Like the scientist dissecting a cow's eye
just to see the edge
of his own vision, I wanted to know
how it is to be an octopus,
which keeps 2/3 of its neurons
in its arms. It thinks
not with its brain, but with arms
that radiate around the organ
of a body pulsing like a bird
lifted from the nest.
For $20 I let a lab assistant
sucker my head with electrodes
surging magnetic waves
to jolt my arm up before I could
even think Up or Where did it go?
The researchers wanted new ways
to treat pain. I wanted
to circumnavigate my brain.
An occasional side effect: Broca's Area
and the amygdale can be swept
by the magnetic halo. I soon became very,
deeply calm. How are you doing, Kate?
the lab assistant started to ask more and more
often. I was so fine it was difficult to say, Fine.
Above the knot of tentacular cords
was a poster of a giraffe kissing
the head of her newly born calf.
An excessively sentimental image,
but now it was rapture to consider
how far she descended to reach,
her neck's infinite arch.
Sometimes lobotomies have the effect
of rendering pain senseless. In a way.
The patient can say, Yes, it hurts,
but also, I can't care that it hurts.
Because the octopus keeps 2/3 of its neurons
in its arms, it is genius at mimicry
and dance. There's a video of one
cursive seduction of a flounder
into that mouth of a belly.
What is pain to a fish?
I want to use the word flailed,
but you'll think of what happens
on a hot afternoon on a dry dock.
There is a shimmy to the swim,
a dance to match the dance of those arms,
performed without need
of the brain as the flounder's mind
follows after its own transfixed eyes.
Then there is the agony of a lobster's silence.
To call for each other
they must clatter their claws
against surrounding stones and shells.
The plea rings through the waves
for miles. When dropped in boiling water
they beat their banded fists
against the sides of the pot. I put the lid on,
then have to leave the room
and stuff my ears.
To the dumbstruck fish, pain
is an unsatisfactory spike of cold
or heat in the affected area.
The tooth in the flank burns, the octopus's clench
makes the muscles chill, then the bones freeze.
As it fights, flails, throws its head back
towards the open current, the flounder still thinks
pain only in the place of pain.
The octopus in agony is more silent still.
I came once upon a doe licking the face
of her stillborn fawn and that nuzzle alone
should have shattered all the leaves
and all the stars. Deer don't have
great conch shells to slam their hooves against.
The doe made no sound, the air
filled with the small ripple
of her tongue passing across
those still eyelids.
And then there are humans
carrying pain into the mind
where it becomes everything and entirely
ours alone. Like the graduate student
dismantling the rat, viscera by viscera, trying
to find some other way than this way.
No, you just can't know
how it would be
with neuroned arms, or how it was
when you were a beloved fish
with hardly a brain to speak of.
Did you know you had a mother
listening for your heartbeat?
There is no answer.
There are instead so many words. Sublime:
An old one for the pain of knowing
a vast expanse of possibility is there but can't be
grasped by your own small mind.
The octopus draws itself beneath a stone,
curls those legs in one by one,
and I watch it wait—I think
I'll understand something this way—
that fingernail of a sucker
poking out to think through
the current, the waves of temperature,
the spiraling salinity. In perfect
darkness and perfect silence it waits.
Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of Rag & Bone (Elixir, 2011), which won the Antivenom Prize. A finalist for the Ruth Lilly Fellowship and winner of a 2010 Intro Journals Award from the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, Nuernberger's poems have appeared widely in journals, including Copper Nickel, Bat City Review, Mid-American Review, and Versedaily.com. She teaches writing and literature at University of Central Missouri where she also edits poetry for Pleiades.