Her paper nautilus

by Karen Donovan


PaperNautilusI pull down my copy from the shelf. A Marianne Moore Reader. On the cover the poet poses in her tricorn hat and black cape, considering the photographer as if collecting a specimen. I see that I bought this copy used: a price of $3.50 is drawn in soft pencil on the top corner of the half-title page. Blue-eyed, eight-armed, pelagic, the creature carries its eggs in a wafer-thin shell it builds especially for this purpose. A nest that falls away after they hatch, burying form and pattern in the fossil layer. “I feel that I would not be worth a button if not grateful to be preserved from myself, and informed if what I have written is not to the point.” When you tell me my problem, finally, is that I have never known where I belong, I think you may be right.

Karen Donovan is the author of Fugitive Red, which won the Juniper Prize for Poetry and was published by the University of Massachusetts Press. Her new collection of poetry, Your Enzymes Are Calling the Ancients, won the Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award from Persea Books and is due in fall 2016. For 20 years she co-edited and published a journal of short prose called ¶: A Magazine of Paragraphs. She works as a writer for a nonprofit in Providence.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Her paper nautilus”?

    This piece is part of a book-length manuscript of short prose called “Aard-vark to Axolotl,” which I wrote over the course of a year in collaboration with 78 cool engravings in my grandfather’s 1925 Webster’s New International Dictionary. The image that inspired this piece shows the Argonauta, a type of octopus called a paper nautilus. As soon as I laid eyes on this engraving, the poem by Marianne Moore began to haunt me of course. And I couldn’t stop thinking of the Argonauts themselves, who sailed with Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece. The process of finding the right words is always like wandering toward a solution. I used a little spiral-bound notebook to write all the first drafts of every piece in this collection, so I dug it out to look at the Argonauta page. Yup, plenty evidence of wandering. See for yourself: here it is.
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