In a forthcoming book chapter, our pre-eminent literary-animal scholar, Wendy Woodward, notes that while studies of dogs in our literature are growing, cats scarcely feature. Indeed, in discussing just three texts, she figures she has virtually exhausted South Africa’s stock of fictions in which cats are central.
The situation may be different in poetry. (We are talking about the domesticated cat, not lions, leopards, cheetahs, servals, caracals, or black-footed wild-cats.) Trawling just through some of the collections I possess – archives being awkward in the Age of Covid – I turn up a fair slew of cat poems. So while the following sample is as small as a six-week-old kitten, we can make a start. Just what it is about cats that turns these poets on?
One facet is of course cats’ innate kind of pent-up power, allied with uncommon grace. Perseus Adams’ 1965 poem “The black cat” is filled with an atmospheric electricity that the cat seems to embody, “igniting a black spell” – an allusion no doubt to the association of black cats with necromancy. By association, but also in paradoxical opposition, the cat seems to derive its mysterious energy from its wild ancestries. The final stanza reads:
If anything stands easy before him here
It is that brazen jaguar the sun
Frying the garden with his steaming breath
And bringing the house to his jungle door.
Drawing up his dignity the black cat departs
While the lawn hisses with an electrical tongue.
[from The Land at my Door]
Anyone who has lived attentively with a cat knows how often the creature seems aloof or elusive or mysterious somehow. Eleanor Anderson captures something of this in her four-line poem “Witch cat” :
Tamina, black and shining,
leaps in through the window
from the heavy rain.
But she is dry.
[from A Very Far Place]
Somehow, that dimension of inexplicability coaxes or lures one into a space of self-reflection. So that fine poet and mentor of Johannesburg, the late Lionel Abrahams, writes in “Meditation with a cat”:
The cat inhabits this moment on the bed
complete, nothing left over, nothing intended - ...
Alongside, I simmer with thought,
intentions, memories, questions, memories...
The cat’s lesson seems to be that we should put down all those roiling thoughts to achieve an “agile, replete/ inhabitation of the moment”, an inner peace. I’d go with that, but Abrahams complicates this in several ways. The cat is also “gaoled” in the moment; he watches her test its limits. He knows – or thinks he knows – that beneath “her curious elastic ease” she is “tensed by suspicion” and a “cunning lust to kill”. He also knows that those motives are being attributed to the cat by him – an instance of that thorny philosophical question of anthropomorphism. Literary-animal scholars like Woodward are fond of referring to an essay by French man-of-letters Jacques Derrida, “The Animal that Therefore I Am”. The essay opens with Derrida standing naked in front of his staring cat, wondering what the cat is thinking of him. But the cat for him comes to symbolise utter incomprehensibility. I think Derrida was more worried about the state of his ageing equipment than about taking the time and trouble to read the cat. Several other respondents have demurred from Derrida, including Jenny Diski in her lovely, honest book, What we don’t know about Animals. The point is, we never really know what’s going through another animal’s mind – but if we’re attentive and willing to learn we can find an awful lot of animal commonality, and we can close the communicative gulf. In contrast to that, however, Abrahams ends his poem stressing his all-too-human difference and uniqueness:
Perception and concept and design
are the space wherein I’m free.
[from A dead tree full of live birds]
Cape Town poet Gabeba Baderoon is attentive. She even learns life-lessons from, or at least parallels herself with, two cats, in the truly lovely three-page poem, “Something I Know So Well”. Perhaps part of that something is a condition of entrapment: the cats, arbitrarily named by someone Krona and Mark, are rescued from a cage in an animal shelter. At the poet’s home, “Each day I learn/ the language we must speak to one another”. The kittens gather or make toys for themselves. One day it is an unravelled spool of wool:
One cat lies by the end of the strand
and one by the tangled mass.
I sit on the edge of the bed and watch
a small set of rules.
One tugs, and rests; the other picks up the end and takes it to the side, and rests; the first tugs again: “Without a sound, the centre point/ of the skein moves three steps back/ and forth between them”. “In broken objects,/ the cats seek/ the makings of things”: likewise the poet:
I want to find an unmade thing,
a raw length, and feel
when I hold it.
A taut response,
greater than mine.
I wish, on the other end,
for something I know
I do not need
to look at it.
[from The dream in the next body]
A model for successful relationship. Another of Baderoon’s poems is “At the breakfast table”, a compact, resonant observation-of-an-observation:
At the breakfast table
the cat looks intently at my food.
Suddenly, his head swings up
and swivels in a slow half-circle
the ceiling and down to the window.
I see what comes into view
- two geese
flying over the house
to meet his gaze.
[from A hundred silences]
The cat in a way ‘teaches’ the poet how to look. Derrida’s gaze goes all ways. There’s also the ever-present darker shadow of the cat’s ineradicably predatory nature.
The self-styled Tatamkhulu Afrika, once Cape Town’s favourite bohemian poet, lived for a period at the bottom of someone’s garden, and so was well-placed to observe the vicious antics of feral “Spring Cats”. Here, outside, named-and-domesticated and “silken-haired Maybelline” becomes impervious to the poet’s “ingratiating tones”. She is interested only in sex with roving males, whose “god speaks to them in tongues/ of blood and sperm”. Though at other times “prescient as a shade ... knowing she was beautiful and strange”, she now screams “outraged”, as battle-scarred tomcats “gang-rape” her. The poet persuades himself that this urban violence “is the quickening of the wood,/ this is the resurrection and the dream” – but he has to turn almost squeamishly away, feeling as if those primal fangs are “fastening in [his own] spine” [from Turning Points].
Even more liberated are the denizens described in Ingrid de Kok’s “Italian Cats”. There, the ferals are barely tolerated, partly because of their historic predation upon plague-bearing rats, even as they “ransack/ leftover pizza with any sauce ... eyes acquisitive as sin”.
The padrone wants these lean medici poisoned
but does nothing
close every door after him.
Still, they monitor his moods,
collude with younger guests,
gaining on him and his city of food.
[from Terrestrial Things]
More domesticated cats have to endure, or choose to negotiate, a balance of domestic constraint and ‘wild’ freedom. Another Capetonian, Geoff Haresnape, writes in his poem entitled simply “Cat”, of a cat among the “criss-crossings” and “interface” of branches and walls. From innocuous and “tolerant” pads spring claws “like little bowie-knives of polished stone”. This hint of concealed savage wildness is echoed as the cat contemplates a flurry of White-eyes. Nothing happens, though. The cat has her “queendom”, but it’s small, really. Still, she can revel “in the fugitive moment[;]/ she takes as a universe/ minutiae that happen to be here”. The poem ends on a line of antitheses, in which we are reminded of the control we exert over our pets – especially their sexuality – even as we provide them with la dolce vita: “spayed but not spoiled in her Elysium” [from New-born Images].
Perhaps our finest poet of animal presences, Ruth Miller also captures antithetical aspects in “Two Cats”, symbolically white and black. The white, free or feral one is “Drawn towards the moon like any lover/ Awaiting the hunter who will snare her heart”, and “flies away on a broomstick of desire”. The black cat, in stark contrast, seems dangerous, “Sleek as a snake”, but in fact “lies obliterated in a silken sleep” indoors, “too enclosed with windows”: “Only his soft tail twitches, remembering”. Two sides of the cat, but also of the human poet, adventurous fantasy always in tension with easeful complacency.
Gail Dendy also recognises cats’ predatory side, using some visceral imagery in “Cat and Rat”. A rat’s gruesome death becomes a learning experience for her children as well as a meditation on language itself. The poem ends:
Cat, rat. The life of single syllables
straying through all our nursery rhymes,
prowling the dark around the tongue,
hunting each specific word down,
eager to see what happens next.
A more affectionate poem “Cat, sleeping”, is part humorous, part sad, as Dendy listens to her aged, “oversized” cat snoring. She recalls his “killer” days, but now he’s somnolent, “a little moth-eaten”. But there’s still the pleasure of “listening to the hammers of the small/ wooden box of his chest”, watching him settle into “the last/ slim wedge of sunlight ... ladle up his paws and fix them to himself/ with a rounded scoop of tail”, his snore like “the wheezing clack of looms ... spinning his fur from base copper into gold.”
Ageing pets, being so much shorter-lived, inevitably die on us, leaving us with the enigmas of affection and death. In the delicate, multi-part poem “Death of a cat”, Dendy buries her pet, put down by a vet: “One silver, slippery jab and she collapsed// in a soft snow of grey rumpling” – that appalling moment so many of us must face.
With this final spade of earth
we have damped her down, seeded her,
placed her underground
where she perpetually smiles
and the thought of an afterlife
and how we make sense of them both.
[all from The Lady Missionary]
Moira Lovell perhaps takes identification with cat-ness furthest in three very short poems in her volume Departures. “Lizard” is a lament at the unnecessary predation of a “sleek pedigree-spoilt” cat upon a lizard, whose decomposition at least goes to “fuelling ants”; the poet slides the remains into a bin, like burying a sailor at sea. In the others, the cat’s perspective is more centrally imagined. “Feline Sky” reads:
The tall sky
Ladders above me
Filled with claws
Flexing like steel stars
And your eye
Like the moon
Cat heaven, perhaps? Even more so in the funny third poem, “Winter Cat-speak”, in which the cat is the narrator. It is being nibbled along its back by a friendly “pumpkin” of a dog, as if, the cat muses, “ I/ am a vegetable/ too; perhaps a mealie-/ (succulent to lovers’ lips)/ cob”. Such cross-species friendships are always amazing to me – part of the new ‘languaging’ of the domestic envelope.
Wendy Woodward should have the last – if somewhat disturbing – word. In her poignant poem “Parallel Worlds”, we are reminded that however problematic our domestications might be, it’s a very tough world outside that space. The poem depicts the poet driving to work, listening to Ted Hughes’ animal poems (themselves pretty red in tooth and claw). Near her workplace, she notices a feral black kitten, “desolate in the feathery rain”; also feathery, two storeys up, sits a “vigilant” eagle-owl. When the poet returns,
the cat has gone from the quad
and the hills and plains of his wet desert
The owl, supreme, has marked the wall
with painterly excrement
white against the liver-dark bricks
[from Love, Hades & other animals]
As I said, a tiny sampling. If you know of other South African cat-centred poems, please feel free to let me know.
For more animal books and paintings, visit www.netsoka.co.za