Cats conjure deadly images

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 January, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 January, 1998, 12:00am

Cats seem to inspire poets and in this week's edition of Poetry on the Air you will hear two pieces about our feline friends.

The programme is broadcast on RTHK Radio 4 at 10.05 am today and repeated at 6.30 pm tomorrow.

The famous musical Cats was based on poems about the animals and there have been many verses written about them.

Today we focus on a contemporary poem by Englishman Peter Redgrove. It is called Cat and Tree.

It portrays the cat as a patient, deadly hunter engaged in a fascinating and lethal game with some birds.

It sits at the foot of a tree . . . watching, waiting, assessing. Finally, it kills. The poem is really about the stages of a deadly game, with the cat portrayed as an instinctive yet calculating game-master.

The poem opens with a description of a small tree that is a popular perching place for birds.

There is a fragrant and spiky small tree In bud, into which the birds descend.

It is the cat's bird-machine.

Note that the tree is in bud, an image of birth and new life which contrasts with the threat of death that the unsuspecting birds live under. The description of the tree as 'the cat's bird-machine' gives us a cat's view of things. This is reinforced in the last verse in which the tree is referred to as 'the slaughter tree'.

For human beings, the tree is sweet-smelling and attractive; for the cat, the tree is simply a great place to kill.

The game the cat plays is this. It waits at the foot of the tree, giving it a little shake to get the birds used to it so they will then ignore his presence. Finally, he will rush up the tree and grab one of them.

There are some marvellous images in the poem, such as the comparison of the cat pushing the trunk of the tree with a cellist tuning his instrument.

He stands with one paw Resting on the slender vibrant trunk, like a cellist Testing the hall's atmosphere through his G-string before He starts to play.

This image shows us the delicacy of the feline killer's touch. The poet is also playing with the word 'play'. For the cellist, to play is to create music whereas, for the cat, to play means to kill.

The final image is of the cat rushing up the tree to catch a bird.

The poet chooses to compare the cat to a spider running down its web to bite an ensnared victim.

He pushes his stare forward and enters the slaughter-tree; It is all cat now along every bough, as the spider Lays a paw to her harmonium of gossamer.

Again there is a musical image as the cat becomes a piano player. In the second poem, The Tom Cat, Don Marquis also portrays the animal as a dangerous hunter.

References to his killer heart are more direct: Malevolent, bony, brindled, Tiger and devil and bard, His eyes are coals from the middle of Hell And his heart is black and hard.

This poet's angle on the cat is that it can remind us of an earlier, more primitive and intuitive time before civilisations and cities covered the planet: Beasts from a world primeval, He and his leaping clan, When the blotched red moon leers over the roofs Give voice to their scorn of man.

The Peter Redgrove poem can be found in New Writing 4, by Vintage Press in association with the British Council. The Don Marquis' poem is in The Puffin Book of Classic Verse, edited by Raymond Wilson.

This is an edited version of the programme