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Ten years ago, approaching my 50th birthday, I was in a rut. Not suffering from writer’s block, just too long moored. I’d written poetry for almost as long as could remember, in whichever country and under whatever circumstances. Writing on a computer if I had one, on scraps of paper if I didn’t, composing lyrics in my head walking to class if there was no napkin or envelope. I called the walking variety “street poems”, and I recommend them: they improve memory, and your words learn their rhythm from your feet, uniquely yours, always idiosyncratic and metrical. But ten years ago I had reached a little backwater of self-image, feeling as though each new piece, instead of stretching my own mythology a little farther into Middle Earth — new landscapes — barely extended beyond pale middle age. Too lacking in energy to touch even the last boundary.
And so I did something I had never done before, on impulse. I decided to write under a pen name. There was no forethought. I didn’t wake one morning thinking I had to call myself Zebeedee Galileo Starwinger now, and that Zebeedee was the product of a brief union between interstellar Comic-Con attendees, gender indeterminate. Instead, I turned in the chair and caught a glimpse of Lili, our Russian Blue, stretched out on the back of the sofa. Cat and couch. And so it was Kat Couch — although I’ve tended to pronounce the last name like Cooch, as in Hoochie Coochie — but less Muddy Waters and more Arthur Quiller-Couch, the Cornish novelist and editor of The Oxford Book Of English Verse (1250–1918). Like my parents, Sir Arthur was a Bard of the Cornish Gorseth Kernow, and devoted to the county.
The pseudonym had an effect, although I can’t say it had any predictable effect. Who was Kat? Was they a she? Twenty? Thirty? Older? Two principal things happened. I stopped writing first person confessional poetry and began to tell stories. In one, a girl in Las Vegas stares at a reproduction of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, once attributed to Bruegel the Elder, and the subject of poems by W.H. Auden and William Carlos Williams. She’s bored; she texts a friend. In other poems, a woman tidies the kitchen after her husband leaves on a sales trip; in another, a homicidal country girl takes revenge for social media bullying; parents taking a walk with their young son Dylan lose sight of him when he wanders off in search of a bear. A perplexed mule deer observes a man living on the property come and go from a great “unnecessary” house. And so on. Subjects ranged wide and wildly. And that was good.
Gradually, Kat began to come home again, absorbing the middle-aged male, and accepting him well enough as long as he continued to write about the three-leaf sumac and the black-billed magpies of these foothills. I still defer to her: she has no tolerance for self-indulgence; she wants to spin a good yarn. And if she shows a preoccupation with animal death and, for lack of a better word, “bioempathy,” she at least doesn’t require room and board. And she never eats the last ginger snaps.
Over the past six months or so I’ve posted one hundred and twenty of Kat’s poems. They fall into three sets of forty, and one day soon I’ll publish them in print, in a slipcase edition. Fewer than ten were written this year; some date from that 50th birthday. I’m not inclined to move on from Kat. She may be it for me now. But I do know that the poems here amount to a distinct body of work, and everything from this date will be something else.
I’ve been making videos lately — for introductions and job interviews, and I marvel at my favorite ASMR folk, how generous and expert they seem in their digital skin, in their public personas. In my brief clips I am a slow-witted neanderthal who rarely smiles. I bite the ends off words like cheap cigars; pauses reproduce, begetting ums and ahs. That public persona is as strange now as Kat’s was in 2010, but I plan to get to know it a little better. So I am going back over these poems — I hope near-weekly, if not daily — and recording a video reading of each one, to be posted. Expect an occasional disembodied head, a pair of hands, an Apache pepper plant on the sill, words tumbling from curtains and cactus. Lili, still with us, may show up, demanding an appearance fee, salted crackers, royalties, naming rights.
I am haunted by the failures of great people:
how, inevitably, they were tossed out of Harvard,
eviscerated in newsprint,
cold-shouldered by forgotten matriarchs,
and I have to think
(you know where I’m going with this)
short of a criminal act,
how could I compete with the sad sack
who was Abraham Lincoln
before he was Abraham Lincoln,
the tubercular Eugene O’Neill,
the idiot Einstein,
the rejected Malcolm Lowry,
the incandescent torn and lovelorn
except by standing on point
in front of our two sleeping
with a scallopshell lampshade for a hat,
wrapped in a pale blue polyester brocade,
(keep it quiet, cats are sleeping)
could they do this?
My husband gone
I raid the fridge, she says.
Not to eat but to pare.
He is happiest when it is full.
I toss out instead
past dated eggs, old olives,
a month-old splash of milk.
Cat food — tossed.
I keep dry vermouth,
whole grain bread.
When I am finished
the refrigerator breathes.
I miss him terribly,
but when I walk in
the kitchen is calm.
On the north seat,
the tabby, the young one,
quiet without him.
She opens her belly to the sun.
She is my loneliness, too:
sitting peaceful in my chest,
stretching in the big bed,
purring at the breaking light.
In the photograph from the wildlife camera
she appears at dusk, side-on,
her full tail in the air:
the big ginger cat
from the farm next door.
She is one of those puzzles you find
in newsprint books at the tobacconists
— which one of these doesn’t belong? —
because before and after her on the camera
are a mountain lion and a red fox.
I thought of the two bobcats who came
to the picture window on St. Stephen’s Day
at three o’clock in the morning
looking intently in,
and the man in Finland whose dog got out:
the wolves at the forest fringe
were calling it to come and play.
There was no blood, he said.
The dog just disappeared into their jaws.
Still, she comes around:
again this morning on the deer trail
where she sat gazing up,
the jays and the blackbirds with new hatchlings
diving, exploding into the air,
wearing their worry and disapproval
— even, you think,
their appetites and their hatred,
like a bright blessing,
the urgent chatter of the birds
an electric hum
almost to the horizon.
Like ragpickers they keep the cut sleeves
of men who have loved them:
the sleeves of prayer robes,
French cuffed gingham,
drooled on gabardine.
They are not trophies, these bits of cloth,
they are bedding.
I am pinned sick like a swallowtail
by treacle-colored cats,
one at the head,
the other through my belly.
Liam kneads my stomach
the way a crust-eyed baker works dough,
expressing the memory of milk,
memory of sun in night sweat,
four o’clock black silk.
He tucks his head in my armpit
for the pheromones.
Our cycles synchronize.
I take to sleeping through the day.
If I could, I’d curl in the old rocker,
chafing in the winter sun.
To make a ginger tabby poultice
you will need fresh ginger root,
a cotton bag, a wooden spoon.
Place grated root in bag,
boil in a liter of water,
throw out the stinking thing and instead,
apply cat directly to the head.
That old lie about cats
sucking the breath from babies —
they only do that
if there is not someone older
or more innocent.
I become a cat head god,
red as a strawberry,
my seeds on the outside,
my wounds plastered with honeycomb hung
under the browning yellow of the light.
I find a cave, a closet they have all forgot
at the back of the Salvation Army shop
and make my bed in pea coats
smelling of the alley piss and three-day pass,
jackets of kids shot young
for wearing boots and hoods,
blouses shucked by lovers in the park,
and find a cave and rest,
healed, whole, waiting
for some unspoken good.
when it was launched in 1977,
carried on board a golden record
with the music of Mozart and Chuck Berry
and greetings to alien life
in fifty-five languages:
“Hello from the children of planet Earth,”
it said in English.
“May the honors of the morning
be upon your heads,”
it said in Turkish.
It’s difficult to beat,
“How are you all? Have you eaten yet?”
but my favorite is in Swedish:
“Greetings from a computer programmer
in the little university town of Ithaca,”
No one knows exactly why cats purr.
We assume they are happy,
comfortable, comforted, safe,
but vets report they also purr
at the moment of death,
after the needle is slipped under the skin
into the vein of the leg.
And studies show they purr
at a frequency that heals bone,
that a healthy cat will lie down
next to a sick one
and begin purring for it.
But they don’t purr when they are born,
and they’re born blind and deaf,
ears down, like lumps of damp dough,
spinning through space
in their own quiet world,
huddled up against that soft universe
of fur and flesh,
huddled against the mother
they can only feel
in their blindness,
in the deep mute well of the night,
eyes wrapped in skin and loss,
until three weeks or so along:
The root and meaning of all speech,
their own golden record: