The Sophisticated Cat, Book Review

the sophisticated cat

The Sophisticated Cat, A Gathering of Stories, Poems, and Miscellaneous Writings About Cats, chosen by Joyce Carol Oates and Daniel Halpern. Available in paperback and hardcover.

The cat is the supreme creation of a benign and wonderful god, someone like Santa Claus in a GQ suit. Obviously, sophistication becomes the cat, and any person who reads about cats becomes sophisticated. This large collection of stories, fables and poems spanning ancient to modern times describes the innate ability of cats to transcend the sad attempt at cleverness practiced by humans.

The Sophisticated Cat is a sometimes farcical, sometimes wise, often poignant and passionate collection of writings by an impressive array of great authors from many countries and cultures. Humorous stories include “The Cat That Walked By Himself” by Rudyard Kipling, “The Story of Webster” by P. G. Wodehouse, and “Lillian” by Damon Runyon (the latter takes place in the vicinity of Eighth Avenue and 49th Street). Colette’s “Saha” and Joyce Carol Oates’ “The White Cat” deal with human cruelty toward cats and the frailty and folly behind this cruelty.

Alice Adams’ exceptional story, “The Islands,” begins with the question, “What does it mean to love an animal, a pet, in my case, a cat, in the fierce, entire and unambivalent way that some of us do?” The story of her life with the silver grey tailless cat “Pink” rings true in every phrase.

Soseki Natsume’s “I Am A Cat” is told from the cat’s point of view. It is beautiful, precise, and haunting. There are stories by Aesop, the Brothers Grimm, Emile Zola, Balzac, Mark Twain, Hemingway, Saki, Italo Calvino, and Ursula K. LeGuin. Chekhov’s “Who’s To Blame?” is one of the finest, Orwellian-style allegories ever written.

The poetry is presented in five sections, from the romantic to the whimsical. In Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Cat,” he describes the complete catness of cats; a cat intends or impersonates nothing else: “His is that peerless / integrity, / neither moonlight nor petal / repeats his contexture: / he is all things in all, / like the sun or a topaz.”

Paul Valery describes them as “indifferent to everything but Light itself.” W. B. Yeats’ well known poem about Minnaloushe the cat is included: “And lifts to the changing moon / His changing eyes,” and fine poems by Hart Crane, Robert Graves, and Marianne Moore. “My Cat Jeoffrey” by Christopher Smart is the most fun to read and William Wordsworth’s “The Kitten and Falling Leaves” is the loveliest.

I did wonder why May Sarton’s work was not included. She has written a beautiful book, “The Fur Person.” To a purrfectionist, sophisticated cat reader, this was a glaring omission. The Sophisticated Cat receives ten purrs, five meows, and only one tail flick.


This review was first published in February 1993 in the Clinton Chronicle, a monthly community newspaper for the Clinton, Hell’s Kitchen and Times Square area of Manhattan, New York City, which I published from January 1993 to April 1998.

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The Red and Black Aquatints of Robert Motherwell

Red Sea 1 Robert Motherwell Red Sea 1 (1976)

In the early 1990s I published a monthly community newspaper called the Clinton Chronicle (NYC). This review was written by Claire Machaver, a woman whose joy was manifest along with her generosity. 

Long Fine Art Gallery, March 2 – April 30, 1994, 24 West 57th Street, New York

At the Long Fine Art Gallery, the cumulative effect of the glow of the multiple dense Red and Black Aquatints is striking. Robert Motherwell likened this effect to Plato’s image of art as the shadow cast on the dark cave’s wall by persons passing by the fire. In the Republic, Plato regarded such viewing of shadows as the first step in the path toward viewing the brightest of all things in the material world, the Sun – a metaphor for the vision of the best among realities, wisdom.

Motherwell’s graduate work in philosophy and psychology at Harvard and later studies in art history with Meyer Schapiro provided him with the impetus to address problems of visual communication. With this background, he could draw upon such masters as Mondrian, Matisse and Picasso.

For nearly a decade Motherwell addressed a continual problem of uniting disparate elements in his work.

“It used to cross my mind from time to time that it would be much more intelligent to go the other way – To begin with unity and then, within unity, create (through dividing) disparate elements.”

Motherwell became the heir to Mondrian’s rectilinear geometry and Matisse’s reduction and simplification of his own prior paintings.

Resolving the issue of inside/outside in his Open series of paintings, Motherwell employed a window motif that remains on the picture plane rather than functioning as an illusion of space. These windows do not describe a view. Instead they distill the geometry of all windows and act as symbols. Motherwell’s spare, elegant black lines suggestive of open windows in number 9, Red Open With White Line (1979), and in numbers 4 and 5 in the exhibit, Untitled (1972-73) recall the windows in Matisse’s 1914 painting, French Window at Collioure, a simplification of his 1905 painting, The Open Window (Collioure), and his 1914, View of Notre Dame, a simplification of an earlier View of Notre Dame painted the same year.

The A la Pintura aquatints are illuminations for Rafael Alberti’s poem, A la Pintura (Homage to Painting), first published in 1948. There are three major works in the exhibition: Red 1 – 3 from A la Pintura (1991); Red 4 – 7  from A la Pintura (1969); and Red 8 – 11 from A la Pintura (1971). These aquatints are subtle variations of square and rectangular black imagery on a red ground, with the Spanish text printed in red and the English translation printed in black.

r_motherwell Red 8-11

It was Picasso who first indicated in his writings as director of the Prado museum and in Guernica, with its symbolic and mythological references, how a painter might bring together images that would be universally recognized as archetypal symbols, with the expression of the social consciousness of the artist.

Motherwell wrote, “Every intelligent painter carries the whole culture of modern painting in his head.” The abstract imagery he developed was derived from dialogues with political events, other art, literature and psychoanalysis. Red Sea 1 (1976) is one of the first prints to fully employ automatic “gestural” drawing. Referring to the gesture, Motherwell said, “the true way to imitate nature is to employ its own processes.”

Motherwell explained the intensity of the Red and Black Aquatints. “What aquatint can do . . . better than any other means of a painter, is to saturate certain mould-made papers with an intensity of hue that cannot be equaled (except perhaps in stained glass light).” Aquatint is a specialized technique which uses a metal plate coated with a porous resin to create a granulated effect. This beautiful show provided a lasting impression of a master’s graphic oeuvre and his remarkable ability to use the gestural image in abstract art.

Living Consciously Alive

TALLYFRONTCan a person live an un-repressed life, a life of all possibilities, or is the price always madness, because the terror of reality, the fear of life and of death, as Ernest Becker said, are too much to bear without defense?

Some, like R. D. Laing, say therefore prefer madness; at least, respect the mad for their courage.

I wonder if that release into all possibilities has to be a leap into insanity?

If I develop my attributes – intellect, emotions, sexuality, “soul” – and have no center other than a fire of gases like the sun, can I live fully, freely, courageously? I feel in myself the strong desire, stronger than the fear of breaking down, death and pain, to go into the world in all of its alarming chaos and be transfixed by it, to experience it all with courage as well as fear.

Ernest Becker (Denial of Death) would say I have fabricated my own “symbolic transcendence” over “the darkness and the dread of the human condition.”

But isn’t there equally glory in the human condition, in nature, in oneself? And just as hard to take, for most people, because of the guilt of being happy, successful (at whose cost) and the fear of being betrayed by happiness into forgetting horror – then it suddenly happens. Still, the beauty is equal to the ugliness. I don’t believe people create, always or necessarily, to “mediate natural terror” and triumph over it.

What I mean is not transcendence, but instead as fully experiencing life as I can. These experiences may shatter me, they may improve me; surely they will transform me.

Is it possible to experience the world purely without being completely destroyed?

Reading Huxley’s Doors of Perception, I kept thinking: but I don’t take these drugs and I have these experiences. When I walked in New York, I was sometimes mesmerized by the blue sky above the city streets,. I walked for blocks looking up until I came to see the faded lemon-blue near the western horizon. In Riverside Park, I watched flotillas of ducks, saw how they converged with the river’s currents, bobbing into one another’s area, the rhythm or actually the lack of rhythm, a kind of staccato randomness, changing formations and no clear purpose, but the purpose was clear. Dove blue lights went on the George Washington Bridge and upriver the crusty castle of Riverside Church towered in failing light.

How easy it is for me to visualize, hear and remember the feel of things, how sensory oriented I have always been, the importance of color and how I find it hard to look away from the angles and line in architecture, street after street. I always look and listen, drinking in, as I pass Lincoln Center, walking or in a bus, those colorful “pastiches” of Klee’s, the fountain, the whole.

In art and in life, in our perpetual consciousness, there are layers of perception. Cezanne’s paintings show this gestalt visual memory. There is a synthesis of objects, events and people seen from different points of view, in different lights, from different angles, at different times.

Huxley was looking for a bio-chemical-neurological similarity between “schizos” and artists. Too much stimulation can frighten and overwhelm, or it can fascinate and enrich. The ability to have faith in one’s experience is important, as Laing said, to not care what others judge it to be, to ascertain its value yourself.

“Crazy” people and artists are not the same from my experience. The crazy people I knew were often people of limited or a false empathy. Some are emotionally crippled: the ideologue; the man who screams all night on the church steps.

Anyone who was still alive and battling was not crazy. They had courage and imagination, but were in trouble. They were people who needed to be re-stabilized. I knew that, because I was one of them.

I am leading a peculiar life outside the mainstream, not a crazy life but one arrived at through choosing to live, fully, to be what I am.

Huxley wrote of artists that they are “congenitally equipped to see all the time. His perception is not limited to what is biologically or socially useful. A little of the knowledge belonging to Mind at Large oozes past the reducing valve of brain and ego, into his consciousness.”

This ability is inherent, however, in every person. Some choose to develop it, others to evade the reality of their own experience.

In my book Tally: An Intuitive Life, PJ said, “People find, if they ever do, that it ever so easy—and so difficult—to tap into one’s stream of consciousness. That’s what I mean by living consciously alive.”

Vincent Ferrini,cosmic everyman poet

ferrininosmoke

Vincent Ferrini and the poet Charles Olson engaged in a love-hate tango for years. Vincent’s poetry was strong but nuanced, able to evoke both the physical and divine worlds with ease.

In 1981, I met Vincent at the Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s Church on West 46th Street. With his co-poet for the evening, Ed Kaplan, I waited on the sidewalk. Ed’s hair flared away, singed, crinkled like blown-out electrical wires. A breeze sprang up, blowing from the east off the ocean, as if from the rocky coasts and gray-green waves of Gloucester, Massachusetts, with its salt-strong sea-scent.

The Village Voice notice had read: “Vincent Ferrini, the Gloucester poet who weaves in and out of Charles Olson’s Maximus poems, arrives to give his first ever New York City reading. Author of Know Fish and 27 other volumes of poetry, Ferrini writes a strong and direct and lovely line.” 

The Voice said Ed Kaplan’s books, Pancratium and Zero Station, moved in an “Olsonesque verbal labyrinth assessing the nature of existence.”

Ed said, “He’ll be here any minute.”

We stamped our feet on the sidewalk in the still chill (with a note of first warmth) of late March.

Vincent Ferrini came quickly down the street in a walk-sprint like a sprite, full of enthusiasm. I had a vision of a bonfire on the beach, a beacon, a light that gathered people in. I laughed as he spoke: we were word-surfers.

On the flyer, Vincent Ferrini’s words:

do you think this moment
after reading this
you will be the same again

Ed smiled as Vincent gave me a copy of Know FishCornelius Eady and Shelley Messing came from WBAI and taped the reading, but later Cornelius told me the tape did not turn out well. These moments cannot be recreated, maybe they cannot be adequately recorded. 

A short time afterward, I gave Bob Holman of the Poetry Project at St. Marks the copy of Vincent Ferrini’s Know Fish. For several years Vincent and I stayed in touch. About three years later, he wrote to me: “Sleep with one eye open all of 1984.”

Vincent Ferrini on Wikipedia

Vincent Ferrini’s Obituary 2007 (includes critique of his poetry)

This is a link to two letters to me from Vincent Ferrini. 

The first female detectives

A little Hell’s Kitchen history (and some Australian) of female detectives

historywithatwist

Growing up in Dublin’s inner-city northside, my childhood was filled with crime.

Ironside, Mannix, Banachek, The Rockford Files, Hawaii Five-O, The Streets of San Francisco, Cannon, Kojak, Columbo, McCloud, Petrocelli, Quincy M.E… I watched them all.

They were cops and private detectives mostly, armed with snub-nosed Smith & Wesson’s, screeching around corners in Buicks, Chevrolets and Dodges, hubcaps flying off as they frantically pursued the bad guys.

Sometimes the cars got cooler – like Jim Rockford’s Firebird, or, later, Starsky and Hutch’s white-striped Gran Torino. One thing that was a given, though, was that all crime fighters were men. Then the female detectives Cagney & Lacey came along, and a small blow was struck for feminists. To teenage me, though, that last one seemed a bit, well… contrived.

Am I really expected to believe that these women can haul the killers off the street and lock them in the clink…

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March Blizzard Poetry

megabenefit2On March 7, 1983, the day of the “Rock’n’Poetry” Benefit for the Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s Church (423 West 46th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, New York City), a major snowstorm hit the city. By late afternoon the streets were empty.

Allen Ginsberg arrived, shaking off a mantle of snow, about fifteen minutes before the reading. He was friendly, but a little shy. I showed him and a friend into the library where lamplight glowed on the blue, green, mauve and earth-colored leaded windows.

Spalding Gray arrived, and shook my hand. (He’d promised he’d come one day.)

Amiri Baraka called to say he was on his way in from Newark and battling the snow.

“I understand if you can’t make it.”

“The roads are still open, and it will be just as bad trying to go back to Newark. And I wanted to get into the city anyway.”

The audience filled the downstairs theatre and I began to worry about over-capacity. More than a hundred people had braved the storm.

Easing open the door, I saw a mound of snow creeping down the street. The mound pulled over to the sidewalk and Baraka piled out with his family.

I held the church door open. “I can’t believe what you’ve gone through to get here.”

“I was determined to be here,” he said. “There aren’t many places like this.”

I left him with Ginsberg and the other poets and their friends in the small library room next to the front office. Poets sat on the sofa, Ginsberg in a low armchair, and others on the well-worn, wine-red rug.

The reading was segue-ing from poet to poet. Spalding Gray said all he needed was a table and a chair. He sat at the table center stage with one spotlight, reading from his notebooks. His words flowed out intuitively, and the way he coupled the words, tangled, bickered, or united in conjugal bliss, exposed his inner turmoil and joy, his triumphs and losses.

Sheri spoke to me and I was jolted back to my responsibilities.

Applause followed me down the front hall. I counted the box office.

It was time to give Baraka and Ginsberg the heads up. I poked my head in.

Ginsberg looked up, making eye contact. “Are you doing well? Did you make money?”

“We did. We’ll be able to go on another year with the money we made tonight.”

He smiled. “That’s great.”

I stared a moment, not realizing before his commitment to poets and poetry groups.

Baraka went into the theater next, giving a reading filled with stamping meter and hard-edged images tempered by, well more than humor, empathy, or sense of injustice and hope, by love I would say.

When Ginsberg spoke people clapped, stamped their feet, howled, and sang, his voice rising like a cantor. The walls reverberated, the theater was heated by the crowd, a night of wonder.

Outside the snow had stopped. The poets left with the crowd, a beautiful sound in the silent snow-cloaked city.