Philip Levine in A Walk With Tom Jefferson has a pair of poems that resemble the pairing of Milton’s Il Penseroso and L’Allegro. They are a dog poem about karma and suitably entitled “Dog Poem”. The cat poem can be read as its companion piece in a more intimate key. It revolves around the remembrance of a single cat named Nellie, now deceased. The cat would swat at the poet’s writing hand if the lines became too long. A compositional practice that became “A Theory of Prosody” as the poem is named. The practice of short lines celebrates its absent muse and the poem ends on these brief but pleasing notes:
She’s dead now almost nine years,
and before that there was one
during which she faked attention
and I faked obedience.
Isn’t that what it’s about –
pretending there’s an alert cat
who leaves nothing to chance.
The dog poem is less sanguine about the inter-species relationship. After presenting a catalogue of grievances, that is the misdeeds of countless canines, the speaker dreams of being reincarnated as a lion and the dogs reincarnated as him. It’s all very droll.
If I must come back
to this world let me do so as the lion
of legend, but striped like an alley cat.
Let me saunter back the exact way
I came turning each corner to face
the barking hosts of earth until they
scurry for cover or try pathetically
to climb the very trees that earlier
they peed upon and shamed. […]
[…] give them two big feet
and shoes that don’t fit, and dull work
five days a week. Give them my life.
A life of neither Miltonic contemplation nor Miltonic mirth. A life devoted to the feline.
And so for day 1783