Burning Bright

January 31, 2021 § Leave a comment

1. The Tabby

Our tabby cat, Malachi, was euthanized this past Friday. A cold, sunny January day. He was somewhere around nineteen years old; his kidneys were shot; he’d deteriorated slowly over the past four years; and finally, a massive stroke (we think) was the final blow.

He lived with us for eighteen years. Born sometime in early 2002, he was found in and rescued from an alley in Rogers Park by our across-the-hall neighbor at the time, Faith. He immediately began beating up Faith’s other cats. Luckily, we’d just decided we’d like to get a cat. Win-win. Malachi moved across the hall at the beginning of 2003.

For most of his life, he was a runner, a prowler, a leaper. Stalker of intruding insects; batter of pen caps and bookmarks; scratcher of posts and furniture alike. Malachi loved to roost in boxes, bags, and even amid the shoes by our front door. Once, I wrote a Murakami pastiche about a cat who would disappear into other dimensions through a shoebox left on the floor. That was Malachi.

He was an indoor cat. For eighteen years, he was always here, in our various homes. We liked his “tough guy from the mean streets of Chicago” persona–and yeah, he’d get fiesty, and used to bite me quite often for minor offenses–but he was quite gregarious. At parties he’d come out, sit in the middle of the circle of people, and preen. He knew he was handsome.

Probably this all sounds familiar, if you, too, have had a tabby cat. This is the smallest of potatoes, I know, amid our ongoing catastrophes. It’s so much easier to comprehend and feel the death of one small elderly cat than the unnecessary deaths of 400,000 people in just your own country.

We loved him. We’ll miss him.

2. The Tiger

In what I now think of as Early Quarantine, The Poem came around again on Twitter:

“The Tiger” was written by six-year-old Nael in 2016 as part of the 826DC writing program, in Washington, DC. The anthology in which it first appeared, They’re Singing a Song in Their Rocket, appears to have been a very limited run (and booksellers, if you’re listening out there, I’d love to get my hands on one), and it didn’t take off online until its publication in the larger, glossier anthology from which the screenshot above is drawn, in 2018.

I have always thought it a brilliant poem, perfect for the Internet–akin to William Carlos Williams’ infinitely memed “This Is Just to Say,” but sort of its opposite in terms of its utility and its effect: “This Is Just to Say” invites infinite adaptation, makes you want to play games with it, while “The Tiger” is so efficiently and effortlessly itself, about what it says it is about and about what you bring to it as a reader, that it resists all such reuse: you just post the poem again and again and marvel at how there’s nothing to make it better.

The poem is rather catlike in this way.

And then the spring of 2020 came along, and I could not stop thinking about this poem, The Poem for this moment. I have always loved it on its face–the joy and excitement of the tiger escaping his cage that it conveys. But its “little lower layer[s],” as Ahab says in Moby-Dick, the endless interpretations that a reader (I) can bring to the poem: these have continually shifted and resonated these past months. Tiger King, human confinement and cabin fever, the detention and isolation of immigrant children, righteously angry protests, ugly white populism and incipient fascism–it could seem to accommodate and respond to all of these, from opposite poles. The reading of the “Yes/ YES” repetition could shift from fist-pumping enthusiasm to dumbfounded horror, depending on the context.

3. The Tyger

Cats are not made for old age. Malachi clearly lamented his lost muscle mass and dexterity in the later years. But he enthusiastically clamored to be fed, curled into his bed, or enjoyed a lap as his royal birthright up until close to the very end.

“The Tiger” can also be read metaphysically, as William Blake’s “The Tyger” inevitably is. The fearful symmetry, the fiery eyes, the sinewy heart, the deadly brain–the powerful body of a cat, big or small, should not be caged. But that body itself becomes a cage, eventually.

Yes. YES. The tiger is out.

Blurred photo of a tabby cat on a red background

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