Philippa Toomey has cats the way other people have mice
Cats and their Poets: an Anthology, edited by Maurice Craig, Lilliput Press £11.99
Ihave cats the way most people have mice, to steal a phrase from James Thurber. They live an intense social and personal life below knee level. I'm not sure if they care much for me, which is a characteristic of cats. Perhaps, like the cat author of the wonderful novel, Felidae, they refer to me among themselves as "the tin opener".
This anthology is the most welcome present a cat person could receive. Cats come first in the title. the poets decidedly second, which is unfair, since the roster is a roll of honour the well known and loved, like Christopher Smart and his cat Jeoffry, Cowper, Don Marquis, Stevie Smith, Gavin Ewart, T S Eliot, and some unexpected entries from Baudelaire, Verlaine. Mallarme, Valery and Appollinaire. It is chauvinistic of me to assume that the English are the only people dotty about cats.
Maurice Craig is a poet himself (though nothing of his appears) and he 'is also an architectural historian and biographer. His works range widely (The Architecture of Ireland, The Elephant and the Polish Question, Irish Classic Houses of the Middle Size, among others) and his contention is, in a charming and lengthy introduction. that Kipling, in essence, got it right in "The Cat Walked By Himself' in the Just So Stories. in that the cat enveigles itself into our home and hearts, but remains essentially itself, exercising its own free will. and going to live three doors away if it feels like it.
The poems are in chronological order, beginning with the famous anonymous poem, written by a monk in the 8th century on a copy of St Paul's epistles somewhere in Carinthia. Pangur Ban, a white cat, is compared. with his skill at hunting mice, to the monk and his skill.
There are some common themes: love of the cat, the pain of loss, the horrid habits of one's furry loves, such as catching mice and birds, stealing food. There's a wonderfully funny poem by Dorothy L Sayers, a complete surprise. about a poor sad hungry cat in the war, when there was nothing — no lights, no cod's heads.
nothing but cat biscuit and the remnants of yesterday's ham. Her dialogue with a reproachful cat follows; she puts on her hat to plead with the butcher for "some fragments of the insides of something-, and then the wicked puss, as soon as her back is turned, leaps on to the kitchen table and finishes off all the chicken.
All cat owners know that feeling. Mine have learned to open the refrigerator. Either one clever cat or a consortium of paws heaves open the door and makes off with smoked salmon, pate, sausages, anything they fancy. Curry was not appreciated, and left on the kitchen floor.
There are three splendid poems by Don Marquis, ostensibly written by Archie the cockroach, who I seem to remember was a journalist transmogrified into an insect, and only able to type by jumping up and down on the keys, therefore he cannot manage either capital letters or any punctuation. Mehitabel is the cat heroine, a carefree alley cat of dubious morals, "The Old Trouper" is from a long line of theatre cats. and has even played a dog on occasion, not to mention doubling as a beard — no, that was his grandfather. Reminiscences are a bit like that. It reminds me of T S Eliot's theatre cat, and if there is anyone I miss, it is Old Possum himself: there is only a brief extract from Alfred J Prufock, comparing the yellow fog to a cat.
Of all the poems I like best that of Thomas Lynch. poet, essayist, and undertaker. In "Grimalkin" he writes of a hated and unloveable cat now 12 years old, the exact age of the adored middle son, Mike. He ignores her awful ways, the heartbreaking disappearances, the mounds of fur balls choking the vacuum cleaner, her crimes against upholsteries. When she dies:
I'll turn Mike homeward from that wicked little grave and if he asks, we'll get another one because all boys need practice in the arts of love and all boys' ageing fathers in the arts of rage.
And, to finish, a four-line poem as neat and elegant as cats themselves, by Geoffrey Taylor: Sally, having swallowed cheese Directs down holes their scented breeze Enticing thus with bated breath Nice mice to an untimely death.