Michiana Chronicles: The Problem With Cats

Jan 18, 2019

Joe's cat Zoey talking
Credit Joe Chaney

Recently I promised to give a poetry reading with the stated plan of dividing my recitation between poems about dogs and poems about cats. I’d thought I’d written plenty of poems about both, but when I began to list them, I noticed that my cat poems merely mentioned cats. Cats were images and ideas. They figured as symbols. The poems weren’t about the cats, and the cats weren’t characters. They never did anything interesting.

The dog poems did fit the bill. Here is a typical one, called “Bali Dog”:

Bali Dog

We were lost among rice fields near Ubud

before the dog showed up. My wife had tried

to place us on the map. We were nowhere—

in a gully on a dirt track. The dog

paused to assess, climbed an abrupt side path,

then looked back, as if saying, “Follow me.”

And we did. Why not? He led us along

a flooded field, across two streams, and up

an embankment to other fields and dikes,

until we spied the road. When we’d reached it

and were sure (and said so, smiling), he turned

and went, leaving us alone then to face

the world with nothing but our own dumb luck.

And suddenly I felt that was enough.

[First published in Stoneboat 7:1 (Fall 2016)]

My poems present dogs as persons. They make decisions, have adventures. But cats appear on sofa-backs, sleeping; or perched on cat trees, looking out windows—mere decorations.

I confronted my cat about this. I said, “Zoey, why don’t you do something important so that I can write about you?” She said, “Did you see when I ate breakfast? It was chicken. I ate it, and it was good.” I said, “There’s no story there. That’s not interesting! It would be great if you could fly or drive a bus, or something like that.” Zoey walked away and climbed into one of her cardboard boxes.

Because of their cuteness, cats are social media stars. But it’s more than that. Their way of life expresses a human fantasy. Caught up in our infinite mult-tasking busyness, we’re nostalgic about leisure, and cats are perfect role models. Not only do they sleep in strange positions and in odd places around the house, but even their activities have a kind of random quality, as if they never had any particular project in mind. You’ll see video clips of cats trying and failing to leap onto furniture. You’ll see a cat try to climb into a small box and get it stuck on its head. Never is it clear that the cat is pursuing any actual purpose. Dogs perceive a social function. They engage. A cat is like a guy on vacation who spends time on the beach with a closed novel in his lap dragging a pointed stick through the sand, not writing or drawing anything, but enjoying the feel of the friction. Or maybe he stands waist-high in the waves, not intending to swim, but passively receiving the force of the tide, taking one step back, then a step forward, as the water impels him to do. He’s off the clock because he’s inside the clock, experiencing time itself.

This is how cats can make philosophers of us all, if we let them.

Anyway, my solution to the cat poem problem has been to turn cats into characters that, although they do very little with their time, talk a lot and have idle opinions about things. Just like us. With cats, nothing needs to happen. That’s one truth I’ve been driving at my whole life.

Music: "Year of the Cat" by Al Stewart