I think of “Broken Starfish” as Mister Miner’s Mona Lisa. This is not because it contains any transcendental elements of literary technique comparable to Da Vinci’s chiarascuro or sfumato, nor is it even, in my view, among his greatest works—at least, not at first glance. It is known, however, that regardless of where Da Vinci traveled, he would bring as company his Mona Lisa on her little wooden plank. The same is true of Mister Miner. On several occasions I have seen him unfold the tattered little scrap of receipt paper 1 on which he originally wrote this poem and quietly muse over it with an inscrutable smile upon his face. What it conjures in him is a mystery, whether it be a longing for something, a satisfaction in something, or a lament of something long lost. Whenever I see this, one word comes to my mind: “Rosebud”. I will not spoil Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane for those who have not had the pleasure, but there is something Mister Miner sees which Da Vinci saw on his board and which the fictional Charles Foster Kane saw on his _________.
The poem itself can be summarized as follows: the speaker asks a starfish how it lost a part of itself and what it has done to recover it. The questions the speaker asks of the starfish, however, provide specific theoretical scenarios leading up to and following the loss. The first question asks if the “breaking of the tides beneath the sea” and therefore nature are to blame. The second ask if the loss was precipitated from being “caught and cast from starboard”, therefore making man responsible. Condensed, the first two questions ask whether man or nature is to blame. It is likely that the speaker is making the comment that both are naturally violent.
The final two questions ask the starfish if it sought its lost appendage among the corals (nature) or the shipwrecks (man) of the reef? Contrary to the first two questions asking if blame may be found in man or in nature, the final two questions search man and nature for redemption. Based on the questions thus far, there are four possible combinations of response: man caused the loss and nature must redeem it, nature caused the loss and man must redeem it, man caused the loss and man must redeem it and nature caused the loss and nature must redeem it. What is interesting is that regardless of all these things, the starfish itself must necessarily remain a natural entity with the exception of its name; God, in the book of Genesis you will remember, assigned Adam with the task of naming all of God’s and therefore nature’s creations. Anything named, therefore, possesses the mark of man.
Upon reading some articles on the starfish, there were a few tidbits I found quite interesting in the context of the poem. Starfish are echinoderms which feed on mollusks. It did not take fishermen of mollusks long to discover that were they to tear a starfish apart and throw it back into the sea, the starfish population would not dwindle, but rather multiply. I discovered the reason is if starfish’s arm is torn off, especially while still containing part of the central disk, it is not only able to generate a whole new starfish, but also the remaining starfish is able to regenerate its missing limb. A five-armed starfish, if torn correctly and provided ideal circumstances, could reform into five separate entities—perhaps even six if you account for the remainder of the central disk. Mister Miner, it seems, has not written a poem about loss, but one of near certain proliferation and abundance.
On a textual level, the last line of the poem contains two words that struck my interest. First, the word “disarm” I think is a humorous way to communicate what the starfish has lost—an arm that is, but secondly disarmament is a process which comes at a time of peace, rather than a time of violence. Perhaps the act of tearing a piece from a starfish is not violent, but summons something else from Genesis: “be fruitful and multiply”. The word “sublimely” however, struck me as a word choice too odd to ignore. After some etymological research I was stunned with the punch it carries in this piece. The word “sublime” comes from the Latin “up to, or on the lintel [beam above a door or window]”; something that is sublime is therefore something elevated, lofty, or exalted. As soon as I read this origin, it was explained to me why Mister Miner has a starfish above his door which is missing an appendage—“of course!” I remember thinking—but how can something beneath the sea be lofty in a literal sense? I found my answer in the word “starfish” itself: you see, starfish are not lofty, but stars are; a starfish for Mister Miner, therefore, is the essential representation of all nature spanning from the stars on the outskirts of the heavens, to the creatures in the depths of the sea. When a starfish is torn apart, it makes more starfish, and when a star is torn apart (a supernova for example) it can produce light billions of times brighter that the sun and can leave behind such phenomena as nebulae (the Crab Nebula for example) or even a black hole (the gravitational pull of which not even light can escape).
Since science seems t would also be pertinent to mention what the term “sublimation” means in the world of chemistry and physics. Sublimation is the process by which a solid object transforms directly into a gaseous state and back into a solid state without at any time becoming a liquid. It took me some convincing before comprehending this, as the way I understood things, ice must first become water before becoming steam and vice versa. This is indeed true, but you may wonder how this applies to “Broken Starfish”? Well, the change undergone by a starfish after being torn apart (and even a star) is somewhat illogical—it is indeed as counterintuitive as an ice cube turning to steam, or lead turning into to gold (the latter being untrue, but equally as baffling as the former).
“Broken Starfish” is ostensibly a very simple poem—one might even call it “cute”—but for Mister Miner it represents the staggering range of nature, from the stars in the sky to the fish in the ocean. This is his reminder that a minor loss, be it by anomaly or by miracle, is the birth of something far greater, something far loftier—something sublime. This is a poem of utter simplicity, that when torn to pieces, brings about an explosion of meaning.
When I asked Mister Miner why “Broken Starfish” holds such importance for him, he said only this, which is from Walt Whitman’s "Song of Myself": “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,/ If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.” It should be clear to you what Mister Miner means by this—at least, it should be clearer than what it meant to me when he first said it. Note also that the first line of the Whitman quote has fifteen syllables, while the second has fourteen; although the meter of “Broken Starfish is different, it follows the same syllabic structure as the fragment Mister Miner used as an explanation (which is rare).
When I questioned him on this, he simply gave me a smug smile; it was nothing like the expression he adorns when reading this poem quietly to himself, and it certainly was not as subtle as the curious gift Da Vinci presented his Mona Lisa--a gift that only she seems fully to understand.