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 The Love Life

Of The Octopus

Halee Kirkwood

Jean Painlevé’s octopus love saga begins with a description of the creature as horrific:  from horrere, being exciting terror that makes the hair stand on end, and ficus, to make, to do. Jean Painlevé possessed a mania for recording life in all its erotic and briney weirdnessess. He spent a lot of time under water, self-identified as an Aquanot. What he finds in the muddy tidal flats, beneath a lichen-covered rock—the love life of an octopus does not submit to the pastiche or pastoral of love in an open green cow-dotted field or love on sublime, patriotic mountaintops. He created entire underwater worlds, experimented with the luciphobes and luciphiles, transported them on a pickup truck from Port Blanc to the Bay of Arcachon, carefully p.H.-ed water sloshing out from the curvy roads. We fall in love, more often than not, with the horrific.


I watch one octopus cradle another, replay the moment again and again. Desire changes shape depending upon the angle you choose to look at it. From one end, it’s the brain which takes precedence, bulky thing that leads the way, proves it’s dominance with a swell and bulge of flesh. From another, it’s the tentacles which are really doing all the work, undulant, unguent, and tempting. Of all things, physical. Repulsive and appetizing, little suckers you’d like to pop off one by one with the whirlpool of your mouth. Which part of the octopus do you see first? Which part, if at all, if ever, would you like to devour?


Can we view the limits of obsession? The mechanics of Painlevé’s own mind, executed and satisfied, by the octopus's mortal imperative? Desire by design—is this that?  The observable limit—tank glass, sigh of a tentacle, the taught squeak you imagine filling the aquarium before realizing the music of life underwater is untranslatable to your own. You are with the octopus until the distinctions between you are made clear, made glass, one lens after another until it’s just you on the torn couch alone, separate from the initial moment of contact. You can envelop any partner you’d like and still this moment belongs to the canisters of film. There will be someone looking outside of your love, trying to make it legible to their own.


So the octopus could remark on their glowing screens of coral and kelp—how horridly dry the love nest, the kissing with mouths and not fingers, how horrid the mouth full of feathers! This is what I have pushed against most often in nature poetry, nature paintings, anything making art of nature, that the existence of a certain expression in nature moralizes its existence within us, as though our expressions are outside of nature. Is this that? 


Painlevé couldn’t live with his actors, as he called them, without some form of life support, for himself or the cephalopod. Neither could exist without breathing tubes in the other’s world. What does it mean, then, for him to show us something of love outside of our experience of a body? When neither creature can live in the other’s world?


You hear the swarm of legs in an interruption of opera, as though the octopi have inexplicably found themselves in a Vienna restaurant, being served on gilded platters the other’s seared and oily limbs. A clinical description of reproduction set to aria, sated aliens laying in a hole. You can make anything monstrous with a magnification of ten. We manipulate the orifice by exploiting it at the most crucial junctures. We faint at the sight of sucking things, blowing things, things flapping and obscene, then string our nests with these precious obscenities like party lights.


Jean Painlevé wasn’t a wholesome man. He sliced open dog eyeballs and shined bright lights on intolerant shrimp who knocked themselves silly against the aquarium glass. I can’t stay in love without one detached eye gazing out toward the end, waiting to return to my emptied mollusks and gardens of algae. We must remember—we can’t live with the other without life support. And here, in this frame—the size of your pinky finger and all dilated eyes—isn’t this how we all begin? A worm-like glittering in the shallow waters?


The pregnant octopus goes from tender mother to gardener tending to Leviathan crawling out of a portal from hell in our desperate need to relate this experience of pressure, tightness, and necessity to our own. We want to believe that touch necessitates love and love obliged to create a being outside of itself. We want to see this in all the holy animals, the mild beasts with four limbs and a wholesome scuzz of fur. I’m a great date because I’ll talk forever of the octopus and how she heightens the human fear of touch and sex and form with a mouthful of calamari. The idea of a form, a trembling in the mucous membrane that often stays there, the mortal imperative to breathe and propel, break away from the colony of brothers and sisters, the colony of otherwise, the drive to live subdued by the need to belong. 

Halee Kirkwood is an Ojibwe writer and a current fellow in the Loft Mentorship Series. Kirkwood earned their MFA from Hamline University and has work published in Muzzle Magazine, Up The Staircase Quarterly, Strange Horizons, and Dawn, With Arms Full Of Roses: An Anthology Of Queer Joy, among others. Kirkwood has served as a writing mentor with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and was a 2019 Teaching Fellow at the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writing Conference at Arizona State University. Their mini-chapbook,

Exorcizing The Catalog, is available through Rinky Dink Press. 

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