Sometimes I wonder if other folks obsess on particular poems quite as much as I do. Ocean de Terre (Ocean of Earth) by Guillaume Apollinaire is one of these. For the last five years I have been unable to escape its tentacles.
It was Apollinaire who coined the term ‘surrealism’ and this poem has that disturbing dreamlike clarity in spades. Ocean of Earth obsesses me so much that it has also begun to influence my writing. Ocean of Earth, dedicated to artist G. de Chirico, begins:
I built a house in the middle of the ocean
Its windows are rivers which flow out of my eyes
Octopus stir all around its walls
Listen to the triple beat of their hearts and their beaks
which tap on the window panes
This opening alone blows my mind. The precision of the ‘triple beat of their hearts’ (reflecting the fact that octopuses have three hearts) and the fact that windows these creatures tap on is on a house in the middle of an ocean. For me this is a hauntingly original image of insecurity, and of being beset by… What exactly? Weirdness, anxiety, octopuses, non-human intelligence, creatures that can squeeze through tiny spaces and attach their suckers onto windows…?
The poem concludes:
The earthly octopus throb
And then we are closer and closer to being our own gravediggers
Pale octopus of the chalky waves O octopus with pale beaks
Around the house there is this ocean which you know
And which is never still.
Ocean of Earth is an example of a poem that forces me to visualise something I have never imagined before. I love poetry that tantalises and resists definitive interpretation. There are several poems I return to with puzzlement on a regular basis because they have the most to teach me.