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

I.
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…
II.
Still alive. I didn’t hit it.
III.
Spawn of inexplicable, maniacal laughter
(nowhere near the Joaquin Phoenix level)
IV.
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?
V.
Will I even make it to school today?
VI.
Will students (onscreen)?
VII.
Spirit of the season, shape-shifter running to and fro on the Earth, demon on the loose, witch’s familiar, unholy harbinger …
VIII.
This election. Heaven help us.
IX.
Misrepresentation and slaughter of God’s creatures.
X.
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.
XI.
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.
XII.
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.
XIV.
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

Memory poem: Pier

For Day Three of a five-day Open Write Challenge on the Ethical ELA blog, Margaret Simon invites memory poem writing. See her glorious sensory poem and one penned by her second-grade student, as well as other offerings and the inspiring “mystery of memory” mentor-poem from Nikki Grimes, here.

Today’s poem challenge begins with the word Think, followed by a word linked to childhood associations and evocative detail. Grimes’ poem begins with Think food and leads to her grandmother’s pineapple upside-down cake and food being “so much more” than nourishment. Margaret’s poem begins with Think dirt and brings the reader into a very real moment of making mudpies (you can feel and smell it) and the deeper context within.

Memoir is probably my favorite type of writing; it is a chance to stand once more in your childhood shoes, experiencing the world just as you did, only framed by knowledge gained since. I had to think a while before an image came to mind foe this memory poem. Then I had to think a while longer about what it meant …

Here’s “Pier.”

Think pier
and danger comes to mind.
Weathered gray boards
armed with splinters
meant for tender young feet
encased in sneakers
that Grandma made me wear.
Sneakers stepping deliberately
from slat to solid slat
avoiding intervals of nothingness
where water laps dark and green
below, moving and moving
until it seems the whole pier
is floating out to sea
with me.
Summer sun beating down
casting our squatty silhouettes
on grainy gray wood-canvas.
Grandma’s sunhat fluttering
in the river’s breath
brine in my nose, my mouth
endless expanse of silver-green water
glinting, beckoning,
reckoning—
there are no rails.
There are nails.
Tie the string to the raw chicken neck
toss it over—plop
and wait.
Let the nail-anchored string
rest on your fingers
until it moves with strange little jerks
then pull so so slowly
so carefully.
Use both hands but
have your net ready
for the greedy green-brown crab
with fierce orange ‘pinchers’
—keep your fingers away!—
and legs painted bright watercolor blue
soon scuttling around in
Grandma’s galvanized tub.
Think pier
and she’s right there again
between me and danger
showing me how to navigate.

Photo: Pier. Richmond AACA. CC-BY. Cropped and converted to black-and-white. The pier of my long-ago childhood memory is so like this one.