The new geometry mirrors a universe that is rough, not rounded, scabrous, not smooth. It is a geometry of the pitted, pocked and broken up, the twisted, tangled and intertwined…. [S]uch odd shapes carry meaning.… They are often the keys to the essence of a thing.
~ James Gleick, Chaos
Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.
~ Shakespeare, The Tempest
We say things are shapeless when they have a shape we don’t like, that is to say an irregular shape, a lack of symmetry, a pointlessness, a want of recognizable organizing principle, an unanalyzable form, an outline that fails to substantially map to any other outline we’ve ever seen, an unfamiliarity, a strangeness, a monstrosity. We are afraid the shapeless thing will take us over, erase our edges, unbalance us, take away our sense of purpose. We are afraid we will be eaten.
you’re water step into the water
A woman is often referred to as shapeless, especially after she has borne children. She is no longer a tidy package, she has been stretched, distorted, colonized; she leaks, her boundaries are not clear. Her infant seems at times like a removable appendage, a strange growth on the body that appears and disappears, both unpredictable and grotesque. Her flesh ebbs and flows, like the sea, to accommodate the child’s appetite.
in a shadow in the pond eggs being laid
The sea, too, strikes us as shapeless, vast and mutable, mutating, mute. Its edges are untraceable and its depths unknowable, and it contains an uncountable number of other forms. Many of these we also call shapeless, because we can’t clearly perceive or define their shape. Sponges, coral, jellyfish: we say they are lumpy, blobby, bumpy—words sound like mumbling; inarticulate and undefined speech. The sea silences us and imposes its will on us, and sometimes, in fact, it does eat us, and if we are ever seen again we are unrecognizable.
in the aquarium all the things we used to be
There, on the shore, amid the wrack and ruin, the flotsam and jetsam: that’s you, a shape I can recognize and name, if not fully comprehend. You were once part of my body but now you’re part of the air. You’re moving from shell to shell, from driftwood to driftwood, touching, lifting, examining, choosing, collecting. Like everyone else, you toss aside far more than you collect. Every once in a while you look back inland, every once in a while you look out to sea. The sun is setting and your figure is melding with the darkness; I’m watching you and then I’m failing to watch. What happens to you at last? I try to draw my suspicions in the sand, but the sea rises up and reproaches me.
ocean vents the life we don’t remember