Friday, April 12, 2013

Sister Cat by Frances Mayes

Two years ago in April, I tried to do a project on this blog where I blogged about a poem I liked every day of April, which is National Poetry Month, obvi.  (Here are the archives of that project.)  I didn't quite make every day, but I was able to get to 25 poems or so, and I really enjoyed the process, which made me go out and seek poetry I otherwise would never have read and think more deeply about the poems I already loved.  I don't have the time or energy to duplicate that project this year (it's the 12th already, after all), but I thought I might post about a few poems throughout April that I've come to read and love in the past two years.

With that purpose in mind, here's a poem I found recently, called "Sister Cat" by Frances Mayes:

Cat stands at the fridge,
Cries loudly for milk.
But I've filled her bowl.
Wild cat, I say, Sister,
Look, you have milk.
I clink my fingernail
Against the rim. Milk.
With down and liver,
A word I know she hears.
Her sad miaow. She runs
To me. She dips
In her whiskers but
Doesn't drink. As sometimes
I want the light on
When it is on. Or when
I saw the woman walking
toward my house and
I thought there's Frances.
Then looked in the car mirror
To be sure. She stalks
The room. She wants. Milk
Beyond milk. World beyond
This one, she cries.

"Sister Cat" was published on Poetry 180, a compilation of "plain-language" poems put together by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins with the goal of having them read aloud in schools.  (A school year typically has 180 days, which for those of you keeping track at home, means that school teachers spend less than half the year in the classrom.  Lazy bums!)  The poems are meant to be read and appreciated, not prodded and dissected, and for that reason they're mostly highly readable and accessible.

But I saw a lot of students have trouble with "Sister Cat."  Why?  There is a sentiment being expressed in this poem that I have often felt, but which I've rarely seen talked about in literature: that uncanny feeling that, when you get the things you want, you can't shake the desire for them.  That's about more than just being unsatisfied with the fulfillment of your wants and needs, and it's excruciatingly difficult to talk about.  Why are we so lonely even in the presence of friends and loved ones?  Why do we want "Milk / beyond milk?"  There is a feeling--perhaps you've felt it too--that our desires are mismatched to reality, and their only hope of being satiated is a "World beyond / This one."

What I discovered is that this is not a feeling that eighteen-year olds understand.  Perhaps they haven't had the exoerience of the strange disappointment of fulfilmment; probably they still hold on to those tenacious fantasies about growing up, going out, and reaching a state of achieved happiness.  I still hold on to those fantasies too sometimes.  When they find out just how elusive those states can be, I hope they'll remember this poem, but I doubt it.


Brittany said...

The slam poetry scene in Vegas (which I'm marginally a part of) celebrates their own version of 30 in 30 on the Facebook ( and grad school just doesn't afford me the time for that, so I'm doing 30x30 haiku, which is totally doable.

Next year I'll be teaching on block schedule and plan on doing something with April, but with only 50 minute periods and all of Hamlet to get through I just don't feel like I can sacrifice any of it :/

I think that longing for satisfaction is probably more something that is hit out of high school, because for high schoolers so much of their life is out of their control, so they can hold onto that fantasy that when they have more control over what's happening they'll have more control over their own happiness. I think the feeling in that poem is something that you hit when you have more control over your life and realize that that doesn't necessarily lead to happiness.

Speaking of Billy Collins! Have you seen this?

Christopher said...

That story is fantastic. I wish I were more like that kid.

Christopher said...

Brittany: What is your favorite poem?