The day started with a Steller’s jay at the back door and both of us startled. I was still bleary from bed, he was preoccupied with breakfast, when our worlds collided. He flew to the fir, lit ten feet up the trunk and, I swear, put the side of his head to the deeply gnarled bark as though he were eavesdropping on the next room. He stared at me through the glass door, listening, and flew off.
The Steller’s jay lives only west of the Rockies. To an Easterner’s eyes he’s a bold exotic, iridescent black and blue, fierce-looking, impatient, quick. Our Eastern cognate is the blue jay, just as bold but smaller and less furtive. Marianne Moore would have known the blue jay, not his Western cousin. She visited Seattle in the summer of 1922 and spent two days exploring Nisqually Glacier on the southern slope of Mount Rainier, the highest mountain in Washington, about sixty miles from where I’m sitting. She returned the following summer and in 1924 published an early version of “An Octopus,” an early masterpiece. Moore is famous for tinkering with her already-published work, sometimes scrapping entire poems. Here’s a portion of “An Octopus” later discarded:
“`Calypso, the goat flower—
that greenish orchid fond of snow’—
anomalously nourished among shelving glacial ledges
where climbers have not gone or gone timidly,
the one resting his nerves while the others advanced,’
on this volcano with the bluejay, her principle companion.
`Hopping stiffly on sharp feet’ like miniature icehacks—
`secretive, with a look of wisdom and distinction, but a villain,
fond of human society and the crumbs that go with it.’”
We haven’t visited Mount Rainier but sometimes see it glowing on rare, sunlit afternoons. Its light seems not a reflection but to emanate from within, an effect almost vulgar in its grandiosity. “An Octopus” is not about the cephalopod but the mountain and its cap of ice and snow. She describes its ice-fields as possessing “unimagined beauty,” but blue jays today are described as “rare fall and winter visitors in Washington,” and I’ve never seen one since moving here. Did Moore, the most persnickety of poets, misidentify the Steller’s jay, purposely or through inadvertence? Near the end of the poem she writes:
“if one would `conquer the main peak of Mount Tacoma,’
this fossil flower concise without a shiver,
intact when it is cut.
damned for its sacrosanct remoteness—
like Henry James `damned by the public for decorum’;
not decorum, but restraint;
it is the love of doing hard things
that rebuffed and wore them out—a public out of sympathy with neatness.
Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!
Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus
with its capacity for fact.”