For once I don’t need to send you off somewhere else on the interweb to read this week’s poem. It’s given in full here on the site, by kind permission of its author, R[osie] V Bailey (I’m trying to sound casual about that but really I’m rather proud and thrilled). I’ve been wanting to write about ‘Feeding the Cats’ for a while but it seems particularly right for right now. Here it is:
‘Feeding the Cats’
When she left they were glad, the people at the farm.
Too many cats, too much
Fuss about livestock. They didn’t need
Her not-always-silent reproach. But daily
She still trails back from the town,
All weathers, keeping faith with her strays,
Loaded with Katkins and Felix, and worry
About cat-flu and irresponsible cars.
Meanwhile in stinking cells the patient
Hands, feet, faces singe at the torturer’s flick;
Terrified children are used for this and that;
In foundering hulks, in camps, on roadsides,
Grannies and babies have no one, and nowhere to go.
Feeding cats? That’s right. And meals-on-wheels.
Visiting Auntie. Lending the car. Showing up
At the bedside, at the funeral, in the cold.
Saying. Not saying. Waiting. Listening.
Bits of trying, the not-unkind, the un-bad. All of it –
The mystic’s rapture, the murderer’s misgiving –
What we can do. Add it up. One day
It might tip the scales.*
Part of what I love about this poem is the way, throughout, at the level both of language and of idea, it manages to hold together such different things. I read this poem and imagine someone talking, quietly but with great feeling, gesturing, holding their hands out on front of them, palms up, the one holding the “bad” and the other the “good”—insisting on acknowledging both, unable to prefer either (the scales are not yet ‘tip[ped]’). ‘Feeding the Cats’ keeps us in an uneasy equipoise, shocking us and comforting us and refusing to let us settle in either position. Reminding us of the effort involved in achieving ‘the not-unkind, the un-bad’, the poem defines the positive in terms of the negative. But it also honours the work that goes into ‘trail[ing] back from the town/ All weathers’, and the discipline involved in ‘Not saying. Waiting. Listening./ Bits of trying’. To me there’s no mereness in that ‘Bits of trying’; rather, a recognition that it’s effortful, piecemeal perhaps, and simply ‘What we can do’. Is the ‘the murderer’s misgiving’ better than nothing? Is it a place hope can lodge?
A deliciously deft zeugma: the unnamed woman is ‘loaded with Katkins… and worry’. So many uncomfortable juxtapositions throughout: the settings and situations it includes—the ‘farm’ and the ‘stinking cells’, the ‘foundering hulks’ and ‘meals on wheels’; jarring, sometimes ghastly, contrasts in tone and diction—’terrified children… this and that’; and, at the structural level, the way the ‘little, nameless, unremembered, acts/ Of kindness and of love’ in stanzas one and three flank the horrors of stanza two. Indeed, the way the third stanza opens with is a question is as it were a response to an unspoken challenge: can we really offset this with that? Feeding the cats with ‘the torturer’s flick’? It seems a huge claim.
And yet … and yet (as UA Fanthope also said): the poem seems to me to allow, if not hope exactly, then maybe the hope of hope; or at least not the triumph of apathetic despair. I love its desire not to overstate, the determination to be faithful to facts—all the facts. Unable to resolve, ‘Feeding the Cats’ still offers the thought that ‘One day/ It might tip the scales’. It puts me in mind of Eliot’s claim (yes! it’s time for George again): ‘that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs’. The mention of ‘meals-on-wheels’ reminds us that the un-bad can exist at the level of institution as well as individual (a particularly precious reminder at the moment!); while the poem as a whole dares to assert the value of doing ‘what we can do’, simply because of the rightness of doing it. The best we can do, however objectively good or un-good it is, is still worth doing. So, in the face of all the madness there is right now, keep feeding the cats, lending the car, visiting Auntie. Keep showing up.
*The poem appears in the collections Course Work, Marking Time and Credentials.