Tuesday, January 10, 2023


 I love cats as much as the next premature curmudgeon, and I can't help but think that Christopher Smart is half pulling our collective leg with his rock-slapping waves of adulation for his cat. Years ago I wrote a poem called "The Praying Mantis" that was a list of self-contained sentences, each beginning with the title phrase and then completing itself with a some qualitative drivel; the point was, of course, was to lampoon the baroque phrased claims you come across in self-penned biographies, press releases or eulogies that overshoot the commemorative mark. The challenge was to see how many fresh takes I could get starting from the same premise and at what point would I sense that I was done, winding up the sequence on a diminished, perhaps exasperated note?

The praying mantis returns no phone calls,
The praying mantis will not shake your hand,
The praying mantis does not pay sales tax,
The praying mantis had been to the moon and found it drab and without a bar,
The praying mantis ignores streetlights and no smoking signs,
The praying mantis does not hear what you have to say,
The praying mantis is the other side of the story,
The praying mantis loves a hammer with sturdy, curved claw,
The praying mantis will have lunch when he's done with you,
The praying mantis is a close, friend of Sammy Davis Jr.,
The praying mantis directs traffic until it's an atonal film score,
The praying mantis says nothing but means volumes,
The praying mantis cured cooties and shared it with no one…
The litany went on another sixty lines, until the absurdity grew tiresome, or my imagination failed, or both, but the point is that it was interesting to witness the momentum one could get attributing massive potential to things of seeming small consequence. I was interested in how the praying mantis could, by his lack of interaction with the larger human world, could seem, given the colliding box car cadence, seem a larger, more powerful force, one mere mortals should respect lest his restraint fall and said insect really show us what for. I had been thinking of every cliché portrayal of hip and badass cool I had come across, from junkie jazz geniuses, the Beats, white Negros and tortured renditions of existential cool; the sort of man who so agrees with himself-in-the-world that he is privy to great amounts of power, but that power is with held because there is no need for an ostentatious display. In other words, a state so slippery that attempts to describe it accurately result in growing amounts of absurdity, some of it baffling. Smart, it seems, wants the habits of his cuddly kitty to embody something purposeful with the divine, to reveal a connection with a heavenly agenda that our intellect prevents us from sensing much of the time but which a cat, with senses tuned like delicate instruments, can pick up on and be affected by.
For then, he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon
**his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing, he begins to consider himself.
For this, he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
There is a belief that there are absolutely no coincidences in God's Universe , that nothing, nothing at all happens my mistake, that what people and creatures do is , to greater or lesser degree, the result of a divine intervention against our baser natures. One can see why Smart was inspired by his cat, cats being a creature that, while domesticated, still seem independent, engaged with invisible forces, acting in accordance to stimulus humans have little or no capacity to discern.
Smart injects so much purposefulness and subtle intent in his cat's movements that assuming that he's using the creature to mirror his self-image is unavoidable. Or at least something to consider as one pursues alternative readings. He seems to be writing about his own lazing about, it seems, his own time eating, musing, writing, taking walks, talking , just being rather than doing something more active, productive and profitable. His cat is connected to a spiritual path, or at least he sees hints of it with each lick, purr, fur ball and odd reclining angle, and mounts an indirect argument that his very being, those times when he is thinking of the connections between stationary objects, the contemplative mode, is precisely how his God intended him to be in this life. Arguing that God didn't want me to work is something I've never had the nerve to try.
Some had commented elsewhere that these might be called "attention poems", something I like the sound of.I like "attention poem", as in a particular thing--creature, object--getting an unusual and , I think , unexpected focus. I'm one of those who thinks that citizens come to know the world through addressing it formally, "knowing", in this sense, being more than a formal recognition of origins, functions, and utility; imbuing a mantis, a cat, a building with qualities alien to them is a way of developing an intimate relationship with those things that might otherwise be problematic. We give them extraordinary qualities through a fanciful rhetoric, itself distorted and careening along the tracks so that they may become ordinary to us. It may be a shamanistic ritual transposed to the written word, an exercise of the will to imagine a realm of metaphysical propositions in an effort to assimilate a bit of the virtue and power the tropes would imply. It would seem a way of making that which is ultimately unknowable--the thing in itself--less of a concern and more an asset in our way through the day, the weeks, the months, the years.
Thinking again, the use of the word "ordinary" doesn't do justice to Smart's evocation. Nothing in the way Smart describes his cat seems an attempt to reduce something in size. A better phrase would have served the point better, which is my feeling that Smart, on some level, was trying to associate himself with the subtle and sublime qualities he attributes to his dear cat and, perhaps , have those same graces become a part of himself. You could also assert that the very act of sensing these things in his pet and having the language mastery to sufficiently align the motion with the spiritual nuance and attending effect comes from an innate quality, that these conditions already exist within Smart . He would be, then, be in the act of recognizing what he already knows , that part of the shared condition within his God's universe that is within himself and the living things around him. Not that the poem is meant to be the beginning of a campaign toward universal spiritual suffrage for all creatures great and small, but his close reading of Jeoffry's manner offers an enticing clue to his greater cosmological sense.

Saturday, January 7, 2023


 It's springtime, the temperatures rise, the flowers blossom and the nostrils swell with the scents of clean air, a sweetness that hearkens you to younger, hardier, randier days. At the drop of a hat, when the instincts overcame your better thinking in tandem with a like-minded partner--heads and genitalia swelled with the flush of urge and there was no argument to stop the rearrangement or removal of over and underclothes. Desire had its logic, but it was without language or syllogism, no conventional tools at all; it was an eroticism of things in your surroundings being focused, like perspectives that vanish to the same point, the same conclusion; you have to get your nut. This moment in the day, after the stolen looks, the limping banter and sly insinuation, has been dictated. You vanish, you get your rocks off. And for the rest of your life you relive those moments, as there is in the accumulated memory the incidents that have the psychic tabs sticking out. The days at work, the conversations you find yourself having, your appropriate discussion with someone half your age set you up for visions of old youth and the energy stream you hadn't dipped into for years. The current race reminds of you of every erotic thing you'd performed; for a moment you find yourself slipping between dimensions, the conversation you're actually having and the bedtime story you're presently reliving.


My student sends letters to me with the lights turned low.

They feature intricate vocabulary, like soporific and ennui.

Like intervening and kinetic and tumult. He strings words together

like he's following a difficult knitting pattern. He is both more

and less striking without a shirt on. I know this from the time

I ran into him at Wal-Mart buying tiki torches and margarita mix

and, flustered, I studied the white floor tiles, the blue plastic

shopping cart handle, while he told me something that turned

to white noise and I tried not to look at his beautiful terrible chest,

the V-shaped wings of his chiseled hip-bones. I write him back.

I tell him there are two horses outside my window and countless weeds.

I tell him that the train comes by every other hour and rattles the walls.

But how to explain my obsession with destruction? Not self-immolation

but more of a disintegration, slow, like Alka-Seltzer in water. Like sugar in water.

I dissolve. He writes enthralling. He writes epiphany and coffee machine.

He is working in an office, which might as well be outer space.

I am in the mountains. The last time I worked in an office, he was ten.

I was a typewriter girl. I was a maternity-leave replacement for a fancy secretary.

I helped sell ads at TV Guide. I was fucking a guy who lived in a curtain-free studio

above a neon BAR sign on Ludlow Street, and all night we were bathed in pot smoke

and flickering electric pink light. Here, the sun goes down in the flame

of an orange heat-wave moon. The train thrums and rattles the distance,

and I think of his chest with the rounded tattoo in one corner and my youth,

the hollows of his hip-bones holding hard, big-box fluorescent light.

—Erika Meitner

Meitner's poem gets that layered desire right, exquisitely so, especially as she tries to talk about her young male friend's seductive use of big words while trying to study his shirtless chest and bone structure. She dissolves, she says, and her memories are no longer ordered by date, but become, it seems, a series of membranes she passes through. The connection with the actual moment is tenuous as the euphoric recall gives way to biographical detail, wonderfully, enticingly offered up here in the guise of bars, tiki torches, Walmart stores.  The community she lives and works in, for a moment, seem cruelly banal as the light of previous glories of skin loom large. The authority of the senses rules out any other possibility; for a moment, a fleeting moment, the promises one has made and the commitments one has taken matter, not a wit. But one is anchored to the moment they are in--the mate, the job, the children all require your attention. All you can do is step from the time machine, brush off the dust, return to the world at hand.