares violet as he flings it to the sky.

8.       line by line, an octopus becomes
                                                                (there’s more to say)
         made of muscle and mind
                                                                sparkling chromatophores
         allusive, recursive
                                                                unbroken it persists.


Image: Octopus by Phyllis Stewart (2002) a weaving of soft twig sedge, c- Wollongong Art Gallery and here’s Fisherman’s Hut by Samuel Elyard (1874) pencil, wash on paper (my photograph) at the Ways to Water exhibition, Wollongong Art Gallery, December 2021. 

My first post for a while, I hope you like it. An ekphrastic poem written for the Ways to Water – South Coast Writers Centre 2021 Poetry Competition.

The poem contains some local vernacular: ‘skips’ (or ‘skippy’ is a derogatory name for Anglo-Saxon settlers by non-Anglo-Saxon (typically Lebanese, Greek or Italian) settlers; A ‘foamie’ is a surfboard made of polystyrene; Burrelli St is a street in Wollongong; Wallaga Lake is a lake on the South Coast of NSW.

7 thoughts on “8 ways to look at an octopus 

      1. You’re welcome. I’m happy any time I hear of traditional practices by First Nations artists being kept alive. I can see where it would take real skill to put this one together. It has such nice curves and flow, just like the living ones.

        Liked by 1 person

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