My kids were excited because they thought they had discovered a sea anemone in the surf. Somewhere they heard these benign-looking creatures pack pain-inflicting venom in their spines. Some do, so I lifted it carefully from the water with a shell and realized it was a starfish, or sea star, with at least 20 stumpy legs. Out of the water, its legs sagged and its architecture lost elegance. It was drably brown and gray like a sparrow except for a spray of purple bumps on its top. In this it reminded me of Queen-Anne’s lace with its “purple mole,” as Williams Carlos Williams noticed. The longer out of water the more the starfish drooped and clenched itself into a bumpy sphere. In “Starfish,” Eric Ormsby accurately describes what my sons and I witnessed:
“The stellar sea crawler, maw
Concealed beneath, with offerings of
Prismed crimson now darkened, now like
The smile of slag, a thing made rosy
As poured ingots, or suddenly dimmed --
“I appreciate the studious labour
Of your rednesses, the scholarly fragrance
Of your sex. To mirror tidal drifts
The light ripples across or to enhance darkness
With palpable tinctures, dense as salt.
“You crumple like a puppet's fist
Or erect, bristling, your tender luring barbs.
Casual abandon, like a dropped fawn glove.
Tensile symmetries, like a hawk's claw.
“You clutch the seafloor.
“You taste what has fallen.”
The sea star is Stella Maris, Star of the Sea, one of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s titles -- “Our Lady, Star of the Sea.” The theme of this visit to Mexico is paying attention, looking closely at things you assume you already know and understand. Everything trails a cloud of associations, a vast nimbus of metaphor. My youngest saw a stone on the beach, held it to his throat, said, “It’s a bowtie,” and he was right. That’s what it looked like. Everything has form and meaning when observed with sufficient clarity and imagination. The boys figured out that some of the shells they’ve collected were still inhabited by their original owners. On their own they’ve started returning occupied shells to the water. The almost-6-year-old noticed the barnacles growing on the surface of rocks and shells and said they reminded him of little cities -- worlds within worlds, fractal being, the theme of another Ormsby poem, “Microcosm”:
“The proboscis of the drab grey flea
Is mirrored in the majesty
Of the elephant’s articulated trunk. There’s a sea
In the bed-mite’s dim orbicular eye.
Pinnacles crinkle when the mountain-winged, shy
Moth wakes up and stretches for the night.
Katydids enact the richly patterned light
Of galaxies in their chirped and frangible notes.
The smallest beings harbor a universe
Of telescoped similitudes. Even those Rocky Mountain goats
Mimic Alpha Centauri in rectangular irises
Of cinnabar-splotched gold. Inert viruses
Replicate the static of red-shifted, still chthonic
As the listened brilliance of the pulsar’s bloom
The violaceous mildew in the corner room
Proliferates in Mendelian exuberance.
There are double stars in the eyes of cyclonic
Spuds shoveled and spaded up. The dance
Of Shiva is a cobbled-soled affair –
Hobnails and flapping slippers on the disreputable stair.
Germinate on Wal-Mart windowsills.”
That’s where we live, in “a universe/Of telescoped similitudes.”