Over the ages, writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway were devoted admirers of cats. Raymond Chandler wrote letters in the mindset of his cat. Poet Sylvia Plath drew curious drawings of cats. Truman Capote used a nameless cat in a key role for his novella Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Prolific author Joyce Carol Oates proclaimed, “I write so much because my cat sits on my lap. She purrs so I don’t want to get up.” Playwright Andrew Lloyd Webber immortalized cats with one of the longest-running Broadway musicals, based on the T.S. Eliot book, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
Now poet, novelist and Canton native Fred Chappell delivers a splendid collection of poems about cats in Familiars (LSU Press), which muses on the enigmatic, beguiling nature of these animals we dare not stoop to call “pets.” The title of the book is a nod to the pagan tradition that cats embody a psychic connection to the spiritual realm. Poetry about cats seems fitting since both share an elusive nature. The poems in Familiars revel in that notion.
Over the years, Chappell’s writing has transcended the art form with an uncanny ability to mix his Appalachian roots with rich literary references in finely-crafted verse that plunges deep and cuts to the quick. Imagine the kind of literary prowess that blends the ambitious visual appetite of a painter like Picasso with the intuitive hunting skills of Daniel Boone. Chappell is one of the true deans of American literature, having spent 40 years teaching poetry and creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and garnering state, national and international prizes for his poetry and fiction (more than two dozen books and counting). He served several years as North Carolina’s Poet Laureate, was inducted into the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame in 2006, and has penned countless essays, book reviews and correspondences with fellow writers.
In his 1981 masterpiece, Midquest (a Dante-esque mid-life perspective), he gathered poems thematically under the four basic elements: earth, wind, water and fire. In his 2004 book of poems, Backsass, Chappell put a modern spin on the sharp wit of Roman satirists Martial and Juvenal — the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert of their day. In Chappell’s last poetry collection, shadow box, he crafted poems embedded within poems — the kind of mind-bending wordplay equivalent to 3-D chess.
So you’d think it would be easy enough for a celebrated author to give himself a free pass on intellectual dexterity just once and wax sentimentally about warm-and-fuzzy memories cuddling a favorite tabby — a book version of those kitty videos that get 10 million views on Facebook. One could imagine a host of purr-fectly a-mews-ing puns that await this paw-sibility.
Not a chance with Chappell, who once again delivers poems that elevate his subject with style and nuance, clever rhymes, sly humor and classical allusions. Chappell celebrates the sublime and stately cats, the midnight marauders and temperamental toms, the ink-stained footprints left across the pages of our lives, the thieves and detectives that haunt our film noir dreams.
In these poems, we see with cats’ eyes what humans deem invisible. We see what hides behind walls, what glides past mirrors, what slinks through shadows. We linger awhile at the timeworn chair where kitten and kin have sat for generations. We pay tribute to those cats who stand guard, who know the whispers of history, who explore the depths of the unknown.
In “Passerby” we meet Black Margo who “stalks across a grave / Casting her moonlit shadow on the name / Of the tenant peaceful beneath the stone / In his bony frame.” What force draws this cat to wake the dead with the touch of paw on tombstone? One dark silence brushes against another in the middle of a nameless night.
In “Ritual,” we learn the initiation for cats seeking to earn their nine lives: “Do you vow by existence One / never to utter the secret name / Of any feline wild or tame / Either in earnest or in fun?”
A whole cast of characters inhabits these pages — Jekyll-and-Hyde Emilia, regal Reginald, amorous Tom Juan, omnipotent Black Stella, and the ever-present Chloe (who, through repeated references to ol’ Fred and his wife Susan, appears to be a familiar in the Chappell household).
In “Jubilate Felis,” we ponder the paradox of cat-ness, the whims of cat genius, the wonders of cat-like observations: “For she will watch a Television machine with birds of interest in-/side the belly of it … For she does not know what I am laughing about … For she knows what Cat Nip does but not what it is.”
And yet, for all the majesty and grace these cats employ, they have their missteps and clueless episodes. Chappell illumines these imperfections as well. One famous feline star of the stage has fallen on tough times: “He hawks Kleen Kitty litter and flea collars, / Bowing to his agent’s decision. / I understand a chap must gather dollars— / But this is the saddest scandal of our age!”
These are poems worth reading again and again. Who else could rhyme sang froid with bourgeois? Who else dares to write poems embedded within poems? Who else riffs on Shakespearean stanzas, ends a homage with a jolt of slang, and then deftly delivers odes on the subtle gestures of cat tails?
Cats have enjoyed star status for millennia — from their glorious worship in ancient Egypt to their glamorous cameos in Hollywood movies. If their personalities continue to be indescribable, unfathomable, impossible for us to discern, who else but Fred Chappell would be up to the task to give them their due in poetic verse?
Michael Beadle is a poet, author and touring writer-in-residence living in Canton, NC.
Fred Chappell will read from his newest book of poetry at 3 p.m. on Aug. 24 at Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville. The event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited. A ticket for two reserved seats is available with advance purchase of the book. 828.456.6000.