Clementine

For the past two weeks I’ve been grieving the death of my young cat, Clementine. A small, brown, grey and white, long-haired tabby with gold patches and long whiskers, she was just coming up to a year living with us and our other cat, Thomas. She was killed on a road just near our house, in a market town in Herefordshire. I’ve lost loved ones, human and otherwise before and felt unbearable sorrow, but this latest death has affected me differently to the others. I decided to put this into words as a way of paying tribute to her dear life and trying to understand this experience.

I’ve always felt it is slightly odd to grieve a lost pet; as though we should not hold on so tightly to animal lives, especially when their duration is so brief and so much less in our control than our own – which is itself salutary. This does not seem to be true to my experience, though, as I have always been unusually affected by the death of my pets (drawing ridicule from my peers). I have always felt an inexplicable bond to other species, and it seems to me as though this has only increased in intensity as I have become older, rather than waning like some other loves and hopes.

As though a death should be an anticipated and polite guest, this departure has come at a particularly difficult time. In my fortieth year, I have undergone other types of transitions and loss, including into a likely-permanent state of childlessness.

I had not expected my cat to offer a substitute for my own maternal instincts, and as much as she might have done so, the attachment I felt and still feel for this particular cat exceeds the possibility of substitution. I have had another cat since a kitten and, while he is very important to me, he is far more indifferent to others – human and otherwise – than Clementine was. I am aware that what I have lost cannot be replaced by another pet, certainly not if I cannot explain what it is that Clemmy had. What is also unusual is my experience of the death’s suddenness, when many others I have experienced have been marked by long-suffering and release. As a result of many different endings, I thought my brain had adjusted itself to loss and the fact that things do not often go as we wish them to.

I began by mentioning the beauty of the cat. This is not a measure that can be made by anything other than human eyes and minds, and it is chauvinistic in ways that my intellectual self would disown. But I would bet money that it is a scientifically measurable that my cat was among most beautiful to have roamed the byways of this neck of the woods in recent times. Poets and philosophers might speculate on the nature of beauty and its relation to goodness, but psychologists can easily explain this in terms of the human preference for animal features that somehow resemble idealised baby faces. No doubt there is a great deal in this – perhaps it is the whole story. In terms of my own childlessness, it is the simplest explanation.

All of the other qualities that I will attribute to this cat must, therefore, be taken with a pinch of salt. But there is one that I must ask you to suspend your disbelief over. This is the property of magic which I attribute to the little cat, whose name was Clementine.

Clementine came into our lives from a rescue centre, once we had decided that our older cat could cope with having a younger companion. Now nearly ten years old and with his roaming days behind him, he spends most of his time indoors, sleeping, watching television with us or eating. The humans in this house had a challenging year, with illnesses and a legal battle, so we also wanted the company of another life. My husband and I love cats, so we did not think that we’d have any trouble giving her a good home. We explained our circumstances to the centre volunteers and, as austerity had left too many kittens in need for them to find ideal homes, our own was deemed acceptable in spite of its proximity to an A-road.

The rescue centre had told us that September was kitten season, so we registered for news on available cats as soon as we returned from our holiday. When the notice came that there was a kitten ready for rehoming, we went within a week to visit the fosterers’ home in Cheltenham, which is just over half an hour from where we live. We had decided that any girl cat would be okay with us, and we didn’t want to choose as much as let chance determine our new pet.

Clementine, or Rag as she had first been known, was living with her sibling, a fluffy-black boy-kitten called Tag, in an upstairs room, in a small council house with animals and children in every visible room. One of the children in the house had decided that Clementine was more dignified name than ‘Rag’, and once we had met her, we were sure that this was the perfect name.

Clementine, derived from the Latin clemens meaning mild or merciful, first came to us more than half-wild, since she and her siblings had been semi-feral. For several months had been reared by this family to ensure that she was used to human touch. As they showed us in the room filled with cat toys and comfy sofas, Clementine purred as soon as we touched her, although she quickly ran away when we didn’t hold her onto our laps.

Arriving at our house, Clementine was initially happier sleeping safely behind a sofa or bed than anywhere exposed or on a lap. But she soon decided that strokes were preferable to peace, and she was soon sleeping on our laps or next to us, stretched out as far as she could and with her paws in the air.

At first, Clemmy (as she became known) struggled with keeping her long fur clean, and with using a little tray. It is now another painful detail (although at the time, it was an annoyance) that her desire for a quick outcome prevented her from managing to reach the tray in time. Six months later, she was managing both very well, and seemed to take a particular pride in washing with flourish any part of herself or another person who came close. Somehow she never entirely managed to remove all the little seeds she would pick up on her journeys, or clean the food off her chin or behind her ears, and she purred loudest when I did this for her.

Taking in her stride a few other adjustments, including the change in noise and tempo from my stepkids’ visits, she was a very happy cat. Every time she entered the room she would meow loudly and keep doing so until we addressed her in return. This would happen at all times of day and night and my last memory is getting out of bed to pat her in the middle of the night several hours before she was hit by a car. It was as though I was reassuring her for something I couldn’t fathom and now, of course, I now feel I should not have done it.

Since we were worried about the road just around the corner, we used a harness to take her out for several months before we abandoned it because it seemed to cause Clementine so much discomfort. She would not pull against the lead, but cower when she felt the restriction. If she tried to run, which she always wanted to, I could not keep up. She was, in any case, heading out for the park and the traffic-less gardens to the back of our house. Whenever a car came near down our small alleyway, she would rush for cover instantly and did not try to block its path, like my other cat does.

I had foolishly decided that her territory extended in the opposite direction, and have for the last two weeks spent many pointless moments wondering what convinced her to change her patterns and why I hadn’t noticed. Was it that I was distracted by my own foolish problems? I suspect now that a neighbour’s cat had given up his territory after being hit by a car. Something must have happened to take her by surprise when she was hit at a relatively quiet time on the main road near our home. All I know when the neighbours came and knocked is that she had one small blow to the head and had died just minutes before, as she was still warm. I couldn’t muster the strength to pick her little lifeless body up. Someone else had carried her to the side of the pavement and there was just a small patch of blood by the side of the road opposite our house. I still want to put flowers there – but who will understand this grief for a mere cat?

Clementine had become an excellent hunter, and leading up to her death she was bringing in hideously maimed corpses of pigeons, mice and even a rat each day. She was completely unspiteful towards humans and her cat housemate, but viciously in love with the crunche of small mammals and birds. She started to lose her taste for Sheba, and towards the end, I was struggling to get her to eat any human-designed food.

Thomas our older cat was not overly impressed with Clementine at any point in their year of sharing a house, but he generally took his resentment out on me rather than the little cat. He did seem to enjoy their hunting trips together and would bat around a mouse in the kitchen with her for what seemed like horribly long hours unless humans intervened. He had often had cat friends to play with and even seemed to enjoy sharing his catnip toys with neighbourhood cats. His jealousy over Clementine resulted in an attack on my face for which I still have a scar. Clementine never stopped trying to play with him but decided that our bed was Thomas’s territory. This wouldn’t stop her from running up the stairs past him he when he was trying to block her path. One of her favourite moves was to jump between the railings of the banister, landing on the step just above him to his immense surprise.

Earlier this summer, I had spent several months thinking that I would lose Clemmy for another reason, which was an allergy to fleas. She had started grooming to excess in little patches where she had been bitten, either in the house or outside in one of her sunbathing spots. An unusually hot and dry summer meant we were struggling to deal with the fleas in the house, and Clementine had lesions on her skin that started to become infected. Taking her to the vets for the fourth or fifth time in her short life (digestive issues being the first real worry) was a surprise, because Thomas had only ever needed help in his 11 years, after swallowing a particularly large feather. We even changed vets to get the best possible care for her – and it worked.

After about two months of treatments for the cats and house, Clemmy’s fur was restored and she was as fluffy and perfect as ever. This perfection included an unusually short torso, as though she had forgotten to keep growing it. This lack of extension resulted in a tendency to fall, especially if she did not move her exclamation-mark tail quickly enough to counterbalance. The little cat also went through phases of refusing to eat human designed food if it was not in a safe place such as on a table or cat tree, and was especially pleased to have a stroke while she was eating. I am not sure if this was the cause, or the result, of her hunting prowess.

I don’t think it was any of the physical attributes that made me love her. She was entirely different in nature to my other beloved cat, who had been a half-hearted hunter, and was always happier to be fed and demand feeding (though he does this was wit and charm). What I loved most about her was the hypnotic stare of her little gold eyes, her baffling ability to concentrate on small movements and pounce with utter precision, a slight tilt of the head and utter concentration of body. I love/d her for her liveliness and attunement to the world of other little living things, that I could never for the life of my register. She was not like other cats who had surrendered this wild ability in search of home comforts. It was not the food she was after from us (although no doubt it did her good); it was the affection of touch and the sense that she wanted from us. To stroke and be stroked. To make noise and be heard. To have treats that gave her the runs and to provide us with the treats of severed mice torsos. By the end, it did not feel that it was the love of a desperate human for a substitute child, but two adult beings of quite distinct skill set and sensibility that wanted to share the joy of being alive by mutual affection and dependence. And I could only share that aliveness by witchcraft, magic or something far beyond my control. She needed our reassurance in the beginning, but in the end, it was I who needed hers. Are we humans a good thing on this planet, or an aberration? We are certainly making it unspeakably hard for many other creatures.

I think it is the purest sort of love that seeks what is other from itself. I was a domestic human that was permitted to love a wildcat by an act of clemency (nature is clement as well as savage). It could be that a change in traffic following roadworks led to her death as she was headed home at breakfast time. The only thing we know is that someone screeched their breaks but didn’t stop to see the life that ended with their rush to their job or home.

——

I remain grateful that I have held on to my clemency as well as my wildness. At least for the time being. The gods, if they exist, will look on with scorn at the blindness of humans to these other lives. I cannot take the contemporary scientific view that animals lack the feeling and sense that we attribute to ourselves.

I am not sure if it would be fair to seek out this sort of love again – wild creatures are certainly better off, on the whole, without human interference. Though I crave it deeply. Animals are certainly better off without the presence of human roads and cars. Pets are thought to belong to the human world, but I am sure that Clementine did not belong to it. She was a vicious killer, but she hunted to provide for herself and her family, of which we were briefly part. Our world is one of ownership and conquest, and we are the only species to decide that we own others or have superior skills and abilities.

I want to remember her talents and charms, rather than the sadness of her beautiful little body lying hideously still beside the road.

I cannot stand the docility of many religions, and how they encourage us to pretend our animal natures are not the best parts of us.

 

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A pause.

 

Today I favour flowers over man:

Marigold with its bright brown eyes

And cornflower nodding in assent

To everything I say. Who alive

Want to be here? To be spent

In awe at nature’s spendthrift plan.

I want to taste the blue

From the borage, til my tongue

Shakes its grasp of words

And joins in the buzz

Of the battery of bees.

And you, verbena, clumsily

Lolloping your well-coiffed head

Over the raised bed,

Are a giant queen

In a paddling pool.

(Cabbages won’t admit

But envy your legs.)

Me, I’m in nonchalant charge

Over this lovely scene.

I can’t help but think

That summer’s past its best

So much beauty and grace

Will turn to compost in nature’s haste.

‘A strange sweetness’: Ledbury Poetry Festival in July 2017

This talk has had two namesBurnet_Rose (1). The first title was ‘A Strange Sweetness’ – it has since become Edward Thomas: A Miscellany, which is the title of the book it is about. Perhaps this is an appropriate kind of multiplicity for a talk about a man who wrote by two different names, and was known by two names. Edward Thomas the critic and writer of countryside books, essays, biography and fiction was born Philip Edward Thomas in March 1878, in South London. Edward or ‘Edwy’ were the names his family used so as not to confuse him with his father. He became Edward Eastaway the poet when his poetry first appeared in print in 1915.

He published his poetry under the ancestral surname ‘Edward Eastaway’ to avoid its association with the widely known critic and countryside writer Edward Thomas. He became Philip Edward Thomas again when he was died – killed by an enemy shell during the Battle of Arras in 1917. His soldier’s grave in Agny Military Cemetery bears the name ‘PE Thomas’. Following his death, his recently finished poetry continued to be published by his friends under the name ‘Edward Thomas’.

There are other kinds of doubling in the poet’s biography. Sometimes these created inner conflicts. Edward Thomas had two nationalities and identified with both at different points in his life. He was mainly Welsh by ancestry and English as a result of what he called his ‘accidental’ birth in London. He is known as a poet and a soldier, but he also wrote a great deal of literary criticism and completed many books in other genres before he became a poet.

The conflict between what Thomas did to earn a living and what he was at heart created tensions that plagued him for much of his life. Writing and walking were more than recreation – they allowed him to re-unite the disparate dimensions of his inner self. In the most striking example, he created a fictional double, or ‘other’, that he met and conversed with in the otherwise non-fiction book, In Pursuit of Spring. This book, which is featured in the Miscellany, charts Edward Thomas’s journey westwards by bike and on foot from London in March 1913, in a quest to see the first signs of spring, and to escape from his ‘inner winter’. Here, the writer’s unpleasant double pursues him along the route.

One of the conversations, goes as follows:

‘I suppose you write books,’ I said. ‘I do,’ said he. ‘What sort of books do you write?’ ‘I wrote one all about this valley of the Frome… But no one knows it was the Frome that I meant. You look surprised. Nevertheless, I got fifty pounds for it’. ‘That is a lot of money for such a book!’ ‘So my publisher thought’.’And you are lucky to get money for doing what you like.’ ‘What I like!’ He muttered, pushing his bike back uphill, past the goats by the ruin, and up the steps between walls that were humid with lovely moneywort, saxifrage like filigree, and ivy-leaved toadflax.

The invented writer is unsociable, introspective, picky and prone to complaint. In Thomas’s early poem called ‘The Other’, the speaker is in pursuit of his better double, who makes a more agreeable impression on those around him. Apart from these examples, it is difficult to find direct evidence of the more ‘unsociable’ side of Thomas that he sometimes considered himself.

There are many such barely-disguised alter-egos in his writing. The idea of the double or doppelganger is not unique to Thomas, and it has all sorts of precedents in literature and mythology. But more frequently, he wrote about the real people, real birds, animals, memorials, buildings and plants, that he encountered on his journeys. These encounters are steeped in Thomas’s huge sympathy for the unloved and neglected.

These encounters allowed Thomas to find a sense of being at home in the world. He felt pleasure in the open air, ‘sweetness’ in his surroundings, and in what he once called the ‘commonwealth’ of all life. In his prose writing about the countryside which I will be talking about more in this talk, as well as an in his poetry, his work is infused with this sense of joy.

This is what I refer to as Thomas’s feeling for the ‘strange sweetness’ of the world. He found ‘sweetness’ in many different things. So much so that would be hard to find a common meaning for the word ‘sweetness’. Yet it is clear that this sweetness is as real for Thomas as many living things and people that inspired him. Thomas’s writing about the countryside is a reminder of the power of landscape and nature to inspire all types of feelings and ideas that are intense but barely possible to put into words. And as I will conclude at the end of this introduction, Thomas’s experiences of ‘strange sweetness’ help us to understand our own encounters with nature.

So rest of talk is also a kind of doubling – it is both about my anthology of Thomas’s writing that has recently been published by Galileo Publishers in Cambridge, and about themes that recur in Thomas’s poetry and prose.

The words ‘sweet’, ‘sweets’, ‘sweetened’, ‘sweetest’ or ‘sweetness’ appear 44 times in the Miscellany. Of these, 31 are in the prose extracts that make up two thirds of the book, and 13 are in the poems, suggesting it was a word he used as much in poetry as in his many other forms of writing.

The words ‘Strange’, ‘stranger’ or ‘strangest come up almost as much in both, and in the poems ‘Words’ the two terms combine to make – a ‘strange sweetness’:

‘Words’ –

Out of us all
That make rhymes
Will you choose
Sometimes –
As the winds use
A crack in a wall
Or a drain,
Their joy or their pain
To whistle through –
Choose me,
You English words?

I know you:
You are light as dreams,
Tough as oak,
Precious as gold,
As poppies and corn,
Or an old cloak:
Sweet as our birds
To the ear,
As the burnet rose
In the heat
Of Midsummer:
Strange as the races
Of dead and unborn:
Strange and sweet
Equally,
And familiar,
To the eye,
As the dearest faces
That a man knows,
And as lost homes are:
But though older far
Than oldest yew, –
As our hills are, old, –
Worn new
Again and again:
Young as our streams
After rain:
And as dear
As the earth which you prove
That we love.

Make me content
With some sweetness
From Wales
Whose nightingales
Have no wings, –
From Wiltshire and Kent
And Herefordshire, –
And the villages there, –
From the names, and the things
No less.
Let me sometimes dance
With you,
Or climb
Or stand perchance
In ecstasy,
Fixed and free
In a rhyme,
As poets do.

Elsewhere Edward Thomas: A Miscellany –

‘Sweet’ is used to describe a reed-bunting’s song, the process of decomposition and regeneration in a garden, the sense of earlier walkers on footpaths, flowers of chalk Downland, unnamed women’s voices, mud turned to dust, hard-earned rest, the past, garden mint, a spring breeze; perhaps bizarrely, a parrot’s song; the smell of tar, champagne, and the earth. The property of ‘Sweetness’ is ascribed to a summer rain shower, a cool spell in summer weather, the scent of wild carrot and parsnip seeds, fountains, and deer enclosures in Richmond Park, ‘The talking of a thrush’, and a man’s whistling. It is perhaps both strange and sweet that someone who is now thought of as one of the finest poets writing in English during the 20th century, should use one word so often.

In these unlikely lists, ‘sweet’ describes to many different kinds of objects, creatures, people, events and even ideas, as they affect the senses, the mind and feelings alike. It becomes a kind of verbal pantheism, or monism at least. The word sweet, as the many ‘plain’ words that Thomas used, has a deceptive simplicity that is at the core of Thomas’s achievements as a poet – plain words demonstrate the complex differences between the sense and references of words. In a similar way, he used traditional verse forms and this disguised the complexity of Thomas’s innovations with the sound and rhythms of poetry. He uses words such as ‘sweet’ that we have heard and used many times ourselves, and this has a particular power.

In his work as a poet he put into practice what he had learned from literary criticism and what he knew about folk literature. Thomas noted deficiencies in the obscure symbolism of some contemporary poets and – I quote – ‘of all music, the old ballads and folk songs and their airs are richest in the plain immortal symbols … in themselves epitomes of whole generations, of a whole countryside’. In his poetry and prose, words such as ‘strange’ and ‘sweet’ are more than signs, they are ‘plain immortal symbols’. He uses language that we might hear in folk songs and which we may use ourselves, and infuses them with new meanings, to create richly symbolic poetry.

End of extract. To find out more, contact anna.stenning@gmail.com

November

A grey November light tells me
Something about death: it creeps
Through gaps. Grasping for throats
Tenderly. The cat breaches

The space between me and him,
Weaving ribbons of scent
On my face, ribbons that tie
To the smell of hair on a pillow.

A smell that ties me to you,
The same thick wavy-brown hair.
The same kind of smell and the
Same kind of light on you.

But you can’t see it, lying
In your tiny bed, with your
Nut-brown face against the wall.
These ribbons are strong, and so

Are my hands and eyes, and I wish
I could give you their strength to feel
Their soft touch and bright colours. How can
The ribbons be so weak they fall off

And I can’t keep them tied to your hands. Do your
Eyes soak in, but not see,
This deadly November light?
I’d give a thousand November days

August ones even – for you to feel
The cat’s warmth against your belly
To see your beautiful things and feel loved.
But death pulls them with such force.

Let the wars cease; no more remembrances
But for you, a dustman’s child
Child of the Downs. Watch this
Fade into the grey November light.