I can’t quite articulate how pleased I am with this issue. Emma Healey’s editorial note is amazing. Alex Leslie’s editorial note is amazing. We received much amazing material. I’m proud of my own editorial note, which I’ve reproduced below. Ok, I don’t know if proud is the word. I continue to bleed emotion from every pore. People keep telling me that I’m being brave, that my vulnerability is brave. I think I’m just being a typical heart-on-sleeve Ukrainian. All grief firing from every output engine. I think it’s braver that I go to the campus gym, populated by a hundred 20-yr-old athletes, with this flabby aging hairy inflexible body.
But I think that what I am doing and who I am being and how I am grieving is pure, and that counts for something. That counts for a lot.
Mad respect to all the writers associated. Love your companion animals.
On cats and birds and life and death
It’s hard not to write sentimentally about something you love. The first time I fell off a horse I got right back on. I used to kill spiders until Jonathon taught me to love their cute faces. When I’m suffering menstrual cramps the cats lay lengthwise against my body. When I’m suffering a mental breakdown Bella and Amy meow into my face. Amy pushes her nose right into my mouth and inhales. In our colony of cats, we are all equals.
Many poems and stories about animals end with the animal’s death. As Alex mentions in her essay, animal death tends to appear as allegory or as symbol. I chafe against animal as metaphor: the animal deaths I have witnessed are no different from human deaths. Whether we judge them untimely or merciful, these deaths are the same. Here, then gone. Alive, then not. It’s the job of writers to assign meaning and value; nature does not judge. She is impartial, dispassionate and harsh.
I feel affinity towards all creatures, but cats are what I know best.
I was born into a house that was pre-colonized with cats, including Skookumchuk, who’d been named after the B.C. mill where my father worked in between university semesters, and her daughter Morgan. I grew up with Skookie and Morgan and learned from their fur and their whiskers.
When Skookie was euthanized I was 7 years old, and 9 years old when Morgan was euthanized, and my parents hid the news of both of their deaths from me out of a misguided sense of protectiveness. It wasn’t the right time—we were going on vacation, they would tell me later. I was mad as hell at the omission. Maybe I’m still mad. Later on when I was 20 and travelled to Vancouver for reading break my cat Bustopher Jones suffered kidney failure and had to be euthanized. I thought I’d never forgive my parents for doing it while I was away, but years later I would recognize the immaturity and naiveté of that sentiment. It had to be done for B.J.’s sake and had nothing to do with me.
In 2006, my husband and I were taking care of our landlord Greg’s cat Eggad while Greg was on vacation for a month in Europe. Shortly before Greg left, Eggad had a lymph node biopsy after Greg discovered a large lump on his throat. The vet called with the results two days after Greg left. Eggad had lymphoma. Cancer had riddled the cat’s 17-year-old body and he had been wasting away until his domed head perched like a marionnette’s on his precariously thin frame. Greg wouldn’t be home for another month and the cat was too sick to eat anything, even the gourmet Kobe beef Jonathon had cooked for him. With Greg’s permission, we made the decision to euthanize him. At the vet’s office the needle entered Eggad’s body and he died immediately. This death was merciful.
Bill was a four-year-old tuxedo Manx-Siamese cross we rescued from the kid who lived across the street. The kid was 20 and had recently moved from Vancouver Island to find himself in East Van. He knew nothing about caring for cats, nor did he possess the financial means to look after Bill’s needs. Bill was left unvaccinated, had been neutered late by the SPCA after they found him wandering around, and let out at all hours to fend for himself, which usually involved fighting the other neighbourhood tomcats while looking out for the hungry coyotes that frequent East Van. We rescued him, took him to the vet and discovered he’d contracted feline leukemia virus (FeLV). He seemed fine despite being a FeLV carrier until suddenly one day he became lopsided, hid under the bed, and soon “went neuro,” becoming unable to walk. On his last day at the veterinary clinic I held him in my arms, looked into his eyes and tried to psychically send him all the love and light I could muster. He purred until the very second he stopped breathing. This death was sad but inevitable: FeLV in young cats is a death sentence. We knew we’d done right to take this cat in off the street and care for him. He’d died happy and safe, without fear.
We had him for only nine months. We still miss his squeaky voice and stout heart.
My brother’s cat Sophie had to be put down shortly after Chris returned from tour. Chris was heartbroken, texting me at all hours for advice. “I think we should just let her go on her own time, and dad seems to feel anxious to put her down . . . This is probably the right thing to do. I’m just going to miss her a lot.” I talked him through it as best as I could. I thought maybe I could teach Chris how to be present and loving for Sophie the way I had been for Bill. I tried to communicate the importance of acting as a loving guide from life to death. I didn’t know what I thought about life after death in animals or in humans, but I think I viewed it as a transition that needed to be respected and honoured.
Where does the animal end and the poem begin?
The poems and visual pieces I have selected contain animals as absence, animals as presence, and animals as mischievous lingual gymnasts.
There is an air of claustrophobic menace to James Cullen’s cover piece, “Lucienne Tank Swim,” though the background sports cheerfully-coloured geometric-patterned wallpaper. Who is the raptor-headed figure in the background? Is he wearing welding gloves? Is he holding a knife? Why do I assume him to be a he? The synchronized swimmers look on impassively. I wonder, is the figure of alterity in this piece meant to be the bird-man, or the lady swimmers? In his bio Cullen claims not to be an artist; we at The Incongruous Quarterly respectfully disagree.
Rasiqra Revulva’s “The Poem: A Zygodactyl Handjob” uses the sex life of the three-horned Jackson’s chameleon to discuss subjectivity “…behold! I am the only subject!” Or perhaps vice versa. Sex drive vs. death drive. In any case, much like the poem, this poor beast does not know how doomed he is till it’s too late.
“Poems about Bees and Fish” by Carleigh Baker weaves short narratives around bees and salmon. The animals in these poems are not rendered sentimentally or romantically; like the humans in the story, they are just trying to survive to another day. Baker’s sparse pieces pack a lot of pitch-perfect dialogue into a few lines; the B.C. coast is as much character in these pieces as “Me and Jug” and “Liz” and the farmed fish.
I would like to wheatpaste Elee Kraljii Gardiner’s “Territory” onto every lamppost in Sunrise, my old East Vancouver neighbourhood, where missing cat posters appear on power poles with unsettling regularity and coyotes stare people down, defiant and hungry. “Rendering” concerns the hunt for whales, the “compulsion to tear apart what I love.” Do “I” love the creature more in its vitality, or when “I” have slaughtered and rendered it impotent, tore it into pieces of flesh?
Michael Casteels sent us a suite of lyric poems and concrete poems. His letter-creatures marry a typographical and animalistic vitality, the perfect combination of spirit and technology. “Ducks,” “Litter Box Junkies,” and “If God is in my verse” address animals with whimsy. Casteels’ animals are simultaneously whimsical and somber.
Taryn Hubbard’s “Don’t Say Vet?” takes its lines from answers to an online pet forum, one of those sites where hapless owners try to crowdsource a diagnosis of their pet’s ailments. “Help. I’m afraid. I don’t know what is going on. I don’t know what to do.” This poem gives no definitive answers. Your pet might be ok; it might not be ok at all.
Daniela Elza’s “I have woken up (the crows” meditates on emptiness and absence, “a crow-shaped/black hole.” Birds as both raw flesh and grief. Gary Barwin’s “Slant” upends animal language into a yogic pose, “spine dog forward” and “silence belly grass/protector.” Ode to a dog and a “disbelieving flight.”
ryan fitzpatrick’s poems from Field Guide memorialize extinct creatures using careful sentences piled one over the other like a pile of prehistoric bones. fitzpatrick acts as our archaeologist-guide, noting where “[o]ne may only catch a glimpse from the grave, buried in a stone cloak.” We might take care to remember each creature’s path from here to “gone,” in case it proves relevant to our own path.
Annie Ross’ mixed media pieces “birthplace bear” and “corona mirror” cloak ceramic and soapstone figurines in handmade shawls of wool, leather, floss and brass. These pieces rescue and retell something ancient, powerful and un-broken: In the accompanying text Ross tells of the cat’s “cedar roots” and the bear’s “weaving, Spirit singing.”
Thor Polukoshko’s “I CAN HAS POETRY” takes on the voice of the internet “lolcat” meme and turns it into an astute, misspelled, hilarious critique of our digital times. “LANGWAGE/WANT!!!/KULTUR/WANT!!!” I have never loved a poem that shouts with such intensity.
Lindsay Williams’ “Circus” wages war on a creature too small to be domesticated, but one which is engaged in colonizing activities nonetheless: the flea. “Remember that time our cats had fleas?” Actually, I do. It was pretty horrible. I defy you to read this poem without developing a skin itch.
Leonard Kogan’s paintings “Alterity” and “Collective Passion” speak to the collective animal nature within us all. In “Alterity,” a bird with the face of a man perches on the shoulder of another man. “Collective Passion” suggests hybridity, multiplicity, community. Kogan’s pieces also suggest the animal commonality within all living beings. In his statement, he refers to a “phenomenological and psychic junction”.
Where does the animal begin again?
My brother Chris died on February 21, in his sleep. Breathing one moment, gone the next. Sometimes young men die unexpectedly, inexplicably. The afternoon after his funeral, several hours before his cremation, a young peregrine falcon perched in the Schubert choke cherry tree in my parents’ backyard. Its body faced away and its head swiveled towards the house, peering in the windows. The bird remained in that position for an hour or more. It’s rare both to see a falcon so early in the Spring, and perched in a place birds of prey never perch: though they’ve apparently been sighted in Fish Creek Provincial Park, near where my parents live, the falcons prefer tall trees and buildings. We’d never seen one before, and my parents have lived in the area for 32 years. Perhaps it is hubris to try to fit this incident onto a narrative of second selves, or soul guides, or soul animals, and I don’t come from a culture that acknowledges animal spirits, but this particular bird did seem to be a messenger, or a harbinger. Some research I have done suggests that some cultures believe the falcon accompanies the spirit back to the spirit world.
Like the cats in our lives, my brother was alive and vibrant and vital, and then he was gone. I had always suspected that there were more commonalities between the species than differences; since Chris left I cannot think otherwise. We all walk a similar path, perhaps. And I think that when people think of animals, and write about animals, we are ultimately writing about ourselves as animal. I think that each of the pieces I have selected have something equally important to say about creature and human.
I hope you enjoy this folio as much as I have enjoyed selecting it.