The Duties of a Cat by Jenny Blackford (Pitt Street Poets, 2013) RRP $12.00
Reviewed by Dianne Bates
Described as a ‘softcover pamphlet’, this small (110 cm X 160 cm) chapbook with French flaps contains 12 poems by Blackford and seven delicate line drawings by Michael Robson. Each of the poems invites one to take a close look at cats that Blackford has obviously closely observed and documented.
The title poem, ‘The duties of a cat’ is divided into seven sections, each of which show cats’ movements, body parts, mischievous behaviours and hunting abilities. In the final section, Blackford humorously recounts the ‘noblest occupation for a cat, by far/is killing the bathmat.’ Underlying this and all of the poems in this appealing, crisply written collection is the poet’s love of and admiration of feline friends. In ‘En pointe in sheepskin boots’, Blackford asks ‘How can a/full-grown cat bear to restrain itself from crunching/through your teasing fingers, pink as wriggly worms?’ It’s almost as though the reader can literally, like the poet, feel a cat in their hands.
Although Blackford is a regular contributor to The NSW School Magazine, she has also published poems in a wide number of adult literary magazines such as Westerly, Quadrant and Dreams and Nightmares. Some of the poems in this slim collection might be understood by prepubescent children, but the majority would seem to be for young adults and upwards. To give an example: a verse (in ‘Dream Hunt’) which would perplex even the best-read teenager, reads ‘Even the red-eared hounds who hunt with Hearne/respect the great white cat with eyes of flame/who runs beside their Winter King, chasing/the heavy-antlered stag that stole the Sun.’ In ‘Their quantum toy’, a line such as ‘gravity is stern as death/implacable’ and even the title ‘gravity’s their quantum toy’ is beyond the comprehension of the average child and probably most teens.
However, some poems, such as ‘Something in the corner’ which is about a cat scratching at a wall because of something it hears behind it, or ‘Blue mouth eerie open’, about a cat confronted by a bluetongue lizard, can easily be understood by younger readers. ‘Cat channelling his inner harp seal pup’ is fun, with a cat draped on a chair compared to a harp seal pup, ‘Only/the eyes are wrong…’
Blackford, like all good poets, has an original perspective and conveys this with rich, imaginative language, using words such as ‘winterplump’ and ‘sweet foolish lump of fur’ to describe a cat. I loved the ‘sweet wobble low on the belly’ of a stalking cat, and ‘under the honey sun his hidden eyes are/blue as summer sky.’
As one reads each of these poems it is clear that the poet has captured the essence of cat and done so in language that is sharply realised and often memorable. The poems would best be read aloud by adults and discussed with a child to get the fullest appreciation.
To order The Duties of a Cat, visit http://www.pittstreetpoetry.com/jenny-blackford. The collection is also available as an e-book.
Jenny Blackford’s poems and stories have appeared in Westerly, 30 Australian Ghost Stories for Children, The School Magazine and more. Hadley Rille Books published her YA-crossover historical novel in 2009, and her first poetry collection, The Duties of a Cat, was published by Pitt Street Poetry in late 2013. She won the Humorous Verse section of this year’s Henry Lawson literary competition.