Reviewed by Scott Daley
The Wrong Cat. McClelland & Stewart, 2015.
Lorna Crozier’s The Wrong Cat is a diverse collection that playfully bounces between strange earthly images and heavenly beauty, the sexual and the spiritual, the sacred and the profane. The peculiar combination of the physical and the ethereal in these poems can be jarring, and indeed it is unclear whether the natural world, the human world (if it is indeed much different from the natural world), and the spiritual world can or should intermingle, in what ways, to what extent, and to what end. This also becomes a meta-poetic question: should the poet, like the cat in the epigraph to part I, “def[y] the anecdotal” and go “for the lyric” and the musical (and, by extension, the ethereal), or is there room in poetry for anecdotal dogs and other creatures (and more earthy approaches)? At its best, The Wrong Cat manages to combine all these swirling notions in exciting and mysterious ways.
This tension between earthiness and heavenliness is exemplified in one of the first pieces in the collection, “Van Gogh Went Out to Paint the Stars.” Religious iconography is found in the lowliest and most unexpected of places, appearing to a “woman who found [Jesus’s] visage / in oatmeal burping on the stove” (5). In the same piece, an image of the crucifixion appears “among the anchovies” on a pizza and God’s “anguished foot” shows up “in the wine stain / on your carpet, his heart on your flannel sleeve” (5). At the end of this poem, the speaker is highly skeptical of the “obdurate desire to find/ a meaning other than what’s here” and to read religious symbolism into mundane items, concluding that “[s]ometimes a starry, starry night is just / a night with stars” (6). However, given that such spiritual imagery abounds in much of The Wrong Cat, often in conjunction with appearances by various flora, fauna, and everyday objects, Crozier ultimately seems to see something comforting, not ridiculous, in finding something spiritual in natural phenomena and man-made devices – if, perhaps, not on a pizza.
The “Man from Elsewhere” series of poems plunges the reader into a dizzying array of sensations. “Man from Eden” emphasizes the intimate connection between sound and memory: animal sounds are the speaker’s first memory, and later in life, after “everything started to die” and the man has disappeared, it is in these sounds that she searches for vestiges of him (35). The sense of sight plays the strongest role in “Man from Hades,” in which the speaker, initially carrying pomegranate seeds in her palm, “its seeds / Of wet light,” comes to appreciate the darkness of her “solitude” and her “ability to forget” (30). In the titles of the poems in this series as well as the contents, we see again that key mixture of physical and spiritual: religiously loaded locations like Hades and Eden serve as backdrops to intimate, earthy human-animal interactions and imagery. That Christian and Greek mythology coexist so happily in this series – images of sex and death abound in, for instance, the talk of the “marriage bed” and the speaker questioning whether she and “[t]his god of the dead” are themselves dead in “Man from Hades 2” (31) as well as the sexual connotations underlying the man’s transformation into “my wolf, / My bullfrog, my feral cat, hawk on the updraft” and the subsequent death of everything in “Man from Eden” (35) – suggests that while spiritual beliefs might change over the centuries, some themes retain their power and intimate connection to each other, extending across religious boundaries.
A close connection between the natural and spiritual world is asserted in “Owl’s Take on Man,” which positions God as an avian figure of resurrection and proclaims that, compared to humans, the owls “know more / about their god than they do” (70). Nature is given mysterious, even divine powers in “Deer’s Take on Man”; the deer here possess a sense unknown to humans, an amalgamation of touch and sight: when the deer encounter humans in the forest, they note, “[t]heir look is a kind of touching. It strokes / our mouths, rubs the velvet on our antlers” (73). In the same poem, supposedly inanimate and insensate “trees” and “snow” are also capable of seeing the humans who tread through or upon them (73). In these poems, the animals and nature in general seem to have a better understanding of – and a closer relationship with – God than humans, despite all the religious texts and structures developed by the latter.
It’s hard to get a firm grasp on just what Crozier is up to in The Wrong Cat, and perhaps that’s the whole point. Crozier’s collection is interested in probing the porous spaces between life, sex, and death, the natural and the human world, the physical and the spiritual, and the earthly and the heavenly. With its often vivid imagery, settings, and characters (both animal and human), The Wrong Cat powerfully hints at connections just out of reach, hard to understand or describe – and perhaps more easily grasped by the talons or claws of animals than the flimsy fingers of humans, connections better described with the caw of a crow or “the grace / notes / of paws” than a plethora of all-too-human words (epigraph to I).
Scott Daley currently lives in Vancouver and works mostly as a freelance French and German to English translator and proofreader. He holds a Master of Arts degree in English from McGill, where his research examined the limitations of postmodernism and the uneasy return of sincerity in contemporary American literature, particularly David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. He enjoys reading, language learning, movies, TV, cooking, running, social media-ing, and imbibing too much coffee.
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