Wednesday, September 14, 2005


Anderson in N.O., Szymborska plus Milosz

Last night I was reading Jon Lee Anderson's vivid, depressing coverage of the disaster in New Orleans, fully the equal of his superb dispatches from Baghdad. For some reason I was struck by his comments about the dogs: "We passed groups of dogs that had been left behind; some stood on the roofs of submerged, smashed houses, others were stranded on flotsam; they looked emaciated and listless, as if ready for death. The dogs were not being shot, Alladio said: 'If Americans saw National Guardsmen on television shooting dogs they'd raise a huge fuss.' Around the corner from Tyrone Williams's house, a pit bull, a Rottweiler, and a tiny Pekinese looked attentively at us as we passed by." There are, obviously, practical reasons that make it difficult to rescue and shelter tens of thousands of dogs. Yet the picture is sad and surreal: the ranks of abandoned animals, starving, still attentive, waiting for the old life to reassert itself.

What it put me in mind of, too, was a tremendous poem by Wislawa Szymborska from View with a Grain of Sand. "Cat in an Empty Apartment" is very plain, very direct. I suppose you can find a death-of-God metaphor in there if you're so inclined, but feline grief is ultimately more than sufficient for the poet's purposes:
Die--you can't do that to a cat.
Since what can a cat do
in an empty apartment?
Climb the walls?
Rub up against the furniture?
Nothing seems different here,
but nothing is the same.
Nothing has been moved,
but there's more space.
And at nighttime no lamps are lit.

Footsteps on the staircase,
but they're new ones.
The hand that puts fish on the saucer
has changed, too.

Something doesn't start
at its usual time.
Something doesn't happen
as it should.
Someone was always, always here,
then suddenly disappeared
and stubbornly stays disappeared.

Every closet has been examined.
Every shelf has been explored.
Excavations under the carpet turned up nothing.
A commandment was even broken,
papers scattered everywhere.
What remains to be done.
Just sleep and wait.

Just wait till he turns up,
just let him show his face.
Will he ever get a lesson
on what not to do to a cat.
Sidle toward him
as if unwilling
and ever so slow
on visibly offended paws,
and no leaps or squeals at least to start.
Some may find a trace of B.-Kliban-style cuteness here. Not me. What's heartbreaking about the poem is, in fact, the cat's circumscribed consciousness, which Szymborska honors. It can't possibly understand the source of its grief, and does what we more sophisticated bipeds tend to do: it sticks to routine. Simple and powerful. Czeslaw Milosz pulls off a similar trick in "Throughout Our Lands," with less irony than you might think:
If I had to tell what the world is for me
I would take a hamster or a hedgehog or a mole
and place him in a theater seat one evening
and, bringing my ear close to his humid snout,
would listen to what he says about the spotlights,
sounds of the music, and movements of the dance.

Szymborska routinely takes my breath away. This one made my eyes go wet around the edges. And I'm a dog person. Thanks.
One of your most heartfelt posts, James, and beautifully written. Thanks for that and for sharing the poetry.
Connecting John Lee's dispatches with two masterful poets is, well, masterful.

Well done.
beautiful post, James. Thank you. I hadn't read Milosz for a while. And somehow needed to.
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