In the latest issue of Conjunctions, I came across a poem, titled simply "Cat", by Martine Bellen, which intrigued and delighted me. Here's the first stanza:
The cat belongs to
Me. The cat belongs
To the house. The cat belongs to
The other cat. The cat
Belongs to itself. The cat
Belongs to the forest. The
Cat belongs to the bird and mouse.
The cat belongs to the mountain lion.
The cat belongs to no one. The cat
Belongs to nothing. The cat belongs
To everyone, everything.
In simple, quick sentences (that made me think of a reading primer), this poem takes off on a quest to define and understand what the cat is by exploring the network of objects, beings and meanings associated with it.
But whether the words come from "the domestic" or "the wilds", they can't quite catch the cat. It's all and none of the above. The next stanza elaborates on this mysterious being and the words it's been given to live in:
The cat has a name
That I gave it. Everyone knows the cat's name
Is not its name. It is my name for the cat.
Sometimes the cat refuses to acknowledge
This name and sometimes the cat
Plays along with the life I've created for the cat.
Sometimes the cat pretends that it doesn't live in a realm
Different from the one that the cat and I
Live in together. The cat has needs that must be met
For the cat to live in my house, though most of the cat's time
Is spent elsewhere. I invite the cat to live with me
So I can perceive some of the "elsewhere"
In which the cat spends much cat time.
The cat shares what I can't see by maintaining
An existence in my house and by responding to
The name I gave the cat.
The wit here, of course, is found in the way the cat gets to turn the tables on its supposed owner. It plays with her just as she plays with it -- pretending at times to act like a cat should, according to human conceptions and desires. But you also get the sense that this creature is doing a little shucking and jiving.
As such, it's a relative of Montaigne's famous cat, of whom the Renaissance-era skeptic asked, "When I am playing with my cat, how do I know that she is not playing with me?"
I gather that Montaigne meant to throw doubt on the presumption that "man", with his weapons of Reason and Language, was a sort of god over "ignorant" nature. He believed instead that animals had languages and reasons of their own -- ones that we just couldn't understand.
As it turns out, he was closer to the truth than the "cutting edge" rationalists of his day. According to current science, animals not only have languages, but they get high (and addicted!), depressed, and can become obsessed with their own grooming.
Maybe that's why this poem also made me think of the web's love of cat humor. Isn't what's funny about some of it (as in the pix at left) the fact that it makes humans seem pompous in their assumptions of superior intelligence over the animal kingdom?
In any case, the last stanza of Bellen's poem opened up another dimension of meaning for me -- so that I read it as much as a comment about language as animals.
I know there will be a moment
In the circuitry of space-time in which the cat will discard
The name and forsake my house for good
And will exist only in the fields
I cannot see without the cat living in my house. On that day,
I might say, "The cat has moved full time into the wild."
Or I might say, "Miau-miau has run away."
What strikes me about the final two lines is that both are descriptions from different (say less and more personal) human perspectives (just as earlier we got a picture of life with "owner" and "cat" from their respective positions). Yet, no matter how many ways the poem looks at the cat, in the end, it escapes back into the "wilds" beyond words.
I wonder, then, if just as Montaigne's quip questioned the pretensions of his day, whether you could read this poem as a rejoinder to some of the cliches of our own.
The assumption that the world is made or our descriptions of it is a common one in our intellectual discourse. And why not -- it 's a sentiment as old as Genesis. As Umberto Eco put it:
"...Creation itself arose through an act of speech; it is only by giving things their names that he (God) created them and gave them their ontological status."
Perhaps. But the cat who escaped this poem might not agree.