by Tim Gilmore, updated 3/4/2019, orig. 6/18/2012
We had dinner with the poet laureate. The restaurant did not have bread. There were bread plates on the table. Her work is known for its brevity. I asked her how she felt about Walt Whitman. In the house of poetry, she said, are many mansions. She testified to “economies of scale” and “economies of line” even in Song of Myself. The restaurant offered Scotch, crème brûlée, but the restaurant did not have bread.
I’ve mourned my mother, my sister, my grandmother, but tonight I mourn a great housecat. His name was Whitman. He was 18 years old. My wife, love of my life, woke me this morning, crying, saying, “Whitman is dying.” In our arms, he died all day.
We had dinner with the poet laureate. There were years and years, she said, when very few magazines accepted any of her poems. Publishing poems depends maybe on whether the poems are good, she told us, but also on chance. The chances of Kay Ryan becoming poet laureate were next to nothing. And the restaurant did not have bread. What it always comes down to, she said, is you write because you have to write. Why the hell would anyone do it otherwise?
We took him in when he was yet adolescent. I’d watched him bite a mouse in two. That cat had a sense of humor, a joie de vivre, that unique personality—There are only three or four that have it, any senior year in high school—that relates to every other personality.
We took in more strays and called him “the cornerstone cat.” How can a restaurant not have bread?
She had asked the concierge the best place nearby to see birds. The concierge felt confused. She did not understand the question.
“A life,” Kay Ryan wrote in 2001, “should leave / deep tracks.” For specifics: “where she used to / stand before the sink, / a worn out place; / beneath her hand, / the china knobs / rubbed down to / white pastilles.”
For Whitman the Cornerstone Cat, we might begin with the place at our front window where, for 12 hours, my wife and I held him, in turn, while he died, or the Northside sunroom we painted when we first heard his mew and took him in, or the floorboards where he bullied the border collie, where the younger old “Hemingway” six-toed cat suckled him into her own later years. How can a restaurant not serve bread?
Kay Ryan was kind to me, my wife, and our colleagues, our jokes about Flannery O’Connor and Emily Dickinson. Oh but she was harsh with that callow kitten of a waitress who did not know why the restaurant did not have bread, nor why and how anyone might wish to see birds!
In that poem, Kay Ryan wrote, “The passage / of a life should show; / it should abrade. / And when life stops, / a certain space / should be left scarred / by the grand and / damaging parade.”
My wife and I buried Walt Whitman the Cornerstone Cat beneath the Monkey Puzzle Tree and immediately it rained. I knelt into the hole I’d dug.
The housecat’s not about the monkey puzzle tree, but the restaurant did not have bread. We had dinner with the poet laureate. She had plenty of Scotch, but Kay Ryan had no bread. She found “economies of scale and line” in Walt Whitman. My wife held Whitman on her breasts as he died. Early in the day, I held him on my chest and slept and woke, then held him on my chest and slept and woke. He would not sleep with my sleep and let me awaken without him. My wife held Whitman on her breasts as he died. I lay my hand on his ribcage. The agonal breathing relaxed. The mucus stopped burbling from his nostrils. There was nothing to do but cry.
I cried harder when he was dead until she said the saddest part was finished. I should’ve known. We buried Walt Whitman the Cornerstone Cat beneath the Monkey Puzzle Tree and immediately it began to rain. We had dinner with the poet laureate, but the restaurant did not have bread.