This morning I picked up Dannie Abse‘s last collection, Speak Old Parrot, published when he was ninety years old, and read ‘Cats’. It made me want to cry. If he was still with us* I would want to throw my arms around him and give him a big hug for this poem. The reasons are complex. Perhaps I’m just tired. I stayed up too late last night.
I’ve been busy updating this website over the last few days. It’s been a bit neglected to tell the truth. I’ve been working hard to put the finishing touches on the manuscript for my first collection, and we are finally done. More on that very shortly, but in the meantime, ‘Cats’.
The poem is set in Istanbul, where Abse (assuming he is the ‘I’ in this story) witnesses “a man built like a poster-hero” stoning a pair of copulating cats because he believes them both to be male:
“one savage arm raised, a stone in his fist./ Cats in England are private creatures./They fuck in private as Englishmen do./Different country. Different cats.”
In this scenario Abse describes himself as “unarmoured” and “without valour“. He does not intervene, and later appeases his guilt by giving money to a beggar. He is clear about his own shortcomings: does not pretend to be a hero in the face of a much younger and stronger man.
Yet this poem is loaded with compassion, honesty and tolerance. Abse speaks “on behalf of” animal lovers, D.H. Lawrence, and the sanctity of love-making. He acknowledges the fear associated with standing up to anti-homosexual violence (or any other form of violence), and the personal risk involved. He does not offer a solution, but highlights the truth of the situation as it is in many countries around the world today.
The poem is, as the Guardian review in January 2014 commented, “very funny”. But it is much more than that. It does what all good poetry should do: it compresses an enormous, difficult, emotionally laden subject into a few lines, says everything it needs to in that small space, and still manages to make people smile.
*Dannie Abse died on 28th September 2014, aged 91. RIP