doyali islam

Poncho the Cat

Note from the author: I interviewed Doyali Islam in this space as part of Andy Verboom’s Town Crier month on “Conscientious Conceptualism.” The last question was about a cat, and did not fit the theme. In light of the interview between Laura Clarke and Kate Sutherland in the current issue of The Puritan, we held this last question over and present it to you now. 

E Martin Nolan: Let’s talk about “cat and door.” It’s kind and loving, and also finely wrought and sensitive. We were talking about global perspectives, but this poem is within a room, occurring between the speaker and a cat. That animal-human relationship is its own kind of self-transcendence though. The interiority of it (“a creature in my mind, bent after new thought”) is also expansive. As Dickinson said, “the brain is wider than the sky.” I’m also noticing the music here: “he saw, almost dared / to stride, sensed his limits and his eyes were wide.” The way “stride” chimes with “wide” is lovely, as is “leapt like light to light returning.” I don’t really have a question about the poem. But the cat in the poem seems on the brink of comfort, maybe, but still hiding in the shadows. Is this based on a real cat, and if so, how is the cat doing? If it’s not based on a real cat, how is the cat doing?

Doyali Islam: The poem “cat and door” came out of several years of friendship with a real cat named Poncho, to whom the poem is dedicated. He was my ex-husband’s cat, so I don’t live with either party anymore. I wish I knew how the cat was doing. Poncho is 17 years old now, if he is still alive. A senior! Every day in North Bay, I told him how special of a creature he was and how much I loved him. Truly, I could have watched him 24/7—the way his ears would prick forward and back at various noises, the way he breathed so soundly while sleeping, and the way he tucked his limbs around his body. And his fur always smelled clean. What a marvellous life form, cats are! (Cat-lovers of the world, unite!)

It was interesting that guest-judge Sharon Thesen read the poem as an elegiac thought. Her interpretation makes sense, given the possible literal meaning of the line, “did he live by it, or die by it?” However, I actually wrote the poem in early 2014 when I was living in North Bay with the cat! So, I’m glad you say “speaker and cat”. I figured I could stray a little bit from “the truth” for the sake of a better poem. I do feel a sense of loss, equal to the experience of death, because of the separation.

… I could have watched him 24/7—the way his ears would prick forward and back at various noises, the way he breathed so soundly while sleeping, and the way he tucked his limbs around his body.

The initial title for the poem was actually “ars pocatica”—a play on “ars poetica.” The poem seemed to work literally and metadiscursively, so I eventually changed the title to the simple and encompassing “cat and door.” I used double meanings in the poem to the best of my ability: the “golden wing” can imply both the bird’s wing and the well-lit corridor; and the “master” can imply both the cat’s owner and the literary master. Do we, as poets and artists, have a duty to uplift—to gesture toward the beautiful side of life? Do we engage in an act of cruelty when we do so? Life is challenging, and all moments of sheer pleasure and joy are fleeting.

In terms of sound, I am partial to slant rhymes, but occasionally I utilize full rhymes, as you’ve noted with “stride” and “wide.” Since “cat and door” is one of my “split sonnet” experiments, I wanted that rushing of the cat toward the birdsong, to occur at the halfway point in the poem, between lines seven and eight. I’m glad you enjoyed the phrase “like light to light returning”. The echo of “ti-litt ti-litt”—found in “light to light”—falls directly beneath the bird’s call.

Thank you for finding this poem loving. Poncho changed me for the better. It was a poem born of love.

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