Monthly Archives: January 2011

Three Poems About Cats

From The Door, 2007. Houghton Mifflin (U.S.), McClelland & Stewart (Canada), Virago (U.K.)

Written in honour of Blackie, who lived till 15; posted in honour of Twitter correspondent @marleycatt, who passed away last week.


My sister phones long distance:
Blackie’s been put down.
Incurable illness. Gauntness and suffering.
General heartbreak.
I thought you’d want to bury him,
she says, in tears.
So I wrapped him in red silk
and put him in the freezer.

Oh Blackie, named bluntly
and without artifice by small girls,
black cat leaping from roof to roof
in doll’s bonnet and pinafore,
Oh sly fur-faced idol
who endured worship and mauling,
often without scratching,
Oh yowling moon-
addict, devious foundling,
neurotic astrologer
who predicted disaster
by then creating it,

Oh midnight-coloured
faithful companion of midnight,
Oh pillow hog,
with your breath of raw liver,
where are you now?

Beside the frozen hamburger
and chicken wings; a paradise
for carnivores. Lying in red silk
and state, like Pharoah
in a white metallic temple, or
a thin-boned antarctic
explorer in a gelid parka,
one who didn’t make it; or
(let’s face it) a package
of fish. I hope nobody
en route to dinner
unwraps you by mistake.

What an affront, to be equated
with meat! Cat-like, you hated
being ridiculous. You hungered
for justice, at set hours and in the form
of sliced beef stew
with gravy.
You wanted what
was coming to you.
is, though. Ridiculous. And coming to you.
For us, too.
Justice is what we’ll turn into.
Then there’s mercy.)


We get too sentimental
over dead animals.
We turn maudlin.
But only those with fur,
only those who look like us,
at least a little.

Those with big eyes,
eyes that face front.
Those with smallish noses
or modest beaks.

No one laments a spider.
Nor a crab.
Hookworms rate no wailing.
Fish neither.
Baby seals make the grade,
and dogs, and sometimes owls.
Cats almost always.

Do we think they are like dead children?
Do we think they are a part of us,
the animal soul
stashed somewhere near the heart,
fuzzy and trusting,
and vital and on the prowl,
and brutal towards other forms of life,
and happy most of the time,
and also stupid?

(Why almost always cats? Why do dead cats
call up such ludicrous tears?
Why such deep mourning?
Because we can no longer
see in the dark without them?
Because we’re cold
without their fur? Because we’ve lost
our hidden second skin,
the one we’d change into
when we wanted to have fun,
when we wanted to kill things
without a second thought,
when we wanted to shed the dull grey weight
of being human? )


Crisp scent of white narcissus:
January, and full snow.
So cold the pipes freeze.
The front steps are slick and treacherous;
at night the house crackles.

You came in and out at will,
but this time of year you’d stay indoors,
plump in your undertaker’s fur,
dreaming of sunlight,
dreaming of murdered sparrows,
black cat who’s no longer there.

If only you could find your way
from the river of cold flowers,
the forest of nothing to eat,
back through the ice window,
back through the locked door of air.


Filed under 1, YOTF Tour Blog

Seventeen Books About Birds

Seventeen Books About Birds
Suggested by Bird Lovers and Ecologists

If winter’s here, can birds be far behind? As the days lengthen the cold strengthens, my grandmother is said to have said. Nevertheless, we’re heading towards the migration season. So, looking forward, here are seventeen books about birds. This list is collected from various friends and aficionados. It is in alphabetical order. Please feel free to add more!

Cities in the Wilderness: A New Vision of Land Use in America, by Bruce Babbitt. (Island Press, Canada/UK; Shearwater Books, US) Secretary of the interior from 1993 to 2001, Babbitt advocates for a balance between development and conservation — smart growth— so that we retain the ecological functioning of the land.

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson. (Seal Books, Canada; Anchor, US; Black Swan, UK) A very funny personal memoir and delightful chronicle of the trail, the people who created it, and the places it passes through.

The Peregrine: The Hill of Summer; & Diaries: The Complete Works of J. A. Baker. Introduction by Mark Cocker & Edited by John Fanshawe. (Harper Collins) Cited as one of the most important books in 20th century nature writing, J.A. Baker meticulously documents a long winter observing peregrines and their surroundings.

The Bedside Book of Birds, by Graeme Gibson. (Doubleday Canada; Bloomsbury, UK; Nan A. Talese, US) Writings and images that celebrate the many ways people have engaged with birds over the centuries.

Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds, by Bernd Heinrich. (Ecco, Canada; Harper Perennial, US/UK) Heinrich involves the reader in his quest to get inside the mind of the raven. At the heart of this book is Heinrich’s love and respect for these complex and engaging creatures.

Ravens in Winter, by Bernd Heinrich. (Vintage Books) A charming, in-depth study of these very smart and sociable birds.

The Snoring Bird: My Family’s Journey Through a Century of Biology, by Bernd Heinrich. (Ecco, Canada; Harper Perennial, US/UK) An extraordinary memoir making science accessible and awe-inspiring.

Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds, by Trevor Herriot. (Harper Collins Canada) Herriot draws on twenty years of experience as an observer of nature to reveal the spirit of the grassland world and the uniqueness of its birds, discovering why birds are disappearing and what can be done to save them.

Findings: Essays on the Natural and Unnatural World, by Kathleen Jamie. (Gray Wolf Press, Canada/US; Sort Of Books, UK) Explores the value and vulnerability of an ancient yet ever new world now threatened by technology and human carelessness.

A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold. (Ballantine Books; Oxford University Press USA) A classic of nature writing, the almanac mixes essay, polemic, and memoir, and elaborates on the basic premise that nothing that disturbs the balance of nature is right.

Birding, or Desire, by Don McKay. (McClelland & Stewart; poetry) A celebration of nature’s abundance and the deep rhythms of family life.

The Sparrowhawk, by Ian Newton. (Harrell Books, Canada; Tarquin, US; Poyser, UK) A detailed account of this often elusive bird of prey and the impact of humans and the environment on the species in recent times.

Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions, by David Quammen (Scribner, Canada/US; Pimlico, UK) Applies the lessons of biogeography to modern ecosystem decay, offering insight into the origin and extinction of species, our relationship to nature, and the future of our world.

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, by Janisse Ray. (Milkweed Editions) A blend of memoir and nature study, Ray argues powerfully for the virtues of establishing a connection with one’s native ground.

Portrait Of An Island, by Mildred Teal & John Teal. (University of Georgia Press) Based on the authors’ own four-year stay on the virtually undeveloped Sapelo Island with its unique marine ecology and varied flora and fauna.

Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, by Scott Weidensaul. (Fsg Adult, Canada; Henry Holt & Co. Inc., UK; North Point Press, US) Weidensaul examines the miracle of bird migration — that without temperature or hunger as triggers, birds migrate, sometimes more than 5,000 miles in one uninterrupted flight.

The Goshawk, by T.H. White. (New York Review Books Classics) Chronicling the battle of wills between the author and the hawk he is trying to train, this book opens the door into the natural life of the hawk.


Filed under 1, YOTF Tour Blog