When a Cat Dies

A Book Review by Laura Stamps

WHEN A CAT DIES by Lyn Lifshin, 2004, 76 pages, paper, $8.00 (The Moon,
PO Box 3444, Tucson, AZ 85722, www.themoonpub.com). Make check
or money order payable to the editor, Alison Vyain.

Lyn Lifshin needs no introduction in the world of poetry. A small press
legend, Lifshin's poems have graced over a thousand literary journals,
magazines, anthologies, and broadsides. She has written more than one
hundred books and edited four anthologies. For more information about
Lyn Lifshin I suggest you visit her extensive web site
(www.lynlifshin.com), which is packed with news, interviews, book
reviews, photos, and a list of available books.

WHEN A CAT DIES is a collection of 84 poems culled from hundreds written
by Lifshin when Memento, her cat of over 20 years, died several years
ago. The titles of the poems are chronological, beginning with the
first day after Memento''s death and continuing for several weeks. The
title of the collection is taken from the first poem in the book.

What happens when a very old cat dies? The owner is left alone with
years of memories and a giant hole in her heart. As Lifshin explains:
"When a cat dies / you are as quiet as she / was until something like /
a wail—my little baby'' / — I moan at the kitchen / table its been years
since / she could jump to." Later she states her intent with these
poems: "I want to write a / cat death poem that / is poignant and /
playful, touching, / but not so serious / and sad the reader / will
giggle or sneer." In another she says: "I can mourn / you, remember
when / I first held you, dream / you thru nights / where you're missing.
/ But that's really a / lie. I need more, to / be able to put your name
/ in a poem and not / apologize for staying / in a week, unable to / see
anybody and then / finally on the first day I / join the living, have /
someone say at my dark / sadness, ‘‘well we all / have days like that.''"

On the first day without your beloved cat the shock is new and raw. You
feel displaced, as though sadness is a dark ocean sure to overwhelm you,
capable of washing away your last breath as well. Lifshin tells us:
"When I got her, I had / just started ballet, just / met the man who
held / her last night as we / held my mother on her / last night, my cat
only / 8 then, still leaping / for mice. My hair was / red then,
thicker. What / mattered, still seemed / ahead." And in another poem:
"This morning every / place she was stings. / The mourning doves / moan
in the grass." Those who have experienced this kind of grief try to
help, but nothing really prepares you for the emotional trauma: "The vet
says / you will think of her / everywhere in the house / and when you
think you / won't, something will / sneak up, tear a hole." Or: "There
/ are only certain / people you can show / wild grief to when a / pet
dies. I don't go to / ballet this week. I / could be sitting Shiva."

In the days that follow, the memories of our old cats' last illnesses
float above us like tattered sheets, but what we remember most are the
good times, and always the love. Lifshin translates this beautifully:"When / a cat dies, the cups / she broke re-glue / themselves, her /
dishes, even the / litter box, her / favorite cat food / still in the
closet / stun. If she scratched / the rug, it sews / itself back up."
Bundled in grief, she recalls words of advice she received years ago
when her mother died: "Hospice / says first you remember the dead / in
their sickness, in their dying / then you remember them young / and
gorgeous. So I will dream / later of her leaping dare devil to / the
highest shelves and diving into / boxes of Christmas paper, a toy /
mouse in her mouth she must have / still hoped to replace with a real
one." And the good memories lead to more: " I think of all the
photographs / in a box upstate: Memento as a / kitten. Enormous ears,
jade / eyes."

For many poets, our cats are our children, and this is certainly the
case with Lyn Lifshin. Even cat-mothers develop an intuitive sense
about their cat-children: "Two weeks ago the / cat sitter thought she
looked great. / A week before that, her tests were / normal. But all
week something / seemed strange. I fed her turkey / under the quilt,
combed and / combed. She was, they said later, / in human age 120
years. Cats / hide their sickness so predators / can't tell. According
to the Iroquois / another friend says, pets do not / leave their owners
after death, / but stay with whoever treated them / best and take care
of them in return." And in another poem: "Kim says many / people who
love / their cats don't / like babies much. / That's me I think /
remembering / how at six I / wanted a cat / and one came on / my
birthday with / many more inside / her. At eleven I / knew I never
wanted / children."

As with any death, the pain dulls in time, and you learn to befriend the
hole puncturing your heart, which aches now in shades of bittersweet.
Lifshin captures this sentiment in one short poem written 18 days after
the death of Memento: "dark dreams, / a rose and flame / sun slides /
into grey. / Rain predicted. / The driest / winter in years. / Daffodils
bloom / early, tulips / almost and the / buds. But no / fur flower."

Anyone who has loved a cat, nursed it through the geriatric years, and
endured the grieving process after the cat's death will treasure this
special collection of poems. Lifshin has captured every emotion, from
the raw shock of the first moment to the various stages of sorrow,
grief, and emotional healing. Highly recommended.

© Laura Stamps
P.O. Box 212534
Columbia, SC 29221-2534

to order WHEN A CAT DIES

send check or money order for $8 made payable to Alison Vyain to THE MOON, PO box 3444, Tucson, Az. 85722 with a little note stating you would llike WHEN A CAT DIES. The website has a downloadable order form. You may email Alison Vyain and she can send you the form as an email attachment.


and a reader's comments...

Hi Lyn,
I went back to the old apartment on Sunday and was happy to see that your book [When a Cat Dies] was waiting for me. I immediately read it cover to cover. I managed to avoid crying all over the pages, though that doesn't mean I didn't cry. Actually, I bawled; however, it was one of those cathartic experiences that I thank you for. What a lovely tribute to your Memento and to love in general. We know that every love carries within it the seed of grief, but the generous heart has no choice but to love anyway.

Again, thank you. I look forward to reading your other books, particularly The Licorice Daughter.