New Prose : February 2007
A cormorant the size of a human thumb has been found in the Hohle Fels cave in Germany’s Swabian Mountains. One of three figurines carved from mammoth ivory, the find provides the earliest evidence that our archaic human ancestors made figurative art more than 30,000 years ago, the period during which bison, mammoth and lion images began to transform European caves into shrines. All three carvings in the recently discovered cache depict animals: one horse’s head, one half-lion/half-human creature, and one bird with body and neck extended into the graceful tension of a cormorant rising toward water’s surface after a feasting dive, rising from the invisible underwater world into the air. The beauty of animals called these ancestors to acts of creation.
The figures, which do not appear to be the work of amateurs though they may be among the earliest art works made by human beings, are polished from constant handling, as one might rub a beach stone or hardwood burl, letting the oil of one’s fingers raise the object’s sheen while the thumb’s repetitive motion against that smoothness leads the mind to the clean place one comes to when staring into space and thinking. Rather than being savages, our forebears were sculptors, painters and contemplators, their minds like ours in a daydream. As long as we’ve been human, we’ve been making art. Or perhaps it is more accurate to place this eagerness to participate in creation at the center of what it is to be the animal we are: as long we’ve been making art, we’ve been human.
Art from the primal world draws the imagination back into the unthinkably deep well of time it took for the human mind, as we know it, to evolve. “We” may have been around as toolmakers, language users, dietary omnivores, cosmological celebrants, nomadic socializers and combatants for 500,000 to 2,000,000 years, depending what markers you use to start measuring proto-humanity. But it is not until 40,000 to 100,000 years ago that fossil forms look indistinguishable from those of modern human beings. And as we dig up more and more of the last remote places on Earth looking for the bones that will teach us the nature of what we are, we keep turning up art and asking, What does it mean?
It means what it is. Mammoth tusk transformed to water bird by a creature who, seeing the beauty and mystery of the bird, was moved to hold in it mind and hand, to become intimate with the bird, and so carved a likeness that would preserve and keep it close. And so begins the long human braiding of art, nature and the idea of the transcendent: the bird transcends the limits of its birdness by flying through water, and the carving transcends the circumstance of the encounter with the water bird, prolonging the interaction for as long as hand and mind desire and providing the opportunity to share it with others. Our deepest human memory, one so deep we cannot see the shape of it on the surface of our thinking, may be our capacity to read and preserve and share our encounters with animals. Early humans may have learned this capacity in surviving the threat of predators, but we get to carry it forward as acuity to animal beauty that gives meaning to our lives.
My Cat Jeffrey
My cat Jeffrey was born under the crawl space at the Poetry Center. The staff had been trying to trap the feral cats that prowled the yard, because their stink was rising through the floorboards. These were scrawny urban cats, ears nicked from fighting, coats dull from rolling in the dust, bodies thin from foraging on urban streets during summer when it is too damned hot to hunt for much other than the lizard that darts by their noses. Greg Martin, who was in Tucson writing his memoir about the Basques in Mountain City, Nevada, found the litter under planks the maintenance crew had nailed over a cellar window well. The mother cat had found a refuge in that roasting little Hades and there she ferried five kittens into the world. This cat was fierce, a striped domestic short hair, mean as a mongoose, and she kept her feral guard up despite the offerings of Friskies and Whiskas that Greg left for her each day. She took the food when no one was in sight, but she never welcomed the hand that fed her. She looked with disdain upon the human enterprise, like a war correspondent who has seen too much to ever believe in human kindness, and she stayed in the neighborhood barely long enough for her offspring to open their eyes and know she had gone, scowling into the wildness left to her among the neighborhood’s sheds and shrubs that kept her safe from the likes of us and our Have-a-Hart traps.
Greg Martin tamed the kittens. They took easily to food, sweet talk, and kind hands. He stroked them, cuddled them, and passed them around to the students who came to read poetry books. He arranged for them all to be adopted with the condition that their owners give the kittens literary names, an idea that seemed in keeping with their being born under the floorboards of such a distinguished collection of poetry books. Greg took two, and he named them Thomas and Beulah, after Rita Dove’s book based upon the lives of her grandparents. I took one marked with tiger stripes and red belly fur and named him Jeffrey after the cat Christopher Smart immortalized in his poem “Jubilate Agno.” Smart was a man whose life fell into feral condition. Born in 1722 in Kent, England, he was educated at Cambridge University, and his reputation was established as a poet, translator, drunkard, and debtor by the time he fell into illness at age thirty-three, emerging from his sickbed with a religious mania that compelled him to fall to his knees in prayer in the streets. He soon thereafter published “Hymn to the Supreme Bring, on Recovery from a Dangerous Fit of Illness,” but was confined to a madhouse for the next seven years. There he wrote his great works, “A Song of David,” a mathematically ordered celebration of the Psalms and the Creation, a work which Robert Browning compared to a great cathedral, and “Jubilate Agno,” the unfinished and largely unread masterpeice in which he saw himself as “the Lord’s News-Writer” and celebrated his cat Jeoffrey as a manifestation of the divine, “for he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes,” among many other reasons both physical and mystical.
My cat Jeffrey went through life in constant awe and wonder, as if each moment were his first on Earth. He cried out incessantly, as if questioning matters great and small. He conveyed a sense of drama in his monologues, so that with a limited vocabulary he communicated feelings of unfairness and loss, and unfairness, we would come to know, was his ultimate story. He made mad dashes through the house, chasing nothing with the fervor of the possessed. He worshipped my companion Malcolm, lying on the floor beneath his desk gazing upward as if waiting to be blessed. Malcolm saw him as a great soul friend. We learned a few words of his language, in particular his request for the faucet, any faucet, to be left dripping so that he could angle his mouth beneath it and drink from the thin stream. Jeffrey was obsessed with running water, and at any sound of dripping, flowing, or pooling, he would cry out in recognition, bolt from his sleeping place and leap to counter or sink. He was what the vet called a “wool chewer” so we gave him as teddy bear on which he suckled, forming a perfect teat in its polyester fur. He was big boned and muscular, taking up a fierce amount of space in the bed, flopping closer and closer against thighs or behind crooked knees until as the night deepened he could have a human being pressed to the precipice.
Once Jeffrey fell down a chimney, his hind leg caught by the damper halfway down, and he hung there for hours in the sooty dark until someone found him and slithered in to pull him free. He lost the ball joint of his hip, which the vet removed and presented to me in a jar of formalin. It looked like a shiny, fat pearl. His mobility was not affected by the loss. The hip reconfigured without the ball, and he was as limber, if lumbering, as ever. Was it then, hanging there in shock with the blood rushing to his head, that Jeffrey’s mind changed? His disorientation became a great entertainment to people. He would cast his eyes up the wall and across the ceiling tracking something invisible as if he had forgotten not only where he was and where he was going, but even the plane on which his destination was to be found. If he climbed the grapefruit tree, he would forget what he was doing and fall from it with utter surprise. If he chased a butterfly in the garden, he would detour after a leaf or a vibration in the air—some old danger drifting through his mind that he could never find. He would sleep for hours in the dust beneath the shrubs, drunk on desert heat, rather than coming into the cool house. He was a bully with his companion cat Rosie and seemed to know that ambush was his only hope of sinking a claw into her. Rosie tolerated him, but her agility enabled her to evade his attentions with stately disdain. These were the terms of their relationship, and it was a relationship, despite the limited emotional register. After Jeffrey was gone, Rosie lay listless and depressed for a month.
No leaking car radiators, no spilled jugs of antifreeze, no tainted food to be found, but Jeffrey one night began to stagger, and the next day, neurologically impaired, he tested positive for ethylene glycol toxicity. “Antifreeze,” said the vet. “It tastes sweet and pets love it. This chemical is the most common cause of malicious poisoning in pets. I’m not saying that’s what has happened here, but you’d better search around the yard.” There was no sign of maliciousness in the yard, though it was easy to imagine a neighbor setting the bait in a fit of irritation over—what? A cat pissing in his flower garden? People are two-faced animals, equally capable of doting on or dosing other species. There was no point in waiting for Jeffrey to fall into seizures and coma. The vet eased him over with a gentling drug and he was gone.
It’s easy now to imagine that Jeffrey’s feral mother made the better choice in staying clear of human relationship. But that’s bitterness talking, when I know that Jeffrey loved his life with us, and that I learned from him to praise even and especially the fool. Praise her, the feral mother. Praise him, the gullible son.
Clamp the S-hook to the collar and the dog has permission to live. If he gets lost, the person who finds him can get your address and bring him home to you. If he gets hit by a car, someone will deliver a definition for the grief you feel at the loss of his company. Every year or two you will renew his license, using pliers or a vise grip to detach the old tag and attach the new one. Then the dog will prance around the living room shaking his head, for a few moments feeling the collar that he had forgotten he wears. You will hear him jingle in the house at night as he scratches his fleas—his fleas, like he is your dog, though unlike this in that he takes no pleasure in their companionship. You will hear him stir, turn, and resettle in the night because of the metallic jingle. A stranger who once has been attacked (such a sweet dog, he would never. . . ) will be grateful for the music of dogtags that give warning before the bark or growl or baring of teeth that will trigger your startle reflex, the body’s memory of a trauma the mind has suppressed. Once a person has known teeth in her flesh, the dogtags will no longer convince her that anyone owns the dog’s wildness except the dog. Domestic only means he has agreed to live in the house and we have agreed to welcome him there.
Men and women wear dogtags too to identify their bodies. In 2001 a twenty-seven-year-old man traveling in Ho Chi Minh City to scout for business opportunities found the dogtags of American soldiers hanging on a string in a back-alley market not frequented by tourists. They were for sale—six or seven for one dollar. He was disgusted. He could not stop thinking about them. Were they real or fake? He returned to buy 620 of them and brought them home. Some of the dogtags belonged to men who are still living. Thirty years after leaving Vietnam, where every one of them must have left a piece of his soul, the soldiers got back their IDs. For them too the dogtags meant, in retrospect, permission to live. Thirty years after their sons died in Vietnam, some parents got back their dogtags. One mother said she felt joy to hold them. For her they meant identifying with her son’s body, and he was real and tangible, at least in her mind, as had been the child whose back she had stroked as he fell into sleep on troubled nights.
One morning in Vermont when I lived simple and remote, visitors rare and reminding me that the world extended beyond my house and barn and neighborhood, I picked up a hitchhiker. This was near the Canadian border, so near I had gone several times to a club the size of my living room in the eastern townships of Quebec to hear Jesse Winchester perform. The Memphis-born folksinger and draft resister had become famous for his love song “Yankee Lady,” but he could not perform in the United States without being arrested for evading his 1967 draft notice. That war was everywhere in American society, and it showed up quietly on my dirt road that morning. The hitchhiker looked about the age I then was—twenty-four or twenty-five. He was bearded, scruffy and carried a dirty backpack, the sartorial style signifying, it seemed to me then, his solidarity with resisting the trim exterior that belied America’s vicious heart. To be messy and grow wild was to be truthful about the reality that our nation was a mess and the war had gone wild—a ferocity no one’s tidy rhetoric could control. But appearances rarely are what they seem, and I realized soon that I had projected my own ideology on the stranger, instead of learning the story that had brought him to this spot on his tattered map. I know this is beginning to sound like one of the tales we call a shaggy dog story—so much digression you can’t see where you’re going.
I brought the man to my house for lunch, gave him homemade soup and bread. He wanted a lift a few miles down the road, and I agreed to take him. He pointed to the green area on his map, saying it looked like the biggest stretch of uninhabited forest in the vicinity and asking me if that were true. I said yes and pointed out the window to the Cold Hollow Mountains, which had been my comfort in the landscape that taught me I belonged to something larger and older and wiser than human life. He told me he wanted to see if he could survive in the wild with nothing but his pocketknife and sleeping bag. Did he even have a sleeping bag? I remember so little of this—only that I thought he was crazy or suicidal or running from something that must have seemed to him worse than death. It was late autumn and in that region winter brought killing cold, weeks when the morning temperature would register at forty below. Why didn’t I ask the stranger where he had come from and why? Why didn’t I offer him something other than soup and a ride? What would it have been? I was afraid of him and I wanted to protect him, and the contradiction immobilized my good intentions.
After lunch I drove him as far as a car could go on the dirt road that dead-ends on a saddle of those forested mountains. This looks good, he said. The maple trees had already lost their leaves and lay crisp with frost on the hard-packed ground. I stopped the car. Are you sure? I began to see that I might be helping a man to kill himself. Yes, he said. And his eyes were sure. What was unsaid hung around us like acrid smoke. Will you do me a favor? he asked. What? He reached in his pocket and took out a set of dogtags hanging on their chain. Put these in the nearest U.S. mailbox. I stared at him. It’s okay, he said. I took the tags. I let him out. He walked upslope into the woods. I wanted to call out to him, but what could I have said? I drove to town and put the dogtags in a mail drop at the post office. I felt as if I were committing a crime. I cannot say what his intentions were. Perhaps he’d gone AWOL and would hike north to the border for amnesty. Perhaps he died in the cold woods with not one thing on his body to identify him, wanting to be reduced to the animal, because he felt himself no longer to be human. There were so many men—mostly men in those years—who were lost or could not find a way out of the arguments in their heads over what they had done or not done in the war. I felt ugly to myself, as if by handing in his tags, I was treating a man as if he meant less to me than a dog. I regret still that I did nothing more to help him. What would that have been? Send a letter to his family explaining his confident resolve? Perhaps this account is that letter. Perhaps we, every one of us who has no faith in war, are his family.