Octopus surrounded by colorful and varying types of fish

I Commiserate With the Pygmy Octopus Found in the Miami Beach Parking Garage

Why I Chose It: Michigan Quarterly Review Assistant Editor Justin Balog introduces  Jen Karetnick’s “I Commiserate With the Pygmy Octopus Found in the Miami Beach Parking Garage” from our Spring 2020 Issue.

In Jen Karetnick’s “I Commiserate With the Pygmy Octopus…” the speaker finds themselves face to face with an octopus washed ashore in a beach-side parking garage. The delicate balance of the speaker’s humorous yet grave understanding of this discovery allows for the poem’s namesake: commiseration; specifically, of course, about the threat that climate change not only poses to us, but to the other creatures with whom we share this world. The stakes are clear: with each passing moment, we are all the octopus slowly drying on the cement of a parking garage. However, what I find so successful in this poem is that the humor manifests itself as a plain indictment of the apathetic avoidance and disconnect that is so easily felt in a crisis such as climate change. Social media, a hotbed for virtuous, yet arguably passive, activism, is also to blame: “Twitter sends recipes, sarcasm.” The poem, then, for me, seems to ask, when might humor or sarcasm, as a form of escapism, go too far? To which the poem replies, when the consequence is “cling[ing] to cement like forgotten spaghetti” right at our feet. But humor and, subsequently, cynicism can evolve into optimism – the canary in the coal mine can die or it can live. Our “hopes” may have been forgotten or stranded, but this means they have the ability to be found. What action will we take when we stumble back upon them?

I Commiserate With the Pygmy Octopus Found in the Miami Beach Parking Garage

First time? I get it. In this place, it’s inevitable 
to cling to cement like forgotten spaghetti
in the bottom of the pot. Bottom dwellers, holders
of the smallest hopes, we have so much in common. 
Always it’s a rude awakening to find yourself flush 
on the floor under the neon glare of a super beaver
moon, the surging sea a near distance, that uterine shed 
of toxic algae, the sick-room stink sweeping in long 
before the scarlet-feathered dawn, pushing you into
a place you never thought you’d go. All three of your 
hearts were born to know what dying is, but this is 
different: only air beats through your gills to replace
their copper charges. Canary in the coal mine of climate 
change, marine biologists call you. Expect more sea 
creatures in dry spaces. Twitter sends recipes, sarcasm.
This is from the city that brought the world a shark 
on the Metrorail. Is it running for mayor? Harbinger
or hoax, but alive when security scoops you into a bucket
of salt water and deposits you home—the question is not 
how long can you survive out of the ocean, but why should 
we have to see your blood to know how much bluer it runs?

Image: By Itō Jakuchū – Impressions, Number 34, 2013, Public Domain.