This ode to the mysterious sea creature is as a much heartfelt homage as it is a grisly lesson in marine biology
It may be the season of advent, but the "star of wonder" described in this week's poem – "Starfish" by John Wedgwood Clarke – is not directly related to the one in the popular Christmas carol. Asteroidea are not stars and not classified as fish, either: marine biologists prefer the term "sea star".
Nonetheless, the creature the poem photographs from such varied angles is truly awe-inspiring, so ingeniously adapted to its environment with its water-powered feet and cardiac stomach that it must count as a miracle (from the Latin, miraculum and mirari = to wonder at). It becomes more, not less, extraordinary, the more closely it's examined and understood. But the poem resists both over-explication and sentimentality. It reveals a starfish of both wonder and terror.
Wedgwood Clarke, whose chapbook, Sea Swim, was published earlier this year, is currently resident at the Centre for Environmental and Marine Science at the Scarborough campus of the University of Hull. "Starfish" is from a collection-in-progress, Aristotle's Lantern, reflecting the poet's fascination with aquatic zoology, and his interest in imaginative connections between the humanities and sciences.
This interest is evident in the combination of images in the poem. Its striking opening line, "Star of wonder, star of teeth", leads into a bizarre and dramatic litany, which will fuse accurate detail with descriptive and associative elements. The effect is a kind of double exposure: the starfish imagined by the untrained eye (which, for instance, sees ossicles as "teeth" and comes up with the metaphor of "zip-fastener undersides") and the starfish anatomised. That untrained eye seems to be connected to childhood, the childhood which has been "drowned in the sea", along with the child's excitement, perhaps, at finding his first starfish.
An important focus in the poem is digestion, metaphorical and literal. The starfish is already a specimen, a meal for the mind – "in a white tray, under the knife", in stanza two. In the next, we're told how the starfish feeds, its stomach emerging from its mouth when there is prey to be engulfed. At this point, if not before, the creature becomes almost horrific: "Star of guts that come out to devour/ Star without centre, brain all over." The plain language is raw and forceful. The Latin word, echinoderm, is avoided but suggested in the following line, and sounds fearsome in itself. This star is a killer: it has to be. With its strangely undifferentiated organs, it seems to threaten the more tidily compartmentalised organisms, such as ourselves.
Digestion is also a metaphor for the way we subject living creatures to processes of verbal classification. Perhaps turning a starfish into a poem is to devour it. For Wedgwood Clarke, the "star of wonder" is reduced by dissection ("star of cuts") and the labels which confirm its lifeless parts. But the poem finally reminds us that the starfish hasn't yielded every secret. The last line may allude to the pedicellariae– structures whose purpose is not fully understood – or it may hint at those proteins that still puzzle geneticists. We're in unclassified territory again, and the modern magi still have a long way to go as they journey towards enlightenment.
Star of wonder, star of teeth,
Star of feet that breathe as they're squeezed,
Star with an eye at the end of each ray,
Star of zip-fastener undersides,
Star of childhood drowned in the sea,
Star in a white tray, under the knife,
Star of guts that come out to devour,
Star without centre, brain all over,
Star of Latin and death and spines,
Star of cuts slicing star from fish,
Star of labels digesting these innards
into star of wonder and function unknown.