Litter-ary Cats: T.S. Eliot

orange and white cat on piano bench

One of the reference photos for a portrait of my long-ago orange boy, Allegro.

I majored in English in college, and when in my junior year I studied Modern Poetry and encountered the following lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

…I thought I was imagining a descriptive that sounded an awful lot like a cat.

But modern poets didn’t write about cats, I knew that for sure.

The professor pointed out, however, that there was a section of cat imagery in this poem along with isolated lines here and there, and noted that T.S. Eliot regularly used feline imagery in his poetry. I remember he seemed reluctant to admit this fact. I was thrilled.

I knew there was a reason I liked this poet’s work from the first word (and still do). And that was even before I knew about Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. My professors barely mentioned that one. Imagine a world-renowned, much-respected modern poet writing a book of silly cat poetry.

But write it he did, and it’s one that every cat lover should read. When I found this volume, I knew T.S. Eliot was a complete cat lover.

Jellicle Cats are black and white,
Jellicle Cats are rather small;
Jellicle Cats are merry and bright,
And pleasant to hear when they caterwaul.

Now, does that sound like something you’d sing to your kitty when you were sure no one else could hear? And I guess it was moving enough to inspire Andrew Lloyd Webber to write one of history’s most popular  musicals, Cats, which is based on this book. However, even if you have seen the musical I recommend every cat lover read the original book. Webber took liberties with the original story, including the little portion about Jellicle cats I’ve included above which are truly only black and white cats, and that and the entire story make a little more sense when you read it in the original form.

black cat bathing on bed

Don't Look!

I don’t have a recommended volume—mine is incorporated in a huge heavy anthology of Eliot’s works which I treasure, but you can find a link to one of the original volumes of Old Possum in Google books in which the pages are displayed by permission of publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. You don’t get all of the book or even the good parts, but it will give you a taste of what the book is all about and you’ll see the illustrations from that era, really cool and inspiring to me.

Better yet, visit your local public library where you’ll usually find at least one published copy of the book in either children’s or adult’s literature. The illustrations are wonderful in every version. In fact, find more than one!

One of the Fantastic Four, little Jelly Bean, is, in fact, a Jellicle Cat, hence his name, in part; also his nose looks like a shiny black jelly bean. Silly me. But he is very pleasant to hear when he caterwauls.

But Webber and Trevor Nunn didn’t stop with Old Possum. They also used imagery and text from two other of Eliot’s poems for the production’s big hit, “Memory” and no doubt took a lot of inspiration for the story from Eliot’s other poetry. Despite the fact the musical is about cats and much of it can be taken lightly, it’s about cats’ rough and often tragic life on the streets and much of Eliot’s poetry reflects the often rough and tragic lives of humans, with a liberal sprinkling of metaphorical cat hair.

The lyrics and no doubt inspiration for “Memory” come from two of Eliot’s other poems, Preludes and Rhapsody on a Windy NightWith a quick read into each of these poems you’ll find imagery and actual lyrics used in “Memory” as well a few more feline images and references. This article on Yahoo Network describes all the references in the cited poems; this article on Wikipedia offers a little more about the lyricists and melody.

orange cat in sunshine

Allegro

And years after I first found the allusion to the yellow cat in Prufrock (above), when I lost my yellow cat on a soft October night when he was the young age of 10, I remembered this verse and thought how much it reminded me of my Allegro, and still does, years later. I look forward to finally painting his portrait on the piano bench, using the photo at the beginning of this article.

And as I write poetry about my own cats and move to subjects beyond I gratefully return to Eliot and my first introduction to the use of imagery in writing. In much the same way observing my cats taught me about the skills of visual representation, no other subject could have taught me the delicate lesson of dancing around technical description with words and sounds and rhythms to create a vision for my reader than to use something so visually inspiring to me, and which I loved so much, as a cat.

You may not find too many other cats in literature, but finding authors who lived with and were inspired by cats are frequent to the point of common. Mark Twain, author of the famous quote about crossing cats and humans and degrading the cat, had many cats who don’t appear in his fiction but do appear in his essays. Ernest Hemingway kept many cats in his Florida home, famously polydactyl (possessing multiple toes), the descendants of whom still live on the property he occupied in Florida. Read about Twain and Hemingway along with other authors on the Winn Feline Foundation blog in “Famous Cat Loving Authors and Pet Names”.

I’ve also written a “Litter-ary Cat” article about Mark Twain.

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All images used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in purchasing one as a print, or to use in a print or internet publication.


Mr. Mistoffelees, The Forever Kitten

Mr Mistoffelees

Mr. Mistoffelees with his pink mouse.

He belongs to the world now, always a spunky tuxedo kitten with bright green eyes, big ears and black toes on his white boots. He should have had the good life we all want our cats to have, grown to a big cat, loved and cherished, and not dumped on a back road by careless, heartless owners to meet his end.

But I will do my best to see that he is not forgotten, and that his brief life makes a positive difference in the lives of other cats.

The Favorite Dumping Spot

Fifteen years ago this month I was driving home on a stretch of two-lane back road adjacent to a residential neighborhood near me. Suddenly in the shadows I saw what appeared to be leaves blowing around on the road and I slowed in automatic response.

The leaves slowed and regrouped and turned into a group of various-sized kittens before running to one side of the road and up a slight hill among the underbrush, one or two peeking back out at me.

Oh, no, how am I going to catch them all? I thought.

At least there wasn’t much traffic right then, though this road had been groomed as an access to a highway on-ramp and did get busy during rush hour. I was on a downhill slope with nowhere to pull over, so I simply pulled to one side and shut off my car.

I saw a box on the side of the road a little ahead, and knew immediately that someone had dumped kittens here. As I walked to the box I saw a bag of dry kitten food next to it—a Good Samaritan, or the person who had dumped them thinking they were giving them a nutritious head start? Looking into the box I saw one orange kitten who was not moving.

Looking back at the kittens who were running across the road again I saw two distinct sizes, two very orange ones about ten weeks and some tiny fuzzballs maybe six weeks old. All were very apparently terrified and had no idea what they were doing. Had one been hit and someone stopped to put it in the box? Or had it simply not made the move to the great outdoors? If I couldn’t catch them, how could I at least get these kittens away from the road?

As I watched I could see it was apparently two different litters, too close in age to have come from the same mother, of whom there was no trace. Was someone just doing some housecleaning and decided to get rid of the extra kittens in the garage?

I attempted to ingratiate myself, which I knew would be nearly impossible under the circumstances. Their fear would remain a barrier until I could simply be near them for a while and accustom them to my scent and sound and presence. I had, and have, chased many kittens, a totally useless endeavor because they are running for their lives, but sometimes it’s all you’ve got with no opportunity to sit quietly in the woods until they find they trust you. Hoping no cars came by, I walked toward them until they had scampered into the brush on the side of the road without the steep slope and began talking to them softly.

In time I may have won them over somewhat, but it was early evening and night would soon fall. I knew from experience that if I caught one I would never catch another. It was probably their first night away from their mother and in totally unfamiliar circumstances, and after a night in the woods they would likely be too wild to even find. Unfortunately they would probably keep coming out to the road because it was clear and the brush was so dense. I decided to run home and get a few more carriers and enlist my neighbor and her children, having them help me corral them.

In the end, before nightfall we only caught two orange boys, one older and one younger. In the process of dropping him into the carrier the older boy, although I had him scruffed, bit my left-hand knuckle so hard that a tooth became wedged between some parts in my knuckle and I had to unscruff him to pull it loose before I dropped him in the box, but I wasn’t going to let him go for anything.

I knew that the whole experience of chasing them, trying to corral them into fabric barriers and the kitten shrieking as he bit me had completely destroyed any trust the rest may have ever had in me, and I didn’t have a cage trap at the time. The other surviving older orange kitten was probably thinking I had killed his brother and put him in the plastic box and the two little ones were clearly following him. I had to go with what I had accomplished.

Arriving home, I settled the two into the recently vacated spare cat room and cleaned the puncture wound on my hand before I went to bed, but ended up spending the next evening in the emergency room getting IV antibiotics because I waited so long to get it treated.

Timmy the kitten

Timmy on the rocker.

Smudge and Timmy eventually learned to trust me, and big boy Smudge turned into quite the love bug with people he knew, remaining so in his new home, but little Timmy, quiet and polite, remained wary of people.

I still remember the tiny tuxedo and tortoiseshell kittens, whose round faces should have been full of curiosity and mock kitten aggression but were instead frozen masks of fear, as they disappeared into the darkness behind the orange boy. I never saw another trace of them; there was a storm that night, and without cover tiny kittens would likely have easily succumbed to exposure or an upper respiratory infection. I have seen cats or kittens there again through the years, but never successfully caught any, even with traps.

Still in Use

So last Friday as I drove down the same road I slowed and gave the area a good look as I always do when entering an area where I’ve seen or trapped cats or kittens. I saw a small shape on the road ahead of me, and even though my natural defenses tried to convince me it was not what I thought, I know that no other animal in our area is as solid black as a cat, or is the size and shape of a kitten lying on its side. Once you live with cats long enough, especially studying them to create artwork as I do, you recognize a cat even if you see only the tip of its tail disappear into the woods.

I slowed to stop, and indeed saw white paws, no mistaking this. No cars were coming but I didn’t care, I just didn’t want the kitten on the road, so I hopped out with a paper bag and ran up to him hoping he might only be injured and could be saved, but even though he was not badly damaged he had clearly crossed over. As I gently slid him into the bag I saw the black toes on his sweet white mittens and boots, the white belly and chin, a classic tuxedo cat, just about eight weeks old. I laid him in his bag on my back seat and tried not to think of him those last few moments of fear and pain he most likely suffered.

It must have just happened within the hour, and even though I knew this was a classic kitten dumping spot, and I’d hate to deliver bad news to a family, I looked around to see the closest house, but not that house nor any others showed anyone home. I would come back later. For now I needed to get home and hug all my cats. Sometimes when I’ve seen a companion animal hit along the road I’ll simply move it to the side so that if the owner is out looking they’ll find it, sad as that may be, but I had the feeling no one was looking for this kitten, and the brush came right to the side of the road anyway, so he was coming home with me.

No lost pet networks reported a lost tuxedo kitten, and only the next morning did I find someone who was home. She felt as badly as I did to hear the news and told me she’d recently seen what looked like a mama kitty and her baby on that section of the road, and though she didn’t remember what they looked like she wondered where they’d come from. She had two indoor cats and one small dog plus two children so other cats rarely came near her yard, but she often saw cats around.

In the heat of June I had limited time to continue searching, and decided just to take the kitten home. I had considered having him cremated at Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation and had called Deb the day before just to talk over the situation with a sympathetic ear.

I decided instead to bury him in my back yard in a safe place that wouldn’t be disturbed. Perhaps this was my unconscious inclination to “bury” the situation, and in a way it was to help rid my memory of the images and thoughts and while I engaged in a respectful burial to work out the new idea forming in my head. I got my tools and Cookie and we went out to the end of the yard; Cookie does not commit manual labor but was happy to supervise from the picnic table and provide moral support.

While I had looked around for a door to knock on the previous evening, I had been visualizing what the kitten had looked like, sketching a portrait in my mind. Images are always building in my visual consciousness, and even in those circumstances visualizing a sketch isn’t unusual, in part it was to keep myself from visualizing him being hit by the car. But from that process developed the idea of using this portrait, this image given to me at that moment when I accepted his condition, and giving him a name as I would have if I’d rescued him, and using this identity to help other kittens and cats avoid the same fate in some way.

Mr Mistoffelees

Mr. Mistoffelees with his pink mouse.

Mr. Mistoffelees, named for the clever character in T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, will always be a playful kitten, forever loved and cherished, ready to grab your ankle from behind the chair or tuck a toy into your pocket for you to find later in the day. And perhaps as the Original Conjuring Cat he can conjure homes for homeless kittens!

He represents all those homeless, unwanted kittens born to unspayed mother cats and who appear in the millions in shelters every summer during “kitten season”. Shelters are overburdened with homeless animals to begin with, then the influx of all these kittens forces them to drastic measures to handle only what they are permitted to manage.

All it takes is a spay or neuter, and if your cat does have kittens surrendering them to a shelter and spaying the mother instead of dumping them off somewhere to become someone else’s problem, and to likely die an untimely death. Mr. Mistoffelees reminds you to be responsible!

This is my first draft of the sketch, and no doubt I’ll be refining as time goes on. The sketch began in pencil, as are most of the simple sketches I have around my house of my current cats. But once I decided what Mr. Mistoffelees’ image might be used for I changed the style to make it simpler to reproduce. I used the simple line style in this version so that I can either cut a linoleum block print and fill the color areas with watercolor or I can create a three-color screen print.

Thanks for listening to the story. It will be a while before the sadness of it wears off for me, but I hope by giving Mr. Mistoffelees a new life I can see my way through to a somewhat happy ending.

Here is a page of links for low cost spaying and neutering in the Pittsburgh area and around the country.




Litter-ary Cats

I majored in English in college, and when in my junior year I studied Modern Poetry and encountered the following lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

…I thought I was imagining a descriptive that sounded an awful lot like a cat.

But modern poets didn’t write about cats, I knew that for sure.

The professor pointed out, however, that there was a section of cat imagery in this poem along with isolated lines here and there, and noted that T.S. Eliot regularly used feline imagery in his poetry. I remember he seemed reluctant to admit this fact. I was thrilled.

I knew there was a reason I liked this poet’s work from the first word. And that was even before I knew about Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. My professors barely mentioned that one. Imagine a world-renowned, much-respected modern poet writing a book of silly cat poetry.

But write it he did, and it’s one that every cat lover should read. When I found this volume, I knew T.S. Eliot was a complete cat lover.

Jellicle Cats are black and white,
Jellicle Cats are rather small;
Jellicle Cats are merry and bright,
And pleasant to hear when they caterwaul.

Jelly Bean the Jellicle Cat

Jelly Bean the Jellicle Cat

Now, does that sound like something you’d sing to your kitty when you were sure no one else could hear? And I guess it was moving enough to inspire Andrew Lloyd Webber to write one of history’s most popular  musicals, Cats, which is based on this book. It’s one every cat lover should read. I don’t have a recommended volume–mine is incorporated in a huge heavy anthology of Eliot’s works which I treasure, but you can find a link to one of the original volumes of Old Possum in Google books. You don’t get all of the book or even the good parts, but it will give you a taste of what the book is all about and you’ll see the illustrations from that era.

Better yet, visit your local public library where you’ll usually find at least one published copy of the book in either children’s or adult’s literature. The illustrations are wonderful in every version. In fact, find more than one!

One of the Famous Four, little Jelly Bean, is, in fact, a Jellicle Cat, hence his name, in part; also his nose looks like a shiny black jelly bean. Silly me.

And years after I first found the allusion to the yellow cat in Prufrock, when I lost my orange cat on a soft October night when he was the young age of 10, I remembered this verse and thought how much it reminded me of my Allegro, and still does, years later. And as I write poetry about my own cats, I gratefully return to Eliot and my first introduction to the use of imagery in writing; no other subject could have taught me the delicate lesson of dancing around technical description with words and sounds and rhythms to create a vision for my reader than to use something so visually inspiring to me, and which I loved so much, as a cat.
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