An Octopus’s Garden in the Time of Social Distancing

by Laurie Byro
First Place, July 2020
Judged by Ron Singer

I’d like to be under the sea
in an octopus’s garden with you.
–Ringo Starr 

We thought we’d be happy and there would be no one there
to tell us what to do. But each night, at bedtime, a foghorn
would announce the next day’s rules. Starfish, with their

five arms, would point out that we had to wear our
mask, we had to keep six feet away especially from
the octopus (who liked to hug). We were told we had

to avoid the coral with its boney fingers, forever trying to
undo our buttons, untangle our hair. Sirens became
fretful and instead of luring sailors closer, chirped

“stay away, go back.” Angelfish reminded us what
would happen if we forgot ourselves, if we allowed
the octopus to hug us. We watched as the Angels

multiplied, rising like haze into our sunniest days.
As ever, the sleepy foghorn would blow its warnings,
announce our losses, prepare us while the Angel’s numbers rose.

With the tone anticipated by its epigraph, this poem is a witty take on the pandemic. Like any good conceit, the parts of this one cohere, and like any good poem, this one’s cohesion is strict enough to please, but not to suffocate. If the poem has a sub-text, it is that Covid-19 is like being underwater: we can’t breathe.

By the time the octopus swims past us, in lines 5- 6 (of 15), the terms of the conceit are firmly in place. Then, in a flash, the eponymous sea creature gives way to further aquatic creatures, capturing the effect of a scuba dive or of gazing into an aquarium tank.

Each creature keeps its essence, even as it plays its part in the social distancing. None stays in our ken too long. The form of the poem, unrhymed tercets with enjambment from verse to verse, and the long lines (13-15 syllables), is octopoid.

At the end, the conceit is wittily resolved, with hordes of angelfish represent the mounting numbers of our newly dead. Thus, the other shoe drops: “As ever, the sleepy foghorn would blow its warnings/announce our losses, prepare us while the Angel's numbers rose.”

Playfulness, at the end, gives way to the seriousness of the pandemic. Like the author of June’s first-place poem, Peter Halpin, this poet has found a vehicle that indirectly expresses the combined seriousness and absurdity of the situation in which our species finds itself. --Ron Singer