The Other Argonaut
By María Richardson
Translated from the Spanish by Savitri Arvey
The poet Elizabeth Bishop gave her friend and mentor, Marianne Moore, a delicate and translucent seashell. Moore’s poem, ‘Paper Nautilus’ (1961) is about this shell and its creator, a mollusk commonly called the paper nautilus. This marine creature is in fact a distant cousin of the nautilus (which has a much more resistant shell and more arms, among other differences). The scientific name of the poem’s protagonist is the argonaut. It belongs to the order octopoda, which Moore clearly knew since she mentions its eight arms. The female argonaut is a rare octopus, not only because of its shell, but unlike most octopuses that live on seabed, it moves in the open sea.
The argonaut was baptized by the sailors (nautas) in Greek mythology who steered Jason’s ship Argo in search of the Golden Fleece. Aristoteles describes the argonaut in his History of Animals, but he slightly drifts from reality by stating that the mollusk navigates above the ocean’s surface using its shell as a boat and its tentacles as a sail and oars. Jules Verne repeats this image in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: “out of its eight tentacles, six—longer and thinner—tentacles floated above the water, while the other two, curved in the shape of a palm leaf, stretched out in the wind like a thin sail.”
The shell-boat/tentacle-sail fantasy did not endure scientific scrutiny. In Marianne Moore’s times, the shell was thought to be an ovipositor—a receptacle for the argonaut’s eggs—rather than a boat. The wider tentacles (described as palm leaves and sails) secrete calcite to create the nest-shell. Moore’s poem focuses on the cradle and maternity aspect of the argonaut: “the watchful/ maker of it guards it/ day and night; she scarcely/ eats until the eggs are hatched.”
There is something Moore left out that has clear comic potential: the mollusk’s sexual dysmorphia. The male is eight times smaller and 600 times lighter than the female (and it
wanders through the ocean naked). Up until recently, it was believed that a tube frequently found inside the female’s shell was a parasitic worm. We now know that this is the male’s copulating organ—the hectocotyl—which detaches after insemination and remains inside of the shell.
I’m not sure if Moore is the kind of poet who would have stressed this sort of dismemberment. Perhaps she would have still decided to focus on the female, fascinated by its ability to shed its nest-armor (unlike nautiluses that are trapped in their shells). This freedom leads to a remarkable transformation. Restrained by the shell, the argonaut seems like a fish or a bighorn sheep’s head, swaying in the ocean. But after shedding its tentacles and unraveling, the argonaut more closely resembles our idea of a sea monster.
In addition to its eggs, body and the male’s souvenir, argonauts store bubbles in their shells. We have widely understood this for centuries but when Moore wrote her poem, it was believed to be an aquatic mistake or design flaw. The shell—besides serving as an oviscap—is also a ballast tank. Argonauts go up to the surface, capture bubbles, seal off the shell with their tentacles, and propel downwards until they reach a depth where they can maintain neutral buoyancy, balancing their weight with the stored air. Just like other octopuses, they can swim by jet-propelling. But, in contrast to other octopuses, they don’t waste their energy by floating or stopping themselves from sinking. In fact, when they get deep enough, argonauts can swim faster than a scuba diver.
In order to see argonauts run, we would have to observe them in the open sea. In fish tanks, they tend to sway slowly, lacking, perhaps, deep enough water. But I’m guessing that they move differently in the ocean. The argonaut, due to its floatation technology, is the only octopus that can be found in plankton as mature adults. Occasional plankton, optional plankton. When are argonauts in a hurry? When they are hunting or trying to escape, I imagine. If I wrote a poem about the argonauts, I would write about the development of their cunning tactics to save energy and protect their freedom to remain suspended in the current, stirred by the sea.
As you can see, I tend to identify more with the plankton argonaut than Argo’s sailors, even though the ancient sailors also depended on currents and the wind. Some of them even recorded their observations in order to prove that it was possible to explore the world without conquering it.
To further thwart the dichotomy between the ambitious sailor and the calm cephalopod, I must add that the argonaut is a carnivore and not very gentle with its prey (it breaks the flesh with its beak, injects poison and corrodes with its radula). A poem about the argonaut could also be a poem about a fierce predator.
I haven’t conducted a formal interview to find out why this press is called Argonáutica. I imagine that the name references Jason and the sailors’ adventure, but I like to think that the mollusk offers additional connotations. I’ll suggest a few to continue the list. An argonaut and its shell can symbolize (besides a navigator and mother), an ink dispenser (to trick its enemies), and something that has evolved to be just as beautiful as it is functional.