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Nicky Beer


Nicky Beer
The God of Translation

All the children who had been devoured
by the blue tiger miraculously emerged from its slit
belly whole and unharmed and even more beautiful.

The merchant's incestuous marriage
to his sister softened to a mésalliance
with a clever witch who suckled toads in secret.

The boy who no one heard from again
hanged himself in full view
of his mother and his sweetheart.

The venereal disease became a dragon.
The heart's gore in his hand became rubies.
The hermaphrodite became a girl with three legs.

Phlogiston Footage

The lights dim. We creak in our seats.
A diver shadows the bottom of the Aegean Sea
like a ponderous yellow-footed heron
trailing a champagne wake.
Mycenaean amphorae thrust their necks
from the ashen sand, all rounding
their lips to the same vowel shape
as he plunges his glove down their gullets.
We see his fist opening rubber petals
to the camera, revealing another fist slowly
loosening itself to a walnut-sized octopus.
Nacreous and opaline, pied, rubicund,
its eyes are damn near half of it,
a livid doodle in his black hand.
Now comes the calm intervention
of the voiceover-baritone, gently professorial,
just a touch embarrassed by the excess
of its knowledge:

One of the more unusual denizens of the coastal Mediterranean waters is the phlogiston, commonly known to marine biologists as Octopus phlogistonus. While certainly no rival to the Giant Pacific Octopus in size, nor anywhere nearly as dangerous as the venomous Blue-Ringed Octopus, the phlogiston nevertheless possesses a certain attribute which for the longest time could only be described as magical.

The camera tilts down into one
of those ancient clay mouths. We gaze
into shadow for a beat longer than
seems necessary. Then: A flaw
in the underwater celluloid. A flirt
of acid on the film. A morsel of dust smuggled
into the spool. A prank of chartreuse stipples
the black, casts a fragment of ghoul-light
on tentacles scrolled backwards. Wait a moment.
Watch again. The animal takes
small bites of the darkness, releasing crumbs
of green light into the water, dozens
of sparks leaping and guttering from its underside
with mayfly brevity.

Apocryphal evidence indicates one American soldier fortunate enough to catch sight of the phlogiston while stationed in Naples during World War II dubbed the creature The Little Zippo-

There's no crashing grandeur here-it's the private
self-sufficiency of the animal's gesture that charms us
like a lonely whistle overhead in an empty street.
And yet, drifting in its earthenware cul-de-sac,
this diminutive marine Prometheus
could not be more dull to itself:

...was discovered to be thousands of bioluminescent microorganisms inhabiting the keratin of the phlogiston's beak. The octopus scrapes the top and bottom halves of his beak together to rid himself of the surplus buildup. This agitates the parasites, which emit a faint greenish glow as they're released into the water. The "magic act" the octopus performs is, in fact, nothing more than a bit of absent-minded grooming.

Which of our own human wonders may be little
more than chemical whiff,
an odd kink in the genetic helix?
The thought's enough to make us shut
our eyes, pull our ignorance a little closer,
embrace it like a mildewed doll-
dented forehead, chipped-paint stare and all.
But we're still drawn to these tenebrous theaters,
lulled by the tidewhir of the projector, detaching
our terrestrial ballast as our lungs relax to airless anemones.
Perhaps the light ruptures the darkness
so that we may better know the darkness
in the palm of our own hand.
Now they're looping a scene in night vision chartreuse,
the sparks first swarming the tentacles like spermatozoa,
then rushing the lens, spawning
with the clouds of dust in the camera's beam,
silently trickling into our laps. Look
how our hands become strange
speckled cephalopods when we try to brush them away,
the knuckles arched with primal alarm, poised to flee,
to live out their own mysteries beyond our sight.
The motor shudders. We whiff cordite.
A single celluloid tentacle whips
into the air, puddles to a glossy slither.

What remains unknown--.

Black Hole Itinerary

Today they will offer me a dozen mirrors
and tell me to pick the one with my real face in it.

Today she'll be swimming out into the ocean to find me
and today I'll be the wave that drowns her.

Today they'll say God has a plan for all of us
and she'll say God is a Cruel Motherfucker today.

Today I'll be the bird in my head
getting fat on the sweet grey taffy of old time.

Today I will be immortal
but they'll keep setting me on fire just to check.

Today she'll summon beasts of protection
by strumming the scars on my back.

Today the spider will keep me alive for a week
before dining off of my eyes.

Today my total gravity will be monstrous.

Today they'll make me repeat her name
until its atoms split apart.

Today love will be like starlight:
when it arrives, whatever it comes from will have already collapsed.

                             -from The Octopus Game


Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews

Nicky Beer is the author of The Octopus Game (Carnegie Mellon UP, 2015) and The Diminishing House (Carnegie Mellon, 2010), winner of the 2010 Colorado Book Award for Poetry. She has received a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Louis Untermeyer Scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and Discovery/The Nation award. She has degrees from Yale University, the University of Houston, and the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her poems, fiction, nonfiction, and reviews have been published in Best American Poetry, AGNI, Indiana Review, Kenyon Review, Narrative Magazine, The Nation, Nerve, New Orleans Review, Pleiades, PoetryThe Washington Post and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver, where she co-edits the journal Copper Nickel, and she is married to the poet Brian Barker.


Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews

A Review of Nicky Beer's The Octopus Game by Paul French, first published at American MicroReviews & Interviews

It’s hard to be an honest critic, to refrain from leaping headlong into somersaults of praise for every book I read for AMRI. Praise is easier to write. Praise is easier to read. Praise is easier to get away with.

After a string of poor or mediocre reviews, I start to feel like Moliere’s Misanthrope or, to be more pedestrian and honest, like that vulturish critic from Ratatouille who won’t eat anything unless he absolutely loves it. Good thing for me, and as by now you’ve probably anticipated, Nicky Beer’s 2015 The Octopus Game is something to love.

Cinematic and darkly intimate, Beer’s latest collection sustains its conceit without succumbing to gimmick. Perhaps because it’s allowed to participate in its poeticization, the octopus never feels like a prop. It never feels cheap or used. Beer is able to do what many other poets, myself included, could never do: maintain an image for 73 pgs and still manage to make that image feel like a surprise at the end--the terminal and collection-titled poem beginning,

Two people sit side by side
And become each other’s arms

Beer’s work is the first in a while to produce those warm chills in my spine. This collection is rife with the stuff that sticks. “Annotations,” “Boys in Dresses,” “Scene 43…,” and “Ad Hominem” are just a few. Beer does a good job of mixing straightforward evocation with riddling density--the latter brought on by Beer’s powerful diction, which, at its highest height, can seem overwrought; but stick with it long enough and you’ll see it’s purposeful.

Lest I bend the envelope of this microreview (rarely the case for me), I’ll close by saying that I highly recommend this book. Five gold stars, two thumbs up, 100% fresh. Go buy it.

      A Review of The Octopus Game


An Interview with Nicky Beer by Cynthia Marie Hoffman and Nick Lantz, first published by Cloudy House

Cloudy House: Book Title, Press, Year of Publication:

Nicky Beer: The Octopus Game, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2015

CL: Synopsis: 

NB: Mostly poems about octopuses—really.

CL: What do you think makes your book a “project book”?

NB: The majority of the poems in the book are about cephalopods—mostly octopuses, but there’s a cuttlefish poem and a giant squid poem in there, too.

CL: Why this subject (or constraint)?

NB: The first poem of the book, “Octopus vulgaris,” is the first poem I wrote for the project, and I found that, even after I’d finished it, I still felt I had much more to say about the animal. Even after I’d decided to expand it to an eight-poem sequence, I wasn’t really thinking beyond that. But I had the good fortune, while drafting some of the earlier poems, to participate in a residency with Carl Phillips at the University of Missouri-Columbia, who thankfully said, “Why stop at eight poems?”

And of course, as a writer, I have an instinctual affection for anything that squirts ink when it’s provoked.

CL: Are you comfortable with the term “project book”?

NB: Absolutely. Although I’d prefer something more nefarious sounding, like “book-length hustle,” “literary long-con,” or “one-woman poetic conspiracy.”

CL: Was your project defined before you started writing? To what degree did it develop organically as you added poems?

NB: One of the great pleasures in developing this project came from one of its inherent challenges—how does one keep a whole pile of cephalopod-related poems from being too monotonous? I found myself looking at other books that I saw as project-driven in some way for advice—in Ted Hughes’ Crow the poems surround a single, if fractured, mythic subject, which I admired, but didn’t want to do for my book. Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris is a triumph of the poet representing the voices of humanity and God through different personae, and so I thought about how I could make persona work for my book. Learning about Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms was a great discovery, too, in that it showed me how committed and immersed a poet can be in honoring his fragmented creative self. This may be one of the reasons why I’m not a fan of the term “finding one’s voice” as a writer—our goal should be to discover how many different voices inhabit us!

At the same time, I was learning about the astonishing capabilities of the octopus to change the shape, color, and texture of its body, both to pursue prey and elude predators. The physical malleability of the animal paired so beautifully with what I realized the project needed the most—i.e., a distinct sense of variation. So I came to the conclusion that I would try to find as many ways as possible to introduce variation into the book—through form, through persona, through tributes to other writers, through engagements with different film actors and visual artists, and even other languages.

I think it’s important to mention that these discoveries that allowed me to develop the project were essential to keeping things fun for me. Long-term creative projects, even ones that engage in serious, and even painful themes, still need to allow their creators to engage in play. Otherwise, what’s the point?

CL: Did you allow yourself to break your own rules?

NB: The rule-breaking, so to speak, came from me figuring out how the non-cephalopod poems could work in the book. These were poems that still spoke to ideas of the protean, camouflage, eros, and dread that inform the book as a whole, and I really enjoyed seeing the echoes of the cephalopod poems resound in them. For example, a poem like “Scene 43, Take: Interior, Sushi Restaurant,” in which an actor eats a whole live octopus onscreen definitely speaks to the octopusless (I think I just made that word up) poem “Nature Film, Directed by Martin Scorsese,” in that they both address these extraordinary moments of visible interiority that the film medium affords its audiences. And even in these other poems I found myself “hiding” a cephalopod here and there, as if in an old painting where infrared reflectography reveals painted-over figures from earlier stages in the work. “Marlene Dietrich Reads Rilke on the Lido, 1937” takes place on a beach in Venice, which means that there are definitely some cuttlefish skulking around in the background waves, even if they’re not verbally visible.

CL: After completing a project, how did you transition into writing something new? What are you working on now? Another project?

NB: This is something I’m definitely wrestling with as I write poems for the third book—I found myself initially putting way too much pressure on myself to detach entirely from the octopus-mode poems, but missing them profoundly at the same time—and the amount of octopus-related memorabilia that now swarms my office makes their images damn nigh inescapable. But I’ve slowly realized that the poems I’m writing still engage with some of the ideas that dominate The Octopus Game—illusion and subterfuge, specifically—but they’re slowly spinning off in their own directions: duplicitous taxidermy, plagiarism, stereoscopy, etc. I don’t know if the book will be as explicitly a “project” as The Octopus Game is—the working title is Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes, although that, too, could prove to be a counterfeit.

CL: What advice can you offer other writers, particularly emerging writers or poetry students who may be using the project book as a guiding principle for their own work?


  1. Think about the project book in the same way that one needs to think about working in a restrictive poetic form, like a sonnet or a pantoum: let the constraint channel the direction and force of your energies, like a garden hose channels water.
  2. At the same time, look for ways to improvise within your project—like attaching a Water Wiggle to the end of the aforementioned hose.
  3. One must take poetry seriously, but we, as poets, should never take ourselves too seriously. To this end, always seek out ways to invite play into your projects, and even self-deprecation. There was a certain point when writing The Octopus Game when I knew that I needed to allow the octopus to make fun of me a bit for engaging in such a ludicrous undertaking. This became the poem “Ad Hominem,” which starts off with a parody of myself speaking, before the octopus takes over and gives me a going-over.
  4. Don’t assume that a “project” has to immediately be a discrete “project book.” My late friend and colleague, Jake Adam York, conceived of his poetic project of memorializing the martyrs of the Civil Rights movement as something that spanned several books, and the literary universe is all the richer for it.
  5. Be prepared to fail, and accept that every failure brings your project into sharper focus.


      An Interview with Nicky Beer at The Rumpus

Click here for an audio interview with Nicky Beer by J.P. Dancing Bear

Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews

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