13 ways of looking at a black cat crossing your path…

A list poem, of sorts, inspired by Wallace Stevens “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” shared this week on Ethical ELA. The Open Write challenge: “To look outside ourselves to the larger world. Craft a poem about it…the larger world is many different things to people, and in many cases, it’s America.”

Everything hinges on interpretation. There are infinite ways of looking.

It just so happened that this week marked my return to campus in preparation for student cohorts transitioning back to the building. Driving along the familiar back road for the first time in what seemed like ages, car piled with stuff, brain churning with things to do and how to do them, trapped in a constant state of COVID suspension, in a fog very like the one rising from the ground, smoky swirls lending a seasonal eerie-ness to beguiling red-gold trees against an obscured sky, what to my wondering eyes should appear but the sudden darting of a black cat from the woods just ahead on the right. Neatly across the ditch bank it sailed, mission-like, directly across the road in front of me…

13 Ways of Looking at a Black Cat Crossing Your Path in the Time of COVID-19 While Driving to School to Teach Online Near Halloween of Election Year 2020

Unexpected poetry in motion from the russet woods, long, lithe feline fluidity rippling low along the golden ditch bank, ebony mercury flowing across the gray asphalt, a thing of beauty, a joy forever or at least until…
Still alive. I didn’t hit it.
Spawn of inexplicable, maniacal laughter
(nowhere near the Joaquin Phoenix level)
The omen of—misfortune? As in—Google crashing?—no Wi-Fi?—more lost instruction?—a forgotten mask? —one more directive on what to do or not to do with data, disinfectant, distance?
Will I even make it to school today?
Will students (onscreen)?
Spirit of the season, shape-shifter running to and fro on the Earth, demon on the loose, witch’s familiar, unholy harbinger …
This election. Heaven help us.
Misrepresentation and slaughter of God’s creatures.
Curiosity. Where are you running to, little black cat? From where? From what—or whom? Do people other than scientists know that your fur holds secrets to disease resistance? Can the mystery be unlocked, decoded?
Pandemics of rats and bats.
What if healing sprung from cats.

Poetic justice.
Portal of memory… I had a little black cat, once. She had no tail and no one else wanted her. The last left in a box of kittens a guy at college was giving away. Brought her home, named her after a magic cat who was exceedingly wise, in a book I read as a child. Couldn’t take her with me when I married and moved into an apartment so I gave her to my dad. He bought turkey from the deli, tore it into small bites, and fed her on the countertop.
She wasn’t magical. Just full of ever-purring love.
The great portender, seeming to be what you are not… all I know is you are poetry in motion. Run on, blithe spirit. Run on, long, lithe spirit-lifter, ebony mercury flowing… how glad I am our paths crossed.
Fear not. We bring one another no harm.
I skipped #13. Too unlucky.


Note on IX: For centuries, beginning in medieval times, superstition and associations with evil led to widespread killing of black cats. Many shelters today will not allow black cats to be adopted near Halloween for fear of their being used as decorations and mistreated, tortured, sacrificed, or abandoned. Just one way of looking at those lines.

With thanks to Ethical ELA for inviting many ways of looking and to the fine folks celebrating Poetry Friday, especially Jama Rattigan for hosting the Roundup. Jama’s blog, An Eclectic Feast of Food, Fiction, Folderol and Chewy Culinary Verse is a mind-bogglingly gorgeous work of art. I don’t know how she does it!

Thanks also to Keats, Shelley, Stevens, and Patricia A. McKillip. I haven’t forgotten you, Moriah.

Lead Photo: Ralph Daily. CC-BY

12 thoughts on “13 ways of looking at a black cat crossing your path…

  1. Wow! Love your Stevens-inspired list poem (he was one of my faves in grad school). The title alone says so much, and it was fascinating to read all your different takes on the age old black cat superstition. I could feel your anxiety and dread (VIII). Heaven help us indeed! I like the final stanzas — the purrrfect memory and then the respect and awe in XII. So clever to skip XIII (why take a chance?) :). Much to ponder here. Yes, so much depends on perspective and interpretation. Too often, though, people don’t take the time to really look with an open mind. Thanks for this!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, Fran, this is spectacular, each one so good that I went back & read it again! We had a black cat once & made sure he did not go out near or on Halloween, too many dangers as you wrote. I love the way your words (topics) swirl around just like that “ebony mercury flowing”, many details in your life right now, including this black cat a week before Halloween & as you begin going back to work! Best wishes for that & thanks for the special post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fran, You’ve outdone yourself again with this fabulouso take on Wallace’s Thirteen Ways and certainly a good idea to skip XIII. I didn’t know that fact about black cats and the adoption centers. We have a tuxedo and she is evil. No, really. We tolerate her because we adopted her as a kitten and she is actually quite beautiful, but she is the worst cat we’ve ever had.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Enjoyed this post very much! I love your poem title 🙂 We had a black cat with a half tail and she was the sweetest cat ever. Soo good-natured. When I was little, we had a black cat who was terrifying. My parents gave him away to my grandparents, and when we would visit them, I would stay very still when he was around. He was a “demon on the loose,” ha ha!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am really not supposed to have cats because I’m allergic but I loved my little no-tail black cat and one of the most meaningful memoir-writing experiences I’ve ever had with students centered on her and her kittens. Since posting, I dug through old photos and found one that I’ve added. So intrigued you had a half-tail black cat, too! Kindred spirits:)


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