and this is where you are watching me before the fire and I am
lying with the death-stillness on me till I reach out a leg and my
head turns with the owl-swivel, chin up, and look at the needle-
tooth I show you just there and there again my soft chin hair, so
white you snow-talk of it—and you sit with the death-stillness
too, but you cannot do it as I can do it, nor can you stretch like
I can stretch and, though you talk of reaching for the sky, that is
the old talk; you cannot reach beyond yourself as I can reach into
spaces you cannot imagine; full-stretch, I place a paw on each of
the icy poles, each paw an igloo in a drift of snow and that is why
the little paw-shake when they return to me and you think it is
the dream-talk; whereas you, you are so folded into yourselves, the
night does not wait for you, you climb no walls, you jump so small
and so very long it has been since you took two steps at a time;
but from high walls I land as four-square as ever; but you, oh, it is
the years are catching up with you, the two legs so very tired—and
though I am ancient, I am ancient in the now, for the now is where
I live and no regret, for look what memory has done to you, how
memory-talk weighs you down like an extra head; I do not want to
reach where you can reach, so I shall be as I always was—whereas
you, oh laid low by the extra head of memory; look now how the
night does not wait for you, how you struggle to keep your shoulders
above the surface of the night, as you go upstairs one step at
a time; while I turn again and stretch and go, believe me, I am not
now lovely as I go, I am not the snow-talk any more, but the dark
cannot make me nothing, see how I shake your world from me as
I go; I do not even take a deep breath as night takes me
About this poem
This poem was included in the Best of the Best Scottish Poems, published in 2019. To mark the fifteenth anniversary of our annual online anthology Best Scottish Poems, the Library invited broadcaster, journalist and author James Naughtie to edit a ‘Best of the Best’ drawn from each of the annual editions of Best Scottish Poems.
Tom Pow is one of our most versatile poets, in his style and range. These tumbling words produce an unforgettable picture of an ageing cat – why do poets find cats such hypnotic subjects? – and describe in ways we can all recognise the bond we have with our animals. Unsentimental but caring – ‘how you struggle to keep your shoulders / above the surface of the night’ – he’s writing, of course, about himself. A tour-de-force.
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2016. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2016 was Catherine Lockerbie.
Cats seem to suit poetry, poetry seems to suit cats. (Are dogs inherently less poetic? Discuss.) Tom Pow’s poetic sensibility is wide open and alert to the many wonders of the natural world and our fellow creatures. This is a vivid, poignant, moving inhabiting of an ageing cat and a fine meditation on the role of memory and passing years on different mortals, wonderfully rendered in an entirely believable cat-speak. I look upon my own cat with new eyes after reading this.
A couple of years or so ago, Hamish Whyte, catologist, was editing his second anthology of feline work. I had begun to write a cat poem some time before, but had abandoned it. When I looked it out, I saw what it needed; what’s more, it suggested further poems. In the end, I had what I named a ‘Cat Suite’. One of the poems I wrote then is ‘Full Stretch’, though it was published in Scottish Cats (Birlinn, 2013) under a different (duller) name.
I suppose there were two influences on the poem that I can identify: Les Murray’s Translations from the Natural World and, more recently, Animalinside by László Krasznahorkai, a remarkable prose exploration of the consciousness of dogs.
I extended the ‘Cat Suite’ in At The Well of Love and I brought it to a conclusion with the unpublished ‘Cat Suite Finale’ at the end of last year, when, out of common kindness, I had to take her to the vet’s:
Terrible things were happening
in the world. This was certainly
not one of them. This was simply
an old cat returning to us
the fictions we imagined sharing.