Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Things We Can't Quite Throw Away

Probably you've read Tim O'Brien's great long story, "The Things They Carried," they being American soldiers in Viet Nam, the things being. . . all manner of things.

In class we talked not so much about the things we carry but about the things we can't quite throw away--things that might accompany us from move to move but that don't fit easily into any justifiable category: functional things; heirlooms; collectibles; and so on. We were in the process of brainstorming possible sub-categories of "thing poems."

I remembered a pickled baby octopus my mother had purchased for me as a souvenir at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. The year was 1965, and the chief purpose of the trip was to take me and my two brothers to see Willie Mays and the San Francisco Giants play at Candlestick Park. In 1965, a baby octopus was considered an appropriate souvenir, and I was fascinated with the thing. Still am. Can't quite bring myself to throw it away, even though I realize how inappropriate it is in 2007. A poem that came from the prompt, "things we can't quite get rid of":

The Pickled Octopus

Why do I own a brown
baby octopus, pickled in a jar
of formaldehyde, purchased in 1965
at Fisherman’s Wharf,
specimen as souvenir?

The bulbous-bodied octopus
leans permanently in broth,
suction-cups revealed. Fascinated
for four decades, I’m
asking for advice.

Is the octopus in the jar
right or wrong? To be hidden
or displayed? If I dispose of it—
how? Would you like to see it?
Tell me the truth.

Hans Ostrom Copyright 2007
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