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My cat, Jeofrey
Sep 26th, 2011 by alexfaye

Of course, you know I don’t have a cat.  Terribly allergic.  I am referring to Christopher Smart’s cat, and the lovely poem he wrote in tribute.

In class the other day, when I was speaking to my students about the writing process, and I told them that although writing is fundamentally a solitary activity, it is also a social activity — that we write in order to share a piece of our inner experience with others.  I think James Baldwin said something like, “You think your pain and suffering is unique in the history of the world, but then you read.”

And when I was telling them this, my eyes welled up, and then my voice cracked, which immediately got everyone’s undivided attention.

Later, a very sweet and concerned student wrote me an email that essentially said, “I read the poem, and I can’t figure out why it made you cry.  Please explain to me what you are seeing.”

So I wrote back.

I found this poem in the most accidental, serendipitous way — in fact, I could not even tell you how I discovered it. It was not in a class or even in a book, or anything. It was just there, somehow in the world, waiting for me to find it. When stuff like that happens, I perk up. My attention is quickened.

I find Smart’s poem charming, and I will be able to read it without growing bored of it for the span of my life; I love the idea that an animal — in expressing its true nature — is expressing God’s will. (Does that mean that when I express my true nature, that I am expressing God’ s will? If so, what is my true nature? And that, my dear, is a question that we can ponder every day: Am I expressing my true nature today? Or am I expressing someone else’s idea for me?)

But what sometimes chokes me up is NOT the poem itself…it’s the knowledge that words live on longer than mortal human being, and that words retain the power to touch us and move us far longer than an ordinary human life span. Of course, we know this any time we pick up the words of any dead author…(I’ve been thinking of this often lately as I read David Foster Wallace, a brilliant writer and compassionate human being who committed suicide in 2008.) Black lines on paper EVOKE MEANING that transcend space and time. This never fails to amaze me.

And then I think of Christopher Smart in the asylum — what must an asylum been like in 16th century England? I ask myself, “Did he imagine that his words would reach a 20th century woman in Southern California?” and of course, the answer is no. What a ridiculous idea that would have been for him.

I wonder if he was cold, or if he was hungry, or if he was lonely.  I know he was alone, writing poetry, with nobody for company but his cat Jeofrey,

a “mixture of gravity and waggery…
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the musick
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.”

And it GRABS ME RIGHT IN THE HEART.

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