The Great Cat – Poems About Cats

Dear Readers, buying me a book can be very hit and miss, as my poor husband has discovered over the past twenty years. Either I’ve already read it, don’t want to read it, or it’s just a little bit off of the hub of whatever I’m interested in at the time. I sometimes feel like one of those children who is fascinated by horses for twenty minutes, just enough time for the grandparents to get the toy stable for her birthday, unaware that by bedtime she’s already changed her passion to dogs. Hey ho. But for once I really loved this book – it has a surprising selection of unusual poems about cats, along with the ones that I already knew. And it seems very appropriate as our little cat Willow has been a bit in the wars just lately, and that makes me appreciate her even more.

Willow in a patch of sunshine

Firstly her blood pressure has gone up, and we are now on the maximum dose of the drug that we use – hypertension can be dangerous in cats, causing blindness amongst other things. Fortunately her readings are ok at the moment. People often ask me how on earth you measure blood pressure in a cat, and the answer is by putting the cuff around the tail. Who knew? Not me for sure.

And now her weight is going down. I suspect that she wasn’t feeding properly while we were in Canada – she often goes off her food while we’re away. We had someone coming into feed her because she hates other cats and so a cattery is out of the question, but I think she gets lonely. Hopefully her weight will go up again now we’re back.

For a while there she was yowling her head off during the night (just what you need when you’re jetlagged) but fortunately she’s settled back into her routine. Cats love their routines (or at least mine does) and she gets very cross if we aren’t in bed/on the sofa/ available to groom her at the specified times. She has us extremely well-trained but every so often we do something radical like go out or stay up late, which she doesn’t approve of. Plus, for two years she’s had people with her all the time. Nobody being around must have been an awful shock.

And now for a couple of poems. This one is by Marge Piercy, better known for the novel ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’, which I devoured as a young woman, but she is also clearly a fine observer of cats.

The Cats of Greece by Marge Piercy

The cats of Greece have
eyes grey as the plague.
Their voices are limpid,
all hunger.
As they dodge in the gutters
their bones clack.
Dogs run from them.
In tavernas they sit
at tableside and
watch you eat.
Their moonpale cries
hurl themselves
against your full spoon.
If you touch one gently
it goes crazy.
Its eyes turn up.
It wraps itself around your ankle
and purrs a rusty millenium,
you liar,
you tourist.

This poem, by Thom Gunn, is so well-observed. I love the way that the cats fight and decide when enough is enough.

Apartment Cats
Thom Gunn

The Girls wake, stretch, and pad up to the door.
They rub my leg and purr;
One sniffs around my shoe,
Rich with an outside smell,
The other rolls back on the floor –
White bib exposed, and stomach of soft fur.

Now, more awake, they re-enact Ben Hur
Along the corridor,
Wheel, gallop; as they do,
Their noses twitching still,
Their eyes get wild, their bodies tense,
Their usual prudence seemingly withdraws.

And then they wrestle; parry, lock of paws,
Blind hug of close defense,
Tail-thump, and smothered mew.
If either, though, feels claws,
She abruptly rises, knowing well
How to stalk off in wise indifference.

And my mind turns to the inevitable. This is so poignant and fresh that it gets me every time I read it. I love the conversational tone of Billy Collins’s work. You might want to skip it if you are missing an animal who has died.

Putting Down The Cat

Billy Collins

The assistant holds her on the table,
the fur hanging limp from her tiny skeleton,
and the veterinarian raises the needle of fluid
which will put the line through her ninth life.

‘Painless,’ he reassures me, ‘like counting
backwards from a hundred,’ but I want to tell him
that our poor cat cannot count at all,
much less to a hundred, much less backwards.

And finally, although this one is also sad, there is something about the unexpectedness of it that makes me pause. I love the last stanza, so unexpected and yet so true. I love Jane Kenyon’s poems. She always makes me think.

The Blue Bowl

Like primitives we buried the cat
with his bowl. Bare-handed
we scraped sand and gravel
back into the hole. It fell with a hiss
and thud on his side,
on his long red fur, the white feathers
that grew between his toes, and his
long, not to say aquiline, nose.
We stood and brushed each other off.
There are sorrows much keener than these.
Silent the rest of the day, we worked,
ate, stared, and slept. It stormed
all night; now it clears, and a robin
burbles from a dripping bush
like the neighbor who means well
but always says the wrong thing.


3 thoughts on “The Great Cat – Poems About Cats

  1. sllgatsby

    I’ve long loved Kenyon’s Blue Bowl. We share similar tastes in poetry. Billy Collins is a favorite for me too, and I’ve been buying his books since 1992.

    I’ll have to buy this volume. Two of my cats are getting old and infirm and the third is past middle age. I have developed a personal relationship with their vet, now that I see her so often! She and her little girls even follow my cats on my Instagram account.

    I wonder if this poem was in the book:

    A 14 year old convalescent cat in the
    by Gavin Ewart

    I want him to have another living summer,
    to lie in the sun and enjoy the douceur de vivre-
    because the sun, like golden rum in a rummer,
    is what makes an idle cat un tout petit peu ivre

    I want him to lie stretched out, contented,
    revelling in the heat, his fur all dry and warm,
    an Old Age Pensioner, retired, resented
    by no one, and happinesses in a beelike swarm

    to settle on him – postponed for another season
    that last fated hateful journey to the vet
    from which there is no return (and age the reason),
    which must come soon – as I cannot forget.

    And Marge Piercy also wrote this, which I feel honors what is still untamed in all cats:

    The cat’s song

    Mine, says the cat, putting out his paw of darkness.
    My lover, my friend, my slave, my toy, says
    the cat making on your chest his gesture of drawing
    milk from his mother’s forgotten breasts.

    Let us walk in the woods, says the cat.
    I’ll teach you to read the tabloid of scents,
    to fade into shadow, wait like a trap, to hunt.
    Now I lay this plump warm mouse on your mat.

    You feed me, I try to feed you, we are friends,
    says the cat, although I am more equal than you.
    Can you leap twenty times the height of your body?
    Can you run up and down trees? Jump between roofs?

    Let us rub our bodies together and talk of touch.
    My emotions are pure as salt crystals and as hard.
    My lusts glow like my eyes. I sing to you in the mornings
    walking round and round your bed and into your face.

    Come I will teach you to dance as naturally
    as falling asleep and waking and stretching long, long.
    I speak greed with my paws and fear with my whiskers.
    Envy lashes my tail. Love speaks me entire, a word

    of fur. I will teach you to be still as an egg
    and to slip like the ghost of wind through the grass.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      These are both beautiful, Bonnie. The Gavin Ewart is in the book, and the Marge Piercy certainly should be, it’s absolutely gorgeous. I always liked Hal Summer’s poem ‘My Old Cat’ as well. It reminds me of my Dad’s death.

      My old cat is dead,
      Who would butt me with his head.
      He had the sleekest fur.
      He had the blackest purr.
      Always gentle with us
      Was this black puss,
      But when I found him to-day
      Stiff and cold where he lay
      His look was a lion’s,
      Full of rage, defiance:
      Oh, he would not pretend
      That what came was a friend
      But met it in pure hate.
      Well died, my old cat.


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