Of Poets & Pets

Fred Chappell’s new collection, Familiars, prompts LSU Press to reflect on poets and their feline companions

Today at LSU Press, we’re celebrating the release of Fred Chappell’s newest poetry collection, Familiars. Chappell salutes the literary cats of decades past—George Herriman’s happy-go-lucky Krazy Kat, Don Marquis’s grande dame mehitabel—and the imagined cats who claim as their companions the characters from Chappell’s own past poems. The cats in Familiars are alert and affectionate, equal parts cherished friends and unknowable mysteries. Learn more, or buy your copy, at our website!

In honor of Familiars, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite cat poems to share with you. First up, head over to the Soma Review to read Margaret Atwood’s strange and understated poem “Our Cat Enters Heaven,” in which a cat has a matter-of-fact conversation with the Almighty about the perks of being dead.

Meow, said our cat.
Meow, said God. Actually it was more like a roar.
I always thought you were a cat, said our cat, but I wasn’t sure.

(We’d like to imagine that the God in this poem appears to Margaret Atwood’s cat in a form not dissimilar to our beloved Mike the Tiger.)

Next check out DonMarquis.com for their excerpts from Don Marquis’s unforgettable duo Archy (a literary cockroach) and his friend Mehitabel (an alley cat with the motto Toujours gai). The world first met Mehitabel in “Mehitabel Was Once Cleopatra,” but we particularly enjoyed learning more about her in “The Song of Mehitabel”:

mehitabel . . . claims
that formerly her spirit
was incarnated in the body
of cleopatra
that was a long time ago
and one must not be
surprised if mehitabel
has forgotten some of her
more regal manners

As a publisher of French history, we can’t omit Baudelaire’s “Le Chat,” which you can read in French and in four different English translations at Fleurdumals.org. We are slightly partial to Lewis Piaget Shanks’s translation, who maintains the rhyme scheme and assumes the cat’s female:

she prowls around my shadowy brain

as though it were her dwelling-place

— a great soft beast of charming ways,

meowling in a mellow strain

Of course, no list of literary cats would be complete without a mention of T. S. Eliot, whose Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats formed the basis of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats (don’t judge us, we love it). Over on Brainpickings.org, the always-wonderful Maria Popova has posted a SoundCloud recording of T. S. Eliot reading “The Naming of Cats.” Eliot reads his poem like the fussy poet grandpa you never knew you wanted.

But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,

And that is the name that you never will guess;

The name that no human research can discover –

But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.

Finally, we have the newest addition to the canon of cats immortalized in verse: Fred Chappell’s Familiars. Below is an excerpt from “After Hours,” a poem about Nora, the library cat.

Midnight in the main branch library,

The hour when Nora makes her faithful rounds,

Tasting smells, investigating sounds

That could mean threats to the security

Of the stiff wisdom of laborious sages

Who sputtered ink on all these frowsty pages.

 

She’s velvet black and melts into the blacks

That lie in oblongs on the lobby floor,

Thrown by streetlight through the windowed door.

They pave the way to the darkness of the stacks

Wherein she enters now with stealthy tread

Among the dog-eared Read and crisp Unread.

Want to read more? Buy your copy of Familiars today!

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