Octopus Medicine is not a traditional poetry collection; it is three verse-stories about the octopus, interpolated by illustrations, facts, figures and instructions to the reader. It is doing something new. And it is doing it remarkably well.
Becci Louise refers to the reader’s approach to the text as ‘this dive we are about to take’, emphasising that the relationship between poet and reader is as much one of companionship as trust.
The collection opens with ‘A Prophet for The Sea’, an intense submarine bildungsroman, whose strong narratives are stirring and didactic. This verse-story is distinguished by the existential journey of its cephalopod protagonist as he grows through the bitter experience of war and learns to recognise himself.
‘Devilfish’ is a series of ten cinematic poems that recounts, through multiple perspectives, the transformation of a selfish fisherman into an octopus. Almost every poem ends with an evocative instruction as to how the next should be read;
[This part needs to be read by someone who understands regret…]
[The next part needs to be read with guts…]
Each poem explores in an astute way the terrifying scenario of suddenly finding yourself, not as predator but prey; suddenly victim to the whims of unknown creatures in the hostile environments you once ruled over. Louise’s pertinent use of the ‘monstrous’ octopus shows us just how readily we discount the humanity of those we consider different, or a threat, to our way of life.
The most haunting and stilling verse-story finishes the collection. There is nothing peaceful about the quiet tour guide or serene about the silences between the poems in ‘Kraken: A Story Backwards’. Louise gently coaxes the reader through the story, with the use of the second person as compelling as it is reassuring; confronted with the resignation of the drowned tour guide the reader feels unable to simply bow out of the narrative, yet Louise is on hand to help the reader articulate their thoughts;
You’d never considered before that a ship might suffer as it sank.
That it might sputter and scream and fit.
But now, you’re sure of it.
These verse-stories may be read alone but they also need to be read aloud, animated, orchestrated, painted, performed, and recorded. They are enthralling, dynamic, and utterly captivating.
Octopus medicine, Becci Louise. Two Rivers Press 48 pp; £8.99 ISBN: 978-1909747302