Perdita

Why cats are better than people.

by Michael Robbins

My sister grumbles about sharing dedication space in my book with my cat, Perdita. I like cats. People are fine, but, like Ivan Karamazov, I prefer them in the abstract. Most of them are very stupid. Of course there exist cats, as Carl Van Vechten wrote, “as stupid as any tax-payer.” Some of my friends swear Perdita is one of these, but they’re jealous. Cats can be cruel and stingy and aloof (although most cats are far less aloof than has generally been supposed). And all of them are half insane. But I have never been disappointed or bored or, aside from several scratches and one particularly nasty bite, hurt by a cat. Most cats are interesting, and they are easy to love, which is more than anyone can say for most people.

It’s a cliche, I know. Van Vechten devotes an entire chapter of his indispensable The Tiger in the House: A Cultural History of the Cat to “The Cat and the Poet.” Petrarch, Gray, Issa, Johnson, Smart, Eliot—the roster of poets who have found the cat good to think on is well known. Robert Duncan’s “cat is fluent. He/converses when he wants with me”; Marianne Moore’s cat “Peter” “can talk but insolently says nothing.” William Carlos Williams’s precisely poised syntax and enjambment step into the flowerpot with the cat. Keep the dog far hence, but let the cat, as Swinburne has it,

Stately, kindly, lordly friend,
      Condescend
Here to sit by me, and turn
Glorious eyes that smile and burn,
Golden eyes, love’s lustrous meed,
On the golden page I read.

Van Vechten offers this typically cracked explanation for the cat/poet nexus:

Poets, I believe, are more closely in touch with the spirit of grimalkin, the soul of a pussy-cat, than either prose writers or painters. They should be, because poets are mystics, at least the great poets are mystics, speaking like the oracle or the clairvoyant.... The poet knocks at gates which sometimes open wide, disclosing gardens to which entrance is denied to those who stumble to find truth in reason and experience. Faith is needed to comprehend the cat, to understand that one can never completely comprehend the cat.

This contains a valuable insight about cats (and a lot of nonsense about poets). The cat brushes past our efforts to understand her. Montaigne’s famous question—“When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?”—deepens the more one considers it.

Perdita is obese and slovenly. She often disdains the litter box for purposes other than urination. Sometimes she disdains it in favor of my bed—even, on a few occasions, when I was sleeping in it. She hates everybody but me, especially the women I date. She talks too much. She perches beside my head at four in the morning and meows in my ear until I wake up. She is terrible at catching mice. Once she chased a mouse under a bookshelf. I watched it run out the other side, reverse direction, and run right past her. She stayed where she was, staring under the bookshelf. She stayed there for days. I caught the mouse in a towel and let it go outside.

And Perdita makes me smile every day. She runs to greet me when I come home, and she flops at my feet in the morning to be petted. She loves boxes and balled-up pages of the Nation. She is afraid of vacuum cleaners and tornado sirens. She lies on her back in squares of sunshine with her paws in the air and looks perfectly ridiculous and content. My friend Kristen tells her cat Mouse each morning that he’s her best friend, which is the sort of behavior that makes non-cat-people roll their eyes. But there’s something to it. Perdita and I don’t discuss novels or anything, but we really are friends.

Literature’s not good for much—all it can really do for us is, to paraphrase Harold Bloom, teach us to see, hear, feel, and think. I don’t believe it can make us care about nonhuman animals. But, if we do care about them, it just might be able to enlarge the scope of our sympathy—or bring it into focus. It might remind us that our relationship with the animals is not one-sided. Van Vechten is right to claim that it is Baudelaire who has most successfully captured the enigma of Felis catus, Baudelaire who writes that when he turns from the cat he loves to look within himself:

Je vois avec étonnement
Le feu de ses prunelles pâles,
Clairs fanaux, vivantes opales,
Qui me contemplent fixement.

I find to my astonishment
        like living opals there
his fiery pupils, embers which
observe me fixedly.*

 

*Translation by Richard Howard

Originally Published: July 2, 2012

COMMENTS (6)

On July 2, 2012 at 6:12pm Raphael Kosek wrote:
What a gorgeous and true take on cats and poets! Whenever I read a new poem of mine aloud when no one is home, my cat Minnalouche,comes to listen. She is intrigued by my poetry voice. Cats are mysterious and unfathomable as is much great poetry, but something about them (both cats and good poems) strikes true.

On July 5, 2012 at 9:45am rebecca d chaitin wrote:
True, we cannot comprehend the cat, but I think the reverse may also be true...sometimes my cat(s) look at me as if to say, What IS it with this creature? But they are tolerant, and excellent company.

On August 1, 2012 at 12:29pm zakihya wrote:
Love this one.

On August 1, 2012 at 8:58pm Kushal Poddar wrote:
To understand a cat is to become half feline. Try
licking its ears. Try feeding it from your palm and put
up a mock food fight and believe me after a few wounds
she will know your mockery. She will acknowledge how
enormous a beast you are and how you have folded
yourself inside the cocoon of a pretend cat.

Some days ago while chatting with a friend about writing
whatever I see, I wrote this
The Cat hair

The wood shelves my books-
past kept aside for the future
when I shall discover
a cat's hair marked one moment
aloft and in between the volumes
filled with some words
spent time staring at the whiteness of the strand.

written on 27th 2012 July

Having said these, I love this writing.

On August 2, 2012 at 5:52pm Pietro wrote:
Hey, I bet if you set this spiffy little bit of ailuropheeelia to music and put it on Bway you'd make a big-arse pile o' dough! Nobody don't like cats!

On August 7, 2012 at 8:10am Kara Williams wrote:
Mesmerizing! Beautiful essay.

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This prose originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Poetry magazine

July/August 2012

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 Michael  Robbins

Biography

Michael Robbins is the author of Alien vs. Predator (Penguin, 2012). His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, PoetryHarper'sBoston Review, and elsewhere. His essays and reviews appear in London Review of Books, the New York Observer, the Chicago Tribune, and several other publications; his music reviews in Spin, the Village Voice, and The Daily. He is currently at work on a critical book, Equipment for Living (forthcoming . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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