Donika Kelly's "A Poem to Remind Myself of the Natural Order of Things"

Thoughts on reframing.

A Poem to Remind Myself of the Natural Order of Things

You are of a mind, a reiteration
along a different branch—our nearest,
shared relative: a flat worm.

You are in a jar, your tentacles both
of themselves and you, spinning the lid
from inside. O little octopus,

I am full of questions. How did this happen,
this laboratory, this maze, the lights
you short with a jet of water? Your camera’s

eye, your hard beak, what you pulled
along the ocean floor to your burrow?
Where is the ocean? Who put you in the jar?

What have they taught you to settle for?
And what do they know of our several minds?

first published in The Arkansas International (2018)


I guess, if you haven’t watched My Octopus Teacher, then this is my reminder for you to watch My Octopus Teacher. Or you could read this summary of a recent study on the sleep patterns of octopuses. An excerpt:

The researchers say that the findings have implications for the evolution of sleep and might indicate that it's possible for octopuses to experience something akin to dreams.

There’s a tenderness at the heart of Donika Kelly’s poem today, and a tenderness at the heart of so much of her work, whether in its exploration of relationships, selfhood, loss, or more. In an interview with The Arkansas International, when asked about today’s poem, Kelly says:

At any rate, a number of people have articulated an idea that the octopus is the closest thing we’ll get to an alien consciousness on Earth because they are so different from humans. This strikes me as odd—that a species native to the planet would be considered alien because its intelligence developed along a different line than our species, because it is so different from us. In a Western, Judeo-Christian framework, the world is scaled to the human as ideal, and that’s strange to me.

That desire to reframe the world, to, as Kelly says later, “think about how close or not I was to [the octopus], but without hierarchy,” is one of the vital aspects of poetry, how it can offer a space to subvert, invert, revert — to turn, turn, and turn again, until what you are considering exists in a different space than the world outside the poem.

You see such reframing at play in this poem, which begins with an acknowledgement of the space outside the poem:

You are of a mind…

You are in a jar…

Those first two stanzas help establish, first, the relationship between the speaker and the octopus — their shared mind, their shared connection, this “reiteration / along a different branch” — and then, second, the painful facts of how that relationship has been affected because of established hierarchies. The jar, the octopus “spinning the lid / from inside.”

And then the turn:

O little octopus,

I am full of questions.

It’s a seemingly simple moment, but what I love about this moment is the way it introduces a shared helplessness, a shared acknowledgment of finitude and fragility. The speaker, so full of unknowing. The octopus, caught in the web of human ingenuity and progress — this lonely, trapped experiment. I think of the article I linked above. At the end of the article, one of the researchers is quoted as asking:

Do octopuses have nightmares? Could octopuses' dreams be inscribed on their dynamic skin patterns? Could we learn to read their dreams by quantifying these changes?

The first two questions are beautiful, right? The first, especially, expresses a desire to share in something, whether grief, or fear, or terror. To know, perhaps, that we are not alone in our sorrow. But the final question exposes the human desire to supplant the way we view relationships and the world onto the things we seemingly invent or discover. Why should we read the dreams of an octopus? Why should we impose our framework of the world onto another’s? I am guilty of these questions, too. Guilty of such failures of imagination — the way I so often, when I encounter wonder or mystery, try to fit it within an existing structure that might hold it, rather than to let such wonder be a door I can open to a new room, a new structure, a new framework of viewing the world.

This is why I am drawn to the questions that Donika Kelly offers in the second half of her poem, particularly the final ones:

Where is the ocean? Who put you in the jar?

What have they taught you to settle for?
And what do they know of our several minds?

That penultimate question — What have they taught you to settle for? — is heartbreaking, isn’t it? It cements the sorrow at the heart of the poem, this flattening of a relationship that could have been something unencumbered by hierarchies, made more beautiful not by discovery for the sake of human progress, but mutually beneficial discovery — the kind of way, when in love, two people surprise each other with the ordinariness of themselves, every day. Love allows for that, doesn’t it? Non-exploitative discovery. The daily, seemingly ordinary discovery of how someone brushes their teeth, or creams their coffee, or sits when at their most comfortable. Deepening our relationships — isn’t that one of the joys of life?

We don’t collectively deepen our relationship with what we call the natural world. As a society, we often impose a structure on it. We say this is how it ought to be. To be fair, some structure allows for surprise. Think of writing a poem bound by a syllabic structure, and the surprise of a word fitting and turning in a way you hadn’t thought possible because you hadn’t forced yourself to allow for such a possibility to happen. But that is structure as a form of good faith. The structure we impose on the natural world — one of hierarchy and dominion, with our actions dominated, too, by the structures that exist of our own making, the product-driven demands capitalism and consumption — is not a structure of good faith. It assumes a relationship. The octopus, even if it surprises us, even if it dreams, belongs in a jar. How sad. It’s terrible.

In her short poem, “How to Be Alone,” which appears in her book Bestiary as the beginning of a longer poem, Donika Kelly writes:

Not that you ever are. The small, rough 
dogs lie at your feet or warm your belly.
Who make bearable all that you must 
bear. What needs doing, regularly. You 
fear your life without them; the hawk 
perched on your roof, eyeing the
smaller. The larger, safe for now.

This work reminds us that even in our humanity we suffer the pain of solitude while also existing as part of a larger whole. “Not that you ever are [alone],” Kelly writes, asking us, perhaps, to look again at the world, to reframe our conception of relationships, which might force us to reframe our conception of solitude, grief, loss. If we impose hierarchy at all times…well, perhaps we suffer loneliness as a cost. There is so much that we “must / bear.” The paradox of living in a structure of absolute dominion, if humans are said to be at the apex, is that anyone who lives on top of that structure shouldn’t, by its definition, “bear” too much, shouldn’t be lonely. And yet we do. And yet we are. Not just because it is lonely at the top, but because such a structure exists in service of singular achievement rather than collective living.

In his novel, Some Hell, Patrick Nathan describes “love for what it was: finite, limited, and fragile.” His characters, moving through grief, loss, and the complicated and agonizing experience of finding and living with your own identity, are “alone, in their shared way.” He writes:

Despite the inexhaustible energy of love, one person can only do so much.

There is something about life that this quote captures so aptly, and so terrifyingly. We live, constantly, as singular people trying to bear so much. We are told that our emotions and our motivations and our passions are “inexhaustible.” We read stories of people who have made it, who have done the impossible, who have pushed and pushed and pushed. And yet, we look at our daily lives, and wonder why this is not us, even though we are loving so much, even though we are trying so hard.

It’s why I’m drawn to Donika Kelly’s poem today. It offers the generous act of reframing. It witnesses this act we have done — putting an octopus in a jar — and wonders What have they taught you to settle for? We suffer collectively at the hands of singular pursuits. We feel the deep solitude of individual loneliness when we look around the world and do not feel solidarity with those around us and the structures we live in. Today I am reminding myself that the human is not the ideal, that the endless pursuits we have conspired in the name of profit have left us with an octopus in a jar, twisting the lid from the inside. Have left us with so much more and so much else. Today I am reminding myself to reframe my relationship with the world, to deepen it, to let it teach me rather than to force it into whatever structure I see fit.