Sep. 16, 2004

What the Cat Contemplates While Pretending to Clean Herself

by Nancy Bontilier

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Poem: "What The Cat Contemplates While Pretending to Clean Herself" by Nancy Boutilier, from On the Eighth Day Adam Slept Alone © Black Sparrow Press. Reprinted with permission.

What The Cat Contemplates While
      Pretending to Clean Herself

So attentive
to her paws
she seems
leaning over
but thinking
not about what dirt
has climbed under her claws.
No, the cat sees herself
sternly stepping to the plate
spitting in her paw palms
and gripping the bat just so.
With the look of feline indifference
she tends to one final itch
before staring down the pitcher
in the last instant before delivery.

When she rubs
her wet cat wrist
behind her furry ear
you'd think she had a spot
of mud there
or a flea
but really
the cat is signaling
the runner at first
to stretch that lead a little further down the baseline.

By the time
she is perched
on her hind legs
lapping at the fur
of her underside
the cat is sliding safely
into home.

Literary Notes:

On this day in 1620 the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth, England, bound for the New World. There were 102 passengers aboard the ship on the voyage across the stormy Atlantic. Captain Christopher Jones was in command. Those men, women and children, now called the Pilgrims, founded Plymouth, the first permanent colony settled by families in North America.

The Pilgrims left England because they wanted religious freedom. King James of England expected everyone to belong to the Church of England. While on the ship the colonists wrote up an agreement called the Mayflower Compact, providing for a government chosen and made by common consent.

During the 66-day voyage, nobody had privacy. There were no sanitary facilities, and there was little fresh water for washing. Many of the passengers became seasick. They ate cold food—hard biscuits, cheese, and fish or salted beef. Occasionally hot food could be cooked over an open charcoal fire in a box of sand. Without fresh food, many passengers contracted scurvy. They suffered from exposure to bitter winds and icy waters.

On November 11, the Pilgrims anchored in what is now Provincetown Harbor. They had reached North America, having suffered only the loss of one servant and one sailor. The men set out to explore Cape Cod and gather firewood, while the women went ashore to do laundry. As the ship lay anchored at Cape Cod, a woman named Susanna White gave birth to a son, whom she named "Peregrine"—meaning, "one who has made a journey."

The Pilgrims spent the next month searching for a place to settle. On December 21, just over three months after they left England, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, their new home.

It's the birthday of scholar and critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., born in Keyser, West Virginia (1950). He is known for his books on literary history, and wrote about the life and work of Phillis Wheatley, the first published black poet in the United States, in The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers (2003).

Gates also held great interest in a story of a slave's life written by a woman named Hannah Crafts. In the winter of 2001, while he was at home in Cambridge nursing a sore hip, Gates was looking through a New York auction catalog when the Hannah Crafts manuscript caught his eye.

Over one hundred and fifty years before, a young African American woman escaped from slavery and took with her the makings of a novel based on her own life. In her own handwriting, Crafts wrote about the distinctions slaves made among themselves based on skin color, house-versus-field jobs, and class. She wrote about sex but argued against slaves marrying and having children on the grounds that slavery is hereditary and can't be escaped. She portrayed the relationship of a white mistress and black slave as full of mutual intimacy.

Gates didn't believe that white authors would pretend to be black in the mid-19th century. He was convinced the manuscript was the first novel by a female slave and possibly the first novel written by any black woman. He believed there was more literacy among the slaves than anyone imagined.

Because Gates' hip injury prevented him from traveling to New York, a colleague attended the auction and bid on the manuscript on Gates' behalf. He got it for $8,500. The manuscript was recently valued at $350,000.

Gates and a group of experts set to work proving that Hannah Craft's book was the real thing. The most compelling evidence was Crafts' own words and the natural way she treated black characters. Slaves weren't identified first by their race, as was the custom with white writers of that time. For Crafts, their basic humanity came first.

Her seemingly normal, ordinary thoughts on slave life convinced Gates that Hannah Crafts was a real person. Gates turned Crafts' manuscript into The Bondwoman's Narrative and published it in 2002. It quickly became a national best seller.

It's the birthday of American novelist John Knowles, born in Fairmont, West Virginia (1926). He is best known for his novel A Separate Peace (1959), based in part on Knowles' experiences at Phillips Exeter Academy. It the story of two friends, Gene and Phineas, one an intellectual and the other an athlete, and their summer together at an expensive American prep school during the early years of World War II.

A Separate Peace is one of the most widely read postwar American novels. It is frequently compared critically to J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951). It was in its sixty-fourth Bantam paperback run in March 1986, with more than seven million copies in print. In 1960, Knowles won the first William Faulkner Foundation Award for this notable first novel.

It's the birthday of short story writer James Alan McPherson, born in Savannah, Georgia (1943). He is best known for his two short-story collections, Hue and Cry (1969) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Elbow Room (1977). The 10 tales that make up Hue and Cry are about victims of discrimination. The dust jacket of Hue and Cry contained an endorsement from Ralph Ellison, who had befriended McPherson, became a mentor to him, and encouraged McPherson's belief in the shared cultural heritage of all Americans.

McPherson grew up in a lower-class section of Savannah. His father was for a while the only black master electrician in Georgia. McPherson's mother was a maid in a white home. McPherson went to segregated schools, to college in Atlanta, and worked summers as a dining-car waiter on the Great Northern Railway between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. After hearing stories from the older waiters and porters, he began writing fiction of his own.

It's the birthday of poet and scholar Alfred Noyes, born in Wolverhampton, England (1880). He's best known for his poem "The Highwayman." The poem begins,

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees, The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas, The road was a ribbon of moonlight, over the purple moor, And the highwayman came riding—            Riding—riding— The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

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