inessential by Brent Simmons


Blake’s poem posted yesterday totally outclasses this one—but still, this poem has a place in my heart. It was my favorite when I was in AP English many years ago.

It’s about cats, naturally. It’s by Alastair Reid.


may have killed the cat; more likely 

the cat was just unlucky, or else curious 

to see what death was like, having no cause 

to go on licking paws, or fathering 

litter on litter of kittens, predictably. 

Nevertheless, to be curious is dangerous enough. To distrust what is always said, what seems, to ask old questions, interfere in dreams, leave home, smell rats, have hunches do not endear cats to those doggy circles where well-smelt baskets, suitable wives, good lunches are the order of things, and where prevails much wagging of incurious heads and tails.

Face it. Curiosity will not cause us to die— only lack of it will. Never to want to see the other side of the hill or that improbable country where living is an idyll (although a probably hell) would kill us all. Only the curious have, if they live, a tale worth telling at all.

Dogs say cats love too much, are irresponsible, are changeable, marry too many wives, desert their children, chill all dinner tables with tales of their nine lives. Well, they are lucky. Let them be nine-lived and contradictory, curious enough to change, prepared to pay the cat price, which is to die and die again and again, each time with no less pain. A cat minority of one is all that can be counted on to tell the truth. And what cats have to tell on each return from hell is this: that dying is what the living do, that dying is what the loving do, and that dead dogs are those who do not know that dying is what, to live, each has to do.

Of course, at age 16 one is—and should be—a Romantic. You don’t know too much yet.

By age 33 one discovers, as Calvino more or less put it, that the crystal holds as much or more beauty than the flame. (Well, not everybody discovers that, sadly.)

But that’s not to deny the coolness of the poem. I especially love these bits: “having no cause to go on licking paws,” “interfere in dreams,” and most of all “chill all dinner tables with tales of their nine lives.”

Where the poem gets weak is where it’s talky and philosophic (didactic, even) and gets away from the poetry. But then, I’m not a poet, and I don’t see another way to conclude this thing.