Tag Archives: poetry?

ode to a Cat

Twelve years ago, one of my high school English teachers congratulated me on graduating, and gave me a thoughtful gift that I still appreciate – poems by Neruda. Now its cover is warped and pages are faded, but I’ve nearly memorized my favorite verse from the collection:  ‘Oda al Gato’

For no reason other than cats are awesome, here’s a (translated) excerpt:

“your kind
need not puzzle us, surely –
you, the least of the mysteries
abroad in the world, known to us all, the pawn
of the lowliest householder –
or they think so! –
for each calls himself master,
proprietor, playfellow,
cat’s uncle, colleague,
the pupils of cats
or their cronies.

Not I:
I reckon things otherwise.
I shall never unriddle the cat.
I take note of the other things: life’s archipelagoes,
the sea, the incalculable city,
botanical matters,
the pistil, the pistil’s mutations,
plus-and-minus arithmetic,
volcanoes that funnel the earth
the improbable rind of the crocodile,
the fireman’s unheeded benevolence,
the atavist blue of the clergyman-
but never the cat!
We do not concern him: our reasoning boggles,
and his eyes give their numbers in gold.”


When I’m hanging out with my cat (London, seen above) I really feel Neruda’s words. London doesn’t want to be a human, or dinosaur, or anything else. He doesn’t care about wearing pants. He has serious business to attend to, all the time. I don’t know what it is – but it’s serious.

His most beloved way of attention-getting is the head-butt. If there is something he deems I should be paying attention to, head-butts are distributed until I comply.

If I’m sleeping in, and he decides I have better things to do, he plucks the strings on my guitar with his teeth until I’m awake. He has is own bed, and uses it often, but prefers sometimes to stage his dreams on top of mine, pawing his way into a cocoon on my pillow. His bed, my bed, the breakfast bar. Any flat surface will do. Naps are unscheduled and frequent.

Some cats aren’t friendly. They hide under the bed when company arrives, or they haunt their people from high perches, sneering down unlovingly. London is the opposite. He will climb your legs and shoulders at first introduction. He prefers to carefully screen any reading material I pick up before I can settle in with it, swatting at the pages, sprawling across the entire book.

I don’t know what chorus he learned it from, but many afternoons a concert takes place in the bathtub. Merrroooh, Murraww, Meereew, he sings – it bounces off the bare tiles, loudly. When he isn’t singing, sometimes he is annoyed, and then his voice is inexplicably an exact replica of Marge Simpson’s groan – Mrhhrrmmmmmhh.

Sometimes I wonder how his memory works. If he sees a suitcase start filling up with clothes, it becomes abundantly clear that he is Not O.K. with anyone leaving, even if it’s been months since the last time he saw a suitcase. But on a regular basis, he needs a soft reminder that eating my plants is an offense punishable by water bottle squirting.

He used to live with his brother, Paris, but they are now separate. As kittens they got along famously, but they’ve now been apart for a few years. I’m curious what kind of a reunion they might have. Would it be, “Oh, hey bro, good to see you again”…? Or something more like “I’m going to pee right now, on this carpet, so you know that I belong here and you don’t.”

Head-butting is a great attention-getter, and he employs it often. But he can also work below the radar to let humans know where the power really lies.

Coming home a few years ago to my apartment, after a long workday, I found some of my neighbors outside talking with a group of firefighters. Someone had left their gas burner on, and filled the building up with noxiousness. It wasn’t me, of course, because I am Super Responsible.

But… walking inside, and finding my apartment door open, I was shocked. It was coming from my apartment. I hadn’t used the stove in days – how was this possible?

London winked at me from the corner. The knob on the stove had been turned by his little paw, just enough to start up the gas without a flame. In his innocent leaps and bounds across my kitchen appliances, harmlessly searching for a snack, my furry friend had made an invitation to the fire department.

I’ve since forgiven him. What choice do I have? Not only did he maintain my favor, but I continue to shovel his poop from a box of sand whenever he decides its necessary.

When he’s scrunched up into a little cat-ball, quietly looking through the window out upon the wild, vast expanse of the patio, eyes wide open, fixed intently on this, and then that, and then another thing – something must be on his mind. But as Neruda said, I’m not going to be the guy who finally unriddles it.


by Edna St. Vincent Millay

All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I’d started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.

Over these things I could not see;
These were the things that bounded me;
And I could touch them with my hand,
Almost, I thought, from where I stand.
And all at once things seemed so small
My breath came short, and scarce at all.

But, sure, the sky is big, I said;
Miles and miles above my head;
So here upon my back I’ll lie
And look my fill into the sky.
And so I looked, and, after all,
The sky was not so very tall.
The sky, I said, must somewhere stop,
And — sure enough! — I see the top!
The sky, I thought, is not so grand;
I ‘most could touch it with my hand!
And reaching up my hand to try,
I screamed to feel it touch the sky.

I screamed, and — lo! — Infinity
Came down and settled over me;
Forced back my scream into my chest,
Bent back my arm upon my breast,
And, pressing of the Undefined
The definition on my mind,
Held up before my eyes a glass
Through which my shrinking sight did pass
Until it seemed I must behold
Immensity made manifold;
Whispered to me a word whose sound
Deafened the air for worlds around,
And brought unmuffled to my ears
The gossiping of friendly spheres,
The creaking of the tented sky,
The ticking of Eternity. Continue reading

six hundred yards away from the big glass

buildingwhere they write and think and talk fast about things

happening in kazakhstan, oklahoma, berryville, the northern reaches of canada’s

melting ice i watch this man, three floors below in a reflective

neon vest run his hands through weeds, mulch, and


as a trailer backs into the loading

dock beeping

China, Final Images (A Million Hands)

Now for a bit I’m going to put away the camera.

A girl is walking past with striped yellow and green socks, up to her knees, short purple shorts, and a pink sweater over a white hooded shirt. She has a brown sac over her shoulder and her hair in pigtails with a pink clip thing shaped like a flower. Now a man slightly balding with hair combed back, in grey trousers and a blue shirt, flipping his hands as he walks. Now a Blue Mercedes Benz drives by smelling like diesel. I hear the door shut after it goes around the corner. A man is playing a wooden flute instrument, and I hear the notes and know they are the same notes of music everywhere, the tones are the same but he plays a Chinese sounding song which is very nice. Earlier a girl in a yellow shirt squatted down to photograph a pigeon. Before that a man was teaching a young boy to skateboard. A little girl runs up to her father, who is kneeling down and taking her picture, and she looks at the back of the camera.

A man with white hair carries a briefcase and looks at the ground as he walks. Someone sneezes.
Wind blows through the trees, the leaves look wet with sunlight. The sky is pure blue, the air is warm and breezy. The airport from wherever we flew was the first place I saw the blue sky in a week. The flute player has stopped playing. I haven’t checked my email since Luoyang, a week ago I think. I hear water pouring into the ground from a hose. Two girls walk with umbrella one blue one light blue. This kind of writing achieves the same purpose as photography, but takes much longer to produce. This is my only day in Beijing. I’m sure there is much to see but I’m happy to just sit on a bench.

I hear someone hock a spit. Someone walking behind me whistling. The photograph doesn’t capture sound. People don’t know you’re writing about them, taking their photo is much more obvious. Couples are very affectionate, laying on top of each other on benches. The flute plays.
Two young guys walk past, one carrying a shiny silver shopping bag, the other a bottle of water. One looked at my face. I can see someone wiping the tail of the Mercedes behind the corner of the Bell tower. An old man jogs past wearing a Puma shirt and Adidas shorts. I have seen zero poverty in Beijing. It was probably all expelled for the Olympics. A hump of pink and white stripes, containing a person, lays on the bench next door with a young guy, or maybe girl. Earlier two women walked by with three small kids. Two of them fell down, looked at each other, giggled, got back up, walked a few steps, fell down again, got back up, giggled.

A guy and girl walk by very close, the guy talking Chinese, illustrating his words by pointing into space. In the van on the way back from the wall yesterday, I could hear the driver and tour guide talking in Chinese, and I think they were debating whether Audis were too expensive or not.

The great wall was incredible. Half of it was in total disrepair, the steps degraded into crumbling rocks, making a perilous and exhausting walk. Local farmers attach themselves to tourists, peddling English words, asking for money, selling little gifts. It seemed too impossible to be manmade, but the guide said the materials were local, bricks weren’t carried far, in different parts of China, it is made of different bricks, or whatever material was available. We passed through 31 towers and crossed 10 km.

The tree I’m sitting under is a “Pinus tabulaeformis Carr.”

Looking at the map of Beijing I can’t see anything which gives me a “must-visit” feeling. What are the qualities that make a place a “destination” for visitors? Right now I just feel like sitting down. I imagine Beijing is like Washington, very intriguing for those who live here, mysterious, pretty, but kind of boring for those who don’t.

I saw a white guy who looked like my cousin. A couple walked by. A woman is pacing with a toddler in her arms, a jogger goes past with a mullet haircut and a mustache. Most Chinese lack mustaches, goatees, beards, sideburns. A woman walks by with a facial expression I can’t place. A man holds his arms behind his back, walks slowly, looking up at trees, holds a white plastic bag.
The girl who had falling children before walks by, now alone. A girl in a blue pants suit rides by on a rusty bicycle with a carriage attached to the back. Three girls walk close together, the middle one has a yellow shirt and black umbrella. I feel like a CCTV video camera as I do this exercise.

A little boy walking with his parents stops, stands at attention, salutes his mom, she salutes back.

A man with a peculiar walk goes by: he has the form of someone striding quickly, with swinging arms and long steps, but moves very, very slow. An old man in a red hat is pushed in a wheelchair, with a blanket in his lap.

I think people value the predictability in the city, in any city. Seeing a confused person wandering around without a destination disturbs them because it lacks precious predictability. Spending money in the city always feels expensive, because the exchange is so fast, and it took longer to get the money than spend it.

A man in a cowboy hat and vest walks by, looking like he should be holding a camera, but he isn’t. The pink and white striped lump on the bench walks by, she is a tall girl with long hair in a ponytail. The mullet jogger goes by, he also has very long sideburns.

Far away I see someone wearing a bright green jacket.

Petals on a wet black bough.
Petals on a wet black Sabia Vulgaris Ant.
Petals on a wet black Catalpabungei C.A. May

Stones in a great wall. Urinal cakes in a bathroom. Towels on the cart of housekeeping in a hotel. Empty seats on an airplane, butterflies in the blue sky, letters on a page.

A million hands scratching a million asses. A million couples holding hands. A million camels pissing in the desert. A million roses in bloom, a million beats on a drum, a million cars on a road, a million old men and women sticking their heads in trash cans looking for empty bottles.
A million brains splattered on the road, a million grieving husbands, a million children in strollers passing through parks, a million raindrops washing a million cars of a million shits from a million birds, a million words on a million tongues, a million boys having a million fun, a million Yuan for a million bus rides, a million bones of a million brides, a million Australians sitting in the sun, a million Chinese yawning, farting, spitting, dreaming, on benches, on tables, at kiosks, dreaming a million fantasies, destinies, dreaming a billion nightmares, ecstasies, a billion Chinese jogging, planting a thousand double gardens of a million happiness.
A million Americans, a million poems, a million silly Chinese, a billion worlds, planets, stars, doors.
Petals on a wet black Euonymous japonicus thunb.
A million losses, a million bribes, a million husbands betrayed by wives, a million security checks before plane rides, a billion smiles cracking a billion faces, Chinese etiquette lacking in a million places, American idiot, American Dream, a million people who don’t want what they need, a billion of God, a billion of Buddha, an overnight train for the sons of Judah.
A million high heels on a million motorcycles, a million hard-ons, a man walking backwards, only one Spain, only one Barcelona, only one city in the world with a million bullfights, Pamplona. A million nights on a million oceans, a million televisions, a million stations, a million homes broken, Ten billion stories, one million names, King James, King Henry, Emperor Who?, and one Spain, a million photos of a million babies, A million Chinese, a million ladies, A million stripes on a million shirts, a million pants, a million skirts, flirts, sports, drums, balls.
A million friends, a million dead-ends, Buckingham London Downing number 10, Beijing, a million, Nanjing, a million, Fifty one million, eleven one million.
A million lords of a million rings an infinite possibility of infinite things, an infinite kisses on an infinite noses, an infinite characters and an infinite poses, a million, a billion, infinity, insanity, one man, standing, shouting for all the rest, one city, every place, the planet at rest.
And China, and London, and America, and women and men, and nine thousand years of destiny, and nine doors with eighty one buttons, and pighouse, and one million books read by nobody, written by one million versions, infinite versions, of hands scratching asses.
Petals on a wet black
Prunus triloba Lindl