That Old Black Magic

A review of Fred Chappell, Familiars, LSU Press, 2014.

The cat, the felis silverstrus catus, both wild and domesticated, has exercised a considerable fascination for the creative artist throughout the thousands of years of Western and non-Western civilization.  One need only peruse art and history books containing sculptures of the animal originating in Byzantium and Egypt, among other ancient locales, to see how symbolic it has been to very sophisticated early cultures; the Egyptians, of course, even fitted one of their deities, Bast, with the head of a cat out of respect for the cat’s mystery and sense of power.  The literary arts too have manifested their own share of bauble-eyed, four-legged fur persons (to pilfer the title of the short and charming novel by May Sarton).  The most conspicuous is probably the maddening, eponymous creature in one of Poe’s most famous short stories, “The Black Cat.”  But there are others: the English poet Christopher Smart wrote of his cat Geoffrey in literal and ecstatic religious terms, while, two centuries later, pop novelist Stephen King used a less benevolent feline to represent much darker emotions in his screenplay Cat’s Eye.  The work of T.S. Eliot was revived in the early 1980s not by the dissertation of an overly clever graduate student or a daring new analysis of The Waste Land but by the adaptation of the poet’s Old Possum’s Book of Cats into a smash-hit Broadway musical.  To that company of august names we must add a more recent one, the Southern novelist and poet Fred Chappell, whose latest collection, Familiars, offers a number of different perspectives on the felis silvestrus catus.

Chappell’s book has an interesting genesis, which he recounts in a foreword.  Cat-lovers themselves, Chappell and his wife Susan were conversing with paper artist Susanne Martin, when two Chappell cats happened to stroll into the room.  Mrs. Chappell remarked to Ms. Martin:  “Too bad you can’t make paper out of cat hair.  We have an abundance,” to which Ms. Martin replied, “Oh but I can.”  Thus ensued an artistic collaboration between Chappell and Martin which resulted in a limited edition volume entitled Companion Piece, a kind of sequel or extension to Chappell’s earlier collection Family Gathering, the paper made from feline combings.  That book, limited to fifty copies, is now a collector’s item.  Delighted with the make of the volume, the poet was not satisfied with its content, feeling “…the cats I sought to bring into the compass of the concept did not often cotton to the personages I had limned in the earlier book [Family Gathering].  They were an independent lot, preferring to keep company with humans of their own choosing to maintain their individuality as solitaries.”

In Familiars he gives this “independent lot” the full portrait(s) they deserve.

The very first cat considered, Reginald (“Cynosure”), a “sartorial wonder” who is so persnickety that he “will not deign to notice a mouse,” exemplifies this independence, with his Hollywood ties and his taste for caviar, so much so the speaker warns: “Try to avoid his ownership;/ “Keep well afar…”/”You’ll never gain his gratitude.”/ “That ain’t Reginald’s attitude.”  Yet Marian, the cat following Reginald (“Beatitude”), exhibits more ascetic tastes, exalting “the spirit of the rutabaga,” in her quest to become a vegetarian, a transformation that makes other “felines think her gaga.”   Later on we meet Chloe (“Visitor”), a feline even more refined than Marian who peruses Mrs. Chappell’s sleeping brain, but

Can fine no Stilton, crickets, or cream,
But only a mouseless penury
That makes her wonder once again
Why humans have such reputation
For possessing a superior brain
And brighter imagination.

Chloe then invades Mr. Chappell’s dream, only to find it

Toxic as a plug of tobacco,
And like no other she might find:
8/10 s oatmeal, 2/10 s wacko.
Then once again Chloe retreats,
Happy to escape so handily
This phantasmagoria she meets
That tests her stalwart sanity.

Frequently Chappell pairs off his felines with human personages who either reflect or juxtapose the temperament of the animals.  These characters originally appeared in the author’s aforementioned Family Gathering.

For instance we have Aunt Muriel (“Perseverance”), a “belle that rings forever.”/ “She must count seven decades anyhow,”/ “Yet still maintains the air of a glamour-puss”/ “Of twenty-two…” matched with Babydoll (“Rival”) who is “hip to [Muriel’s] ploys [to remain young].”

It’s all mere flummery, thinks Babydoll,
A childish game that silly humans play
As they weave around the warped Maypole of sex.
They show, these rubes, no dignity at all,
And as for beauty, no one can gainsay
The superior graces of a Devon Rex –

Which, as it happens, is what Babydoll is.

Along with this original limning, Chappell also hangs in his gallery portraits of cats created by others.

George Herriman’s delightfully daffy Krazy Kat, equipped with one of the most endearing speech impediments in pop culture, receives a new adventure from Chappell’s pen (“Time Piece”), as Krazy Kat once more confronts his/her perpetual antagonist/paramour Ignatz the Mouse and receives a brick on the noggin for his/her troubles.  The poem closes with the irrefutable observation, delivered in KK lingo, that “Always to be heppy is to be Krazy.”  “in re reincarnation” features Don Marquis’ creation mehitabel, referred to on Familiars’ back cover as a “grande dame” but not as widely known as Krazy Kat (at least not to this writer).  A perusal of the Internet reveals that mehitabel is an alley cat who styles herself as something like feline royalty, and in Chappell’s poem she does imagine that she is Cleopatra (long associated with cats) and is divvying out the title of prince to her longtime companion Archy the Cockroach.

To some extent Familiars is an ironic title for a book of poetry such as this, for Chappell’s is an approach to verse that is becoming less familiar.  His work does not partake of the obscure, the ostentatiously personal, the sensational, or the maddeningly abstract.  His mastery of rhyme and traditional form would set him squarely in the school of the Formalists, a brave band of dissidents seeking to return some sanity to the writing of poetry, although I doubt strongly he would place himself or would want to be placed in any literary school.  Last of all, his work gives pleasure – not just Familiars but all his books of poetry, eighteen and counting (we hope) – which seems more and more taboo in the contemporary world of verse.

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