In late August I said goodbye to a very fine cat. Duncan lived with me for seventeen years, in three different apartments. He enjoyed drinking water from the bathroom sink tap and sitting on the edge of the tub when I was taking a bath. On a handful of occasions he actually jumped in, and, instead of splashing immediately back out, walked high-legged and stiff through water up to his undercarriage, investigating the situation. He formed a grudging bond with my pit bull mix, Levi (RIP) and an even more grudging bond with Mingus, a bedraggled black kitten who joined our household three years ago.
Duncan was fluffy and sweet, even in his dotage when he purred less often and developed the habit of staring into space and vocalizing loudly. He had a very elegant set of whiskers and a distinguished countenance.
The poet Mary Oliver is known, among other things, for her beautiful writing on dogs. The poem “Her Grave” is one I often send to friends grieving the loss of a pooch. I thought perhaps she’d have something helpful to say about cats. And I found this:
Salt shining behind its glass cylinder.
Milk in a blue bowl. The yellow linoleum.
The cat stretching her black body from the pillow.
The way she makes her curvaceous response to the small, kind gesture.
Then laps the bowl clean.
Then wants to go out into the world
where she leaps lightly and for no apparent reason across the lawn,
then sits, perfectly still, in the grass.
I watch her a little while, thinking:
what more could I do with wild words?
I stand in the cold kitchen, bowing down to her.
I stand in the cold kitchen, everything wonderful around me.
—Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems
In searching for a Mary Oliver cat poem, I also made the happy discovery of Christopher Smart, who was born in England in 1722. While a patient at St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, Smart, who was said to suffer from religious mania, wrote a poem called Jubilate Agno. It reminds me of the Catholic litanies I recited in church as a kid and of certain Beat poetry.
In a famous passage from the manuscript, Smart wrote about his cat. Here’s an excerpt:
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry…
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way…
For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness…
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger…
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good Cat…
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped…
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery…
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion…
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly…
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity…
Here’s to my Duncan, of the tribe of Tiger and a very good Cat.