Purple Sea Urchin

This entry is part 3 of 12 in the series Bestiary


Strongylocentrotus purpuratus

The urchin uses its spines as feet; for it rests its weight on these, and then moving shifts from place to place.
Aristotle, The History of Animals

Spines have more uses
than one would think.
Sure, they defend against sea otters
and the voracious stars.
Ball-jointed, they swivel to catch
pieces of floating algae
for the shorter, two-
fingered pedicellines to convey
to the bottom-scraping mouth
& its five sharp pyramids.

They are digging bars.
A purple urchin can excavate
a hollow into solid rock.
If it starts too young, it may become stuck,
entombed. Some never dig at all,
& wander slow as time
through the kelp forest.

The spines sharpen a kind of vision, too,
like squinting eyelids
bringing into focus
the images collected by the pedicellines
& the tube feet, which are furred
with light-sensitive molecules.
The more numerous a sea urchin’s spines,
the sharper its vision — & yet
it has no brain.
It is all brain.
And it lacks eyes because it is all eye,
revolving in its self-made socket
for as long as a century,
risking death from the removal
of a single spine,
unable ever to shut.

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12 Replies to “Purple Sea Urchin”

  1. Oh boy, you really know how to conjure ideas that stick like burrs in the mind.

    And it lacks eyes because it is all eye,
    revolving in its self-made socket
    for as long as a century,
    risking death from the removal
    of a single spine,
    unable ever to shut.

    That really nails the bull’s-eye, slam bang in the centre. Salty images cook in my imagination.

    1. Oh good. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding images on the web. I was helped in imagining them by a post from my friend Bev, at her old blog Burning Silo.

      An earlier draft of the poem started with reproduction, and how the ability of sperm and egg to meet up, and full development to take place, in open water led to the purple sea urchin’s adoption by laboratory scientists for the study of sexual reproduction and development, which in turn led to the complete sequencing of its genome, which is how scientists learned about the genes for vision and pursued that line of inquiry. Fascinating stuff, but too much to fit into one lyric poem. And I realized that it was the critter’s spininess that I most identified with anyway.

  2. Wonderful how the creature is all brain, all eye, as if by its very existence it’s more than itself.

    I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed listening to your “Odes to Tools” sample poems. After listening I went straight to the the order tab. The poems are finely crafted, reflective, and of this world. I imagine I’ll have to google quite a few of the tools, but I’ll wait till the second read. It’s fun not really knowing what the tools are, seeing where they take the speaker’s imagination.

    1. You’re not only kind but very helpful: it’s good to know that the sample poems with audio, via Issuu at the Phoenicia Publsihing page, were instrumental in your decision to order the book. I’m glad you like the poems, and especially that you find them engaging even when you aren’t familiar with the tools they describe. I shouldn’t assume that everyone grew up around dads and grandads with large collections of hand tools.

  3. Fascinating poem. The idea of them as all eye is a wild thought. I’ve seen sea urchins piled up on rocks before and when I think of them now, I imagine the whole rock alive, staring back at me.

    1. Now there’s a scary image! Yes, it is going to take some mental readjustment. But imagine how much readjustment we’d have to do if we knew as much about other species as we know about the purple sea urchin and the fruit fly?

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