Years ago I wrote a poem called "The Praying Mantis" that was a list of self contained sentences, each beginning with the title phrase and then completing itself with a some qualitative non sequitur; the point was, of course, was to lampoon the baroquely-phrased claims you come across in self-penned biographies, press releases or eulogies that overshoot the commemorative mark. The challenge was to see how many fresh takes I could get starting from the same premise and at what point would I sense that I was done, winding up the sequence on a diminished , perhaps exasperated note.
The praying mantis returns no phone calls,
The praying mantis will not shake your hand,
The praying mantis does not pay sales tax,
The praying mantis had been to the moon and found it drab and without a bar,
The praying mantis ignores streetlights and no smoking signs,
The praying mantis does not hear what you have to say,
The praying mantis is the other side of the story,
The praying mantis loves a hammer with sturdy, curved claw,
The praying mantis will have lunch when he's done with you,
The praying mantis is a close, personal friend of Sammy Davis Jr.,
The praying mantis directs traffic until it's an atonal film score,
The praying mantis says nothing but means volumes,
The praying mantis cured cooties and shared it with no one...
The litany went on another sixty lines , until the absurdity grew tiresome, or my imagination failed, or both, but the point is that it was interesting to witness the momentum one could get attributing huge potential to things of seeming small consequence. I was interested in how the praying mantis could , by his lack of interaction with the larger human world, could seem, given the colliding box car cadence, seem a larger, more powerful force , one mere mortals should respect lest his restraint fall and said insect really show us what for. I had been thinking of every cliche portrayal of hip and bad ass cool I had come across, from junkie jazz geniuses, the Beats, white Negros and tortured renditions of existential cool; the sort of man who is so in tune with himself-in-the-world that he is privy to great amounts of power, but that power is with held because there is no need for an ostentatious display. In other words, a state so slippery that attempts to describe it accurately result in growing amounts of absurdity, some of it baffling.Smart , it seems, wants the habits of his cuddly kitty to embody something purposeful with the divine, to reveal a connection with a heavenly agenda that our intellect prevents us from sensing much of the time but which a cat, with senses tuned like delicate instruments, can pick up on and be effected by.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
There is a belief that there are absolutely no coincidences in God's Universe , that nothing, nothing at all happens my mistake, that what people and creatures do is , to greater or lesser degree, the result of a divine intervention against our baser natures. One can see why Smart was inspired by his cat, cats being a creature that, while domesticated, still seem independent, engaged with invisible forces, acting in accordance to stimulus humans have little or no capacity to discern.
Smart injects so much purposefulness and subtle intent in his cat's movements that assuming that he's using the creature to mirror his own self-image is unavoidable. Or at least something to consider as one pursues alternative readings.He seems to be writing about his own lazing about, it seems, his own time eating, musing, writing, taking walks, talking , just being rather than doing something more active, productive and profitable. His cat is connected to a spiritual path, or at least he sees hints of it with each lick, purr, fur ball and odd reclining angle, and mounts an indirect argument that his very being, those times when he is thinking of the connections between stationary objects, the contemplative mode, is precisely how his God intended him to be in this life. Arguing that God didn't want me to work is something I've never had the nerve to try.
Some had commented elsewhere that these might be called "attention poems", something I like the sound of.I like "attention poem", as in a particular thing--creature, object--getting an unusual and , I think , unexpected focus. I'm one of those who thinks that citizens come to know the world through addressing it formally, "knowing", in this sense, being more than a formal recognition of origins, functions and utility; imbuing a mantis, a cat, a building with qualities alien to them is a way of developing an intimate relationship with those things that might otherwise be problematic. We give them extraordinary qualities through a fanciful rhetoric, itself distorted and careening along the tracks, so that they may become ordinary to us. It may be a shamanistic ritual transposed to the written word, an exercise of the will to imagine a realm of metaphysical propositions in an effort to assimilate a bit of the virtue and power the tropes would imply. It would seem a way of making that which is ultimately unknowable--the thing in itself--less of a concern and more an asset in our way through the day, the weeks, the months, the years.
Thinking again, the use of the word "ordinary" doesn't do justice to Smart's evocation.Nothing in the way Smart describes his cat seems an attempt to reduce something in size. A better phrase would have served the point better, which is my feeling that Smart, on some level, was trying to associate himself with the subtle and sublime qualities he attributes to his dear cat and, perhaps , have those same graces become a part of himself. You could also assert that the very act of sensing these things in his pet and having the language mastery to sufficiently align the motion with the spiritual nuance and attending effect comes from an innate quality, that these conditions already exist within Smart . He would be, then, be in the act of recognizing what he already knows , that part of the shared condition within his God's universe that is within himself and the living things around him. Not that the poem is meant to be the beginning of a campaign toward universal spiritual suffrage for all creatures great and small, but his close reading of Jeoffry's manner offers an enticing clue to his greater cosmological sense.