The first day he came to us, he was outside, on the ledge, staring through the picture window, burrs clinging to his haunches, patches of fur missing, mad with hunger and dermatitis, fugitive from the woods, accusing us, pressing his soundless cry against glass. He ran off. Next day, we saw him beneath the blue spruce, his body absorbed into the darkness of the ground, eyes like lights risen from a depth. We knelt, and called, saved him from a diet of crickets, removed swollen ticks, black blood bursting over thumbnails, spoke to his survivor’s nervousness, arguing a world safe, where love growls in every tree, mercy squeals, the heart fails. We saved him again as we returned from the beach, the smell of sand and sea clinging to towels and folding chairs. He came limping toward us, wincing at our touch, panting like an old miner with black lung. His bladder blocked. Those little stones accreted from his ashy fears, anger’s alkali unfulfilled, he would soon bloat like a child dying of hunger, acting out the news of crop failures, helpless, empathic. The vet removed his penis. A urethra now wide, to pass the sediments of maleness, made him no more female than Ethiopian marble or the altered bulls of Pamplona. That didn’t matter. What astonished was his reaction to the anesthetic: his balding stomach; a grayish pink showing between his incipient nipples. It was knowing he wasn’t ebony to his bones. It was the soft feel of his baby skin, the gradual, darkening fuzz of his body’s assumptions, the way he pulled at his fur, combing it with his teeth, incongruous white hairs like slivers of moon-fire flickering in the space between his golden eyes.
Black-and-white young Matthew, his instinct to take the high ground driving him halfway up the spiral staircase to the loft. Cat Ascending. Sun blazing in the Palladian window like something out of William Blake. This energy of Tiger, Tiger a fierce impress upon Matthew’s pupils that are contracting even as he crouches, ready to leap onto the window cornice, that ledge his predator’s heart lunges to achieve, with what dread feet, to what aspire, amid the unwiped dust, attached wooden blinds that come crashing to the carpeted floor like a rotted limb falling in forest mulch. I wake that night, my pulse palpable, beating at my ears. Say, then, we never left that place. The names we gave to fruit, bush, tree, flower, beast and fowl fell away, each thing new to itself, shadows in moonlight nothing but memory they cast away, the wind scraping palmetto fronds, eager lover, transparent fingers that let the body show through, where caress and secret grasp will bleed, thorns acquire, the soft movement all around us triggering the sensor and outdoor lights, Matthew rushing to his window to watch the parting of myrtle, camellia, the forgetful emptiness that is brushing past.
But there’s the enigma of facts. A black and white ’57 Chevy with a playpen stuffed in the back where our daughter grips the mesh. This could have been a Dodge. Or a Rambler. A Lark. We might have lived in Utica, in constant rain, near the brewery. The old cemetery down the hill with those headstones of young children, who knows what other names we bring with us, crossing Oak Street, turning down James, past the stone churches, the old railroad station, the ghostly arrivals that even now twist their way into numbers: 1940, 1953, 1959. In all this, the shock of recognition—like studying Hiroshige’s print of a cat in a window from 150 years ago, and seeing ourselves there, a shirt draped over the window ledge, a mat on the floor, the white cat curled up with the stub of a black tail, Mt. Fuji in the distance, the sky layered blue and white, the sun’s rising red low on the horizon. How can we be there, and here, someone’s radio blaring in the car passing by, some war or other, some hurricane, someone crossing the double yellow line into oncoming news.
Beau, adopted from the cat orphanage, holds it gingerly in his mouth, its legs protruding. I try to extract it by the tail, but the tail snicks off, falls wriggling to the carpet, tossing and turning, while the body it came from goes comatose in Beau’s bewildered mouth. He drops it. Pokes the tail. Backs off puzzled by this cold-blooded shivering of something so disembodied. So small. So wormlike. A thin mad finger flexing and pointing. A green thread plucked from a god’s garment, alive because anything that touches divinity lives. Its partial truth the mystery of motion without heart or brain, the body it came from used to altering itself on rotted wood or stone or twig, turning brown or puce, its altered colors on myrtle leaf the afterthought of common belonging. And when Beau and I look up, the chameleon is gone, splayed wet footprints leading to the deck, the myrtle poking between slats, and who knows what slither causing light to slide down the western sky.
I could have said “feeding the feral,” or “she crouches inside the plastic tub lying on its side, on the deck, in rain, lifting her black and white face any time a light goes on.” Or “she wanders near the birdfeeders,” to catch early warmth, watching a cardinal and his mate pluck sunflower seeds, titmice, chickadees flitting about like oversized insects, no one minding her presence, crows eyeing her from the rail- ing. She claws the door screen, showing a full heavy length of body, her green eyes wide, lips twitching, a vocabulary not so indistinct as whispers of falling live oak leaves. Her clipped right ear the v-mark of being trapped and spayed by two complete strangers. A future torn away. She just doesn’t care how you put it. Appearing every morning from beneath the house, climb- ing the front stairs, delivering a kind of mail: there’s not much left to share in this life except hunger. A place to lie down and dream. Lips moving silently all night long.
Gradations of light. Shadows moving across a Lenox vase. Something stationary in white tufts of pampas grass, sea oats, the rasping edge of palmettos: the soul is a porous crustacean that moves from body to body, though it escapes the outline of its temporary housing like the water snake slithering out of its skin, the crackling envelope draped over a rock, eye-holes a clarity in diaphanous cessation. It was safe to grow abstract where one could count the joggers slapping along wet sand, the corn cobs spilling out of trash bags, the number of streams that drain tobacco fields, to dream of living in rented cottages that leaned back from sea-walls, with names like Wild West, Ampersand, Typhoon, while our much-traveled cats occupied damp couches, sprawled on a sandy rug in their various postures, licking and smoothing out a ruffled haunch, gagging up a hairball, dozing with paws folded like hands, lips twitching, united to their natures as easily as the tropisms of the sunflower lift a yellow-hived face to the light. Surely, we can be home now, where snow drifts over the porch steps, the town plow rumbles in the darkness. We still hear the traffic of US 17: feel a motion in the blood crossing the Pee Dee and Santee Rivers, gathering momentum in sleep, eager for the approaching curve of the sea, the school of porpoises, the black humps revolving out of salt, wheeling back in.
She’s only a small tortoise shell cat, but Sibyl has claws. Can’t let her see me approaching, can’t pick her up without sudden grab, as she writhes and slashes, this morning tearing the back of my hand, such instant bleeding, as I take her into the study, close her off from the noise of the cleaning lady’s vacuum, the odor of chemical wipes, the fluffy heads of dusters. There’s so much in life to be afraid of, what can be said, who am I to complain, as a band-aid oozes red? Sibyl’s hiding under my desk, her dry food sitting next to the computer, where she comes to watch words on a screen, her claws now partly withdrawn.
We named them as people. As victims risen above their past. The cartilage of her ears shriveled from frostbite, his tail kinked at the end, as if knotted, snipped by a boy’s scissors. It would have been so easy to imagine the rat-infested halls of Ellis Island, the inspectors misnaming our grandfathers, the agitations of a woman who remembered armored cars in the streets, air-raid sirens, the cruel militia: these attributes of our losses, as we took their natures from them, recounting how children chased her, an orphan, across Gramatan Avenue, how he had been declawed as dangerous, his owner a lover of dogs. Let the way they sleep against each other be the marriage of themselves. Let her caterwauling at departures be the anger of abandonment, her love of string the twisting of instinct. Let his quick temper and absolute pride, the blueness of his focused eyes, be the dusk of Siamese temples, his deference to her at mealtime the love of ceremony.
Molly’s atop the TV, black tail dangling in counter point to the tower where Iraqi spotters call in fire upon the marines who are knocking holes through a cinder-block wall, a long swaying comma where the colonel talks, helmet strap under his jaw, a phone ringing until our answering machine blares, offering free estimates on vinyl siding. Molly curls into herself as high-rise apartments lose their stucco look, lathing shredded and hung like lace underwear, marines taking howitzer hits, Qatari tanks with erect cannons move on Khafji the announcer describes as beautiful by the sea. Molly looks over her shoulder, annoyed the blanket next to us is crumpled. She turns to the window, pupils wide with darkness, spotting a purple finch that flutters in the ivy clinging to the house, her pink lips trembling, ech ech ech ech ech mimicking birds, awaiting summer’s crisp cicada, the monarch slowly flapping, the soft head of the white-footed mouse, the evergreen on Young Road draped with yellow bows, my student’s essay denouncing Olaf glad and big. A graphic shows the convoy near Wafra hit by B-52’s, animated gray clouds appearing and disappearing like exploding trucks in a Road Runner cartoon. Molly, disgusted with the finch that has fumbled in the ivy and flown away, drops heavily onto the carpet she marked last year, leaking urine— a burned personnel carrier, its front wheel twisted like a broken leg in its boot, side-wheels crusted and huge as an earth-mover’s, bits of slab embedded between thick treads, a door wrenched from its hinges the idea of door, Molly now on her back, staring at us upside-down, her white belly like trapped fluff blown from the dryer, the colonel clenching his teeth.
It is her favored cat’s position: kneading me with her clawless pads, purring, her green reptilian eyes studying white words on the PC screen, waiting for her name to appear. Her pupils dilate. Rain lashes against the window. A whirr of gold in my mind; a woman emerging, as from a gold-leaf quilt, extruded, bare-breasted, a metallic tapestry what the world becomes behind her, the bursting of body cells into their elements: auric arrangements of eyes, silvery traces of an artisan’s fingers, Molly pushing paws into my velour shirt, imprinting it, licking the white border of her natural white ruff, now crossing her white paws, suddenly quiescent, and Klimt’s The Kiss begins to glow in a crowded room, where men and women jostle politely, perfume mingled with nicotine, eyes flashing, where men and women fuse into a column of weightless colors, the woman’s uplifted face leaning into her left shoulder, his hands stroking her cheek, her temple, tendrils coiled around her ankles, for she is on her knees, where he is simply phallic, emerging from a ground of broken glass, and Molly begins kneading again, the rain at forty-five degrees against the window, kitchen vents clanking in the wind, and it’s Klimt’s Salome holding John the Baptist’s head, her fingers supple as young bone, his closed eyes like a man’s grown tired of reading, no blood here, no redness, just her brownish nipples, broken spirals, caught currents of air, her profile ecstatic, and Molly getting bored, looking at these words, my hands clicking the space bar at the keyboard, Molly turning in my lap, her paws on my chest, moving rhythmically toward my throat, while she pushes into velour, into the dry silence of a darkening room.
A master’s kimono sweeps the ground. The medicine case, tied to the sash, twists slowly at the knees. That’s why the cat clings, the gold lacquer and leaf of his world the flat surface that swings between a master’s legs, easily buffeted. He’s only on the lid of things, but we know he’s feeling good, the peony supporting his jaws closed on its stem: his porcelain eyes goggling, the red flower hugged between paw and ribs, his cheeks bulging, the lower half of his body curved like a “C,” so that as the branch sways his three tails will not brush the damp earth, or his master’s knees. These appendages must be the silhouette of a grasp, a curling of fingers, a mistake for tails. But there’s a joy in being pewter blue. In having claws, the soft muzzle beneath the nose, ears the same hue; his slightly yellow eyes, glazed like teacups, fixed on the string take takes him east or west, into the orbit of peonies, stems brittle enough to snap at a child’s laughter.
It’s a single oak in the middle of pasture, a lone wolf around which the cattle gather, where nothing can harm them, the sun veiled by the mist of their breathing and the glaucous shimmer of distant cottonwoods along a river. It’s a name like Chloe we give to a dilute tortie, her grayness streaked with peach, her Mrs. Grundy’s scowl and soft soprano in the end always forgiving a stupid humanness that breaks from us like the peel-off lid of pet food. It is mercy in the proprietary rubbing of her cheek against my hand, her upper lip pulled back by friction, a slight gingivitis showing in her gums that should be scarlet with a warm kill. And when she yowls, wandering the hallway, singing the song of return to kittens who are not there, a blue “s” tattooed on her left ear by the clinic vet to verify she’s empty of her future, I stand like a great tree, my shadow falling from me. I feel the earth rising. A curved claw of light gleams in the escaped heat of my lungs, a rimming orange penumbra on the upper darkness of my pupils, a half-dawn breaking on the pasture of a green rug.
Born in 1935, and initially raised in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City, John Allman, author of eight book-length collections of poetry, two chapbooks, and a volume of short stories, was a high-school drop-out who earned his diploma in night school while working as a lab tech for Pepsi-Cola. Eventually turning away from science for the humanities, and knocking about in many jobs, he earned degrees in English Literature and Creative Writing from Hunter College and Syracuse University (where he worked with Delmore Schwartz and Philip Booth), while becoming more and more involved in writing poetry. At the age of 44, after some years of having his work appear in journals, he published his first book, Walking Four Ways in the Wind (1979), with Princeton University Press in its Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. His most recent poetry collections are Loew’s Triboro (2004), Lowcountry (2007), both from New Directions, and Algorithms, prose poems (2012) from Quale Press. His Inhabited World: New & Selected Poems 1970-1995 (1995) was published by the Wallace Stevens Society Press. His recently completed collections, Older Than Our Fathers and The Blue Gazebo, are making the rounds, looking for a publisher, while he is working on a new collection titled Something Rather Than Nothing, poems from which will soon appear in The Yale Review and Hotel Amerika. His work has appeared in most of the major American journals, from The American Poetry Review to The Yale Review. Allman has received two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Pushcart Prize in Poetry, and the Helen Bullis Prize from the original Poetry Northwest. He earned his living teaching college English and retired from that in 1997, to have more time for writing. He lives in Katonah, NY, with his wife, Eileen, a Shakespeare and Jacobean Drama scholar and writer. They spend their winters on Hilton Head Island, SC.
Grateful acknowledgment to the books and journals in which some of these poems first appeared: After the Storm: Poems on the Persian Gulf War (Maisonneuve Press 1992): “The Destruction of the Tower in Khafji” Innisfree Poetry Journal (under the title “Aesthetics”): “At the Window” Lowcountry (New Directions 2007): “Chameleon,” “In the Forest” Memphis State Review: “Five Cats and a Discussion of the Soul After a Trip to South Carolina” Scenarios for a Mixed Landscape (New Directions 1986): “Three-Tailed Cat Clinging to a Peony Branch” The Quarterly: “On the Blackness of Sidney,” “Thinking of Gustav Klimt with Molly on My Lap”