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The God of Translation
All the children who had been devoured
by the blue tiger miraculously emerged from its slit
belly whole and unharmed and even more beautiful.
The merchant's incestuous marriage
to his sister softened to a mésalliance
with a clever witch who suckled toads in secret.
The boy who no one heard from again
hanged himself in full view
of his mother and his sweetheart.
The venereal disease became a dragon.
The heart's gore in his hand became rubies.
The hermaphrodite became a girl with three legs.
The lights dim. We creak in our seats.
A diver shadows the bottom of the Aegean Sea
like a ponderous yellow-footed heron
trailing a champagne wake.
Mycenaean amphorae thrust their necks
from the ashen sand, all rounding
their lips to the same vowel shape
as he plunges his glove down their gullets.
We see his fist opening rubber petals
to the camera, revealing another fist slowly
loosening itself to a walnut-sized octopus.
Nacreous and opaline, pied, rubicund,
its eyes are damn near half of it,
a livid doodle in his black hand.
Now comes the calm intervention
of the voiceover-baritone, gently professorial,
just a touch embarrassed by the excess
of its knowledge:
One of the more unusual denizens of the coastal Mediterranean waters is the phlogiston, commonly known to marine biologists as Octopus phlogistonus. While certainly no rival to the Giant Pacific Octopus in size, nor anywhere nearly as dangerous as the venomous Blue-Ringed Octopus, the phlogiston nevertheless possesses a certain attribute which for the longest time could only be described as magical.
The camera tilts down into one
of those ancient clay mouths. We gaze
into shadow for a beat longer than
seems necessary. Then: A flaw
in the underwater celluloid. A flirt
of acid on the film. A morsel of dust smuggled
into the spool. A prank of chartreuse stipples
the black, casts a fragment of ghoul-light
on tentacles scrolled backwards. Wait a moment.
Watch again. The animal takes
small bites of the darkness, releasing crumbs
of green light into the water, dozens
of sparks leaping and guttering from its underside
with mayfly brevity.
Apocryphal evidence indicates one American soldier fortunate enough to catch sight of the phlogiston while stationed in Naples during World War II dubbed the creature The Little Zippo-
There's no crashing grandeur here-it's the private
self-sufficiency of the animal's gesture that charms us
like a lonely whistle overhead in an empty street.
And yet, drifting in its earthenware cul-de-sac,
this diminutive marine Prometheus
could not be more dull to itself:
...was discovered to be thousands of bioluminescent microorganisms inhabiting the keratin of the phlogiston's beak. The octopus scrapes the top and bottom halves of his beak together to rid himself of the surplus buildup. This agitates the parasites, which emit a faint greenish glow as they're released into the water. The "magic act" the octopus performs is, in fact, nothing more than a bit of absent-minded grooming.
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,
embrace it like a mildewed doll-
dented forehead, chipped-paint stare and all.
But we're still drawn to these tenebrous theaters,
lulled by the tidewhir of the projector, detaching
our terrestrial ballast as our lungs relax to airless anemones.
Perhaps the light ruptures the darkness
so that we may better know the darkness
in the palm of our own hand.
Now they're looping a scene in night vision chartreuse,
the sparks first swarming the tentacles like spermatozoa,
then rushing the lens, spawning
with the clouds of dust in the camera's beam,
silently trickling into our laps. Look
how our hands become strange
speckled cephalopods when we try to brush them away,
the knuckles arched with primal alarm, poised to flee,
to live out their own mysteries beyond our sight.
The motor shudders. We whiff cordite.
A single celluloid tentacle whips
into the air, puddles to a glossy slither.
What remains unknown--.
Black Hole Itinerary
Today they will offer me a dozen mirrors
and tell me to pick the one with my real face in it.
Today she'll be swimming out into the ocean to find me
and today I'll be the wave that drowns her.
Today they'll say God has a plan for all of us
and she'll say God is a Cruel Motherfucker today.
Today I'll be the bird in my head
getting fat on the sweet grey taffy of old time.
Today I will be immortal
but they'll keep setting me on fire just to check.
Today she'll summon beasts of protection
by strumming the scars on my back.
Today the spider will keep me alive for a week
before dining off of my eyes.
Today my total gravity will be monstrous.
Today they'll make me repeat her name
until its atoms split apart.
Today love will be like starlight:
when it arrives, whatever it comes from will have already collapsed.
-from The Octopus Game
BIO: Nicky Beer is the author of The Octopus Game (Carnegie Mellon UP, 2015) and The Diminishing House (Carnegie Mellon, 2010), winner of the 2010 Colorado Book Award for Poetry. She has received a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Louis Untermeyer Scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and Discovery/The Nation award. She has degrees from Yale University, the University of Houston, and the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her poems, fiction, nonfiction, and reviews have been published in Best American Poetry, AGNI, Indiana Review, Kenyon Review, Narrative Magazine, The Nation, Nerve, New Orleans Review, Pleiades, Poetry, The Washington Post and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver, where she co-edits the journal Copper Nickel, and she is married to the poet Brian Barker.