Octopus Mind: Rachel Carney, Seren
Rachel Carney grew up in Sheffield and now lives in Cardiff where she teaches creative writing. For several years she worked in museums and is completing a PhD on the potential of ekphrastic poetry as a tool for visitor engagement in art galleries. In 2021 she won the Pre-Raphaelite Society poetry competition. Octopus Mind is her debut collection.
Carney’s time spent in museums connects with the cover art by award-winning sculptor and underwater photographer Jason deCaires Taylor who has submerged over 1,200 artworks throughout the world’s oceans and seas to create a habitat for marine life. According to Taylor, “museums are places of conservation, education, and about protecting something sacred. We need to assign those values to our oceans.” Noor, the name of the sculpture on the cover is a common Arabic unisex name meaning ‘light’ or ‘The Divine Light’.
Many if not all of the poems in this volume are about dyspraxia. Put simply, dyspraxia is a neurodevelopmental condition that begins in childhood and can cause problems with movement and coordination. In ‘Dyspraxic’ “Microsoft Word underlines it / every single time / in red, as if it isn’t real”. The word is spelt out letter by letter in “The clues were all there, strewn out along the shore” which opens as follows:
If I had stopped to look,
I would have seen the small soft body of a d
face down on the sand …
a fact that is, years later, brought home to the speaker in ‘Diagnosis’:
After thirty-five years, they hold it out to me –
this offering, this raw
acknowledgement that I am not just
lazy, or clumsy,
that the answers were there all along …
In several poems, Carney uses soft-bodied images (think of octopi and jellyfish), the restlessness of sea waves and their effects on shifting sand, illusion and surrealism to convey the idea of dyspraxia to the reader. The visual layouts of some of her poems, in particular, ‘Exposure’, ‘Hidden Disability’ and ‘Familiar, Divergent’ where words or groups of words are spaced out and detached from the rest of the text, illustrate the way the brain is trying to close the gap in order to capture some logic out of a sentence or scene that the eye sees or the ear hears at any given moment.
In ‘Two Seconds of Silence’ Carney expresses this notion well: "but how could you know that my mind is doing backflips cartwheels death-defying twists to get your words into order to filter catch collate them to massage their possibilities into place". The use of the forward slash in ‘eye / reflections’ creates a sense of objects moving at a speed that is too quick for the eye to focus on and the erased words in ‘Normally’ hint at dyslexia.
Many of Carney’s poems are populated with animals whose presence is real or imaginary, such as foxes, horses, hawks and barn owls which add to her assertion that "the world is a mirage of possibility". The recurrent image of the octopus in ‘Octopus Self’, ‘Octopus Mind’ and ‘Nine Brains’ (an octopus has nine brains and three hearts) is key to this collection. There is almost a kind of kinship that she draws from this analogy which is handled to good effect.
A number of poems focus on art with references to Turner and Picasso. There are a few ekphrastic poems in response to paintings about a tiger "rampaging through a tropical storm" and there is a poem ‘after Elizabeth Siddal’ who was a pre-Raphaelite muse as well as being an artist in her own right. Several poems with the word ‘self-portrait’ in their title also betray an interest in art.
Pearls, shells, safe spaces, rock pools, "a safe cage" and "a netted haven" are places to shelter in. The simple action of closing a curtain on the world can, according to Carney, offer some kind of protection from the noise and difficulty of social interaction.
Carney’s ability to put into words what it actually feels like to have dyspraxia is nothing short of amazing. Shot through with humour, poignancy but also acceptance, her explorations of neurodiversity and the workings of the human mind, of new-found understanding and release make this debut collection a remarkable achievement.