Mudlark Poster No. 113 (2013)

Poems with Cats
by John Allman


On the Blackness of Sidney | In the Forest
At the Window | Chameleon | Feeding Blossom
Five Cats and a Discussion of the Soul
Claws | On the Love Between Jake and Molly
The Destruction of the Tower in Khafji 1991
Thinking of Gustav Klimt with Molly on My Lap
Three-Tailed Cat Clinging to a Peony Branch
The Last Poem About Cats

On the Blackness of Sidney

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.

In the Forest

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. 

At the Window

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


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.

Feeding Blossom

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.

Five Cats and a Discussion of the Soul,
   After a Trip to South Carolina

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,

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,
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.

On the Love Between Jake and Molly

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.

The Destruction of the Tower in Khafji 1991

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
           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

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,
summer’s crisp cicada,

the monarch slowly flapping,
the soft head of the white-footed mouse,

the evergreen on Young Road draped with yellow

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.

              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
             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.

Thinking of Gustav Klimt with Molly on My Lap

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
                   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.

Three-Tailed Cat Clinging to a Peony Branch

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.

The Last Poem About Cats

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”

John Allman’s Little Songs from Blue Gazebo and selections from both Older Than Our Fathers and Lowcountry have previously appeared in Mudlark.

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