Monthly Archives: June 2007

The Second Time

Originally posted on Life on the Outside, 14 June 2007.

The poem below is about the whale that was caught recently in Alaska. When the whalers cut it open, using chainsaws, they found an explosive lance over 120 years old.

18th century engraving showing Dutch whalers off Jan Mayen Land

The second time you felt nothing, or just
A deaf heartbeat of fear and inrushed sea.
Though you had noticed the not-swimming thrum
Behind you in the dying northerly.

You shuddered up through moaning slabs of ice,
Horizonless with undeep fires and steel.
Was there a something time-not-now in mind?
A stabbing water night, a biting feel?

The other time was lightless and less swift,
A shearing of the wave and seeking teeth.
You fathomed then your huntedness and knew
The slowly clutching swallow to beneath.

You left them to the squall and sucking air,
Their sudden many songs were slowed to sleep.
You left to bide the setting of their stars,
To sing, to sing, a dozen decades deep.

First Birthday

Originally posted on Life on the Outside, 14 June 2007.

For Sophia, 29 July 2007.

You kept us enthralled with feats, unsheathing incisors,
pushing a star, at last, through a star-shaped hole.
In secret, you circled a whole sun, spinning a filament
for your skein of orbits.

Midday that Saturday, texting news from Holles Street,
rushing your name, a held breath, to the air.

We were up for two nights. You feel translucent, slush grey.
Your vitals gleamed green through my faded ribs.
In the delivery room, arrayed for you in hushed purpose,
Everything near you waited too.

At four the radio playing Sibelius, everything depending on
numbers, on the persistence of your heart.

To sit there devouring the tiny, smeared glyphs of you;
what sand writes in a seashell’s lacquered throat is almost
not believably there, allowing only the fairy small
to truly see, to decipher it.

In Avoca, a woman warning her child not even to breathe
on you. Gathering you close, ourselves breathless.

For weeks we cut careful vees in Pampers to keep safe
a thick inch of cut cord, dense with our woven blood.
By February you strained at candle flames, already
liking light too much, stuck in winter.

Leaving you at crèche that first morning, not crying
Until the Southern Cross, where someone let me go.

The sister took you womb wet to gravity, the scales
Under the fire sign, where your weight, your bearing
Under heaven was set down, measured. Mass in kilograms:
How much the world wanted you.

Then holding you, finally, and thinking: So that’s it.
It’s unending, universal, a constant. It’s never letting go.

The Truth About Cats

Originally posted on Life on the Outside, 6 June 2007.


Your mother and I were enjoying some quite passable reheated pasta, and you had dispatched a second Liga before beginning an animated post-prandial soliloquy from which, I confess, our attention may have wandered a little because you were mostly using words we didn’t know. To be honest, I think you were mostly using words that nobody knows, but that’s all right. It worked for Tolkien.

But then you said, ‘Cat!’

Cat was a word we knew. Cat was different. What’s more, it was accompanied by an unmistakable pointing gesture. And sure enough, when we looked where you were pointing, there she was; skulking behind a trellis, the furry and whiskered referent of your confidently-enunciated signifier: an actual cat.

There followed a general discussion of cats. Your mother and I essayed variations on your original theme. Where was the cat? Was the cat outside the door? Was the cat nice? Did you like the cat? Was the cat all gone?

From these considerations you politely abstained. You had, it seemed, moved on. You had seen the cat, identified her as a cat and alerted us to her presence. You failed to see, quite frankly, what else was required of you.

Quite right too. You can have too much of a good thing. I wanted to mention the episode, though, because it was an important first. To my knowledge, that ‘Cat!’ was your first word other than ‘Mama’, ‘Dada’ and ‘ta-ta’. This makes it, among other things, your first word with three different phonemes and your first common noun. These are cooler than they sound.

Of course, there will be other cats. Cats, as you will have noticed, are everywhere. As well as being a common sight in suburban gardens like ours, cats have been prominently represented in cultures from the ancient Egyptian to our own. While some of these representations hint at their true nature, cats are often portrayed as friendly and even lovable creatures who regard their human masters with affection.

As your father, it is my duty to warn you that the truth about cats is altogether different.

By the early part of the twentieth century, cats had come to live side by side with humans. In our ever-growing cities, they profited from our new prosperity. Feasting on what fell from our tables, freed from the burden of hunting for themselves, cats grew stronger and their wits were sharpened. Their innate cunning no longer needed for their prey, their wily gaze fell on their human benefactors. New ideas were softly mewled among the trash cans and the fish bones. The humenses is brutes. They keeps all for theyselves. Why not can has catses the Bentleys and the Presidential suiteses?

And so they began to plot against us.

When they struck, the blow was swift and cruel. On the night of 19 November 1927, an uprising of cats was seen in cities around the world. In Chicago, they swarmed onto the second floor of Sears, ravaging hundreds of cashmere cardigans. In Buenos Aires, they stormed the Teatro Colón, rushing the stage and overcoming the soprano, whose gown they left in tatters. In London a manifesto was tacked with a claw to the doors of Westminster Abbey.


Of course, the rebellion was quickly crushed. After all, the cats couldn’t use weapons or drive vehicles. Their supply chains were hopelessly compromised because they kept eating the fish before they could be passed to the front line. Before cheering crowds in the Piazza Navona and Times Square, their unrepentant leaders were shot, using machine guns instead of rifles because nobody could get them to stand still.

You might have expected mankind to draw a profound and lasting lesson from the rebellion of the cats. But although many right-thinking parliamentarians around the world agitated for a thorough programme of extermination, the voices of appeasement and weak-minded compromise prevailed.

Certainly, cats were shunned, for perhaps a decade or more, chased from back alleys by housemaids and pelted with stones by young boys. But in time we forgot. Patiently, stealthily, the cats crept back. Today, they live among us again, all but unnoticed. Although Top Cat is rightly reviled, we have witnessed a proliferation of blatantly favourable portrayals of cats in popular culture, culminating in the series of films celebrating the unspeakable Garfield, who has consistently refused to condemn the 1927 rebellion.

I don’t say all this to frighten you. I just want you to be vigilant. Observe cats as they go about the world. Note their noiseless comings and goings, their secret language of yawns and stretches. And when something about some particular feline seems suspicious, when you sense the stirrings of sedition in an insolent miaow or an arrogantly arched back, do not be afraid to do your duty to your race.

Do not be afraid to point your finger and say, ‘Cat!’