It’s an odd time, the time between books. Having sent off Paradise Red, I need not to dwell but to move on, so that by the time my editor’s comments arrive my mind is fresh – new water for the flowers as it were. I’m going to use the time to forget about domestic things and concentrate instead on filling up a few more of the literary and historical gaping holes that seem to increase year by year, as well as grasping more firmly the ideas floating for new stuff. That old cliche, ‘the more you know the more you realise you don’t know’ is really beating me over the head at the moment.
The best thing I’ve done this week is to make a resolution with a friend to read a poem a day. So easy – can be done whilst making coffee, speaking to dullards on the telephone, waiting for the spin cycle to finish. If only I’d made this resolution sooner I’d have got through the whole Norton anthology by now and how useful would that be! I’m always in awe of the poet’s economy. It seems rather clumsy to have to use 72,000 words when 72 might do.
This is yesterday’s, written by Michael Schmidt, now Professor of Poetry at Glasgow University. The idea came from another poem written by an unknown Irish monk aeons ago. Michael’s poem was deemed not a poem by the Queen’s English Society. There was a jolly row.
Pangur Ban (you probably already know that this means White Cat)
Jerome has his enormous dozy lion.
Myself, I have a cat, my Pangur Ban.
What did Jerome feed up his lion with?
Always he’s fat and fleecy, always sleeping
As if after a meal. Perhaps a Christian?
Perhaps a lamb, or a fish, or a loaf of bread.
His lion’s always smiling, chin on paw,
What looks like purring rippling his face
And there on Jerome’s escritoire by the quill and ink pot
The long black thorn he drew from the lion’s paw.
Look, Pangur, at the picture of the lion –
Not a mouser like you, not lean, not ever
Chasing a quill as it flutters over parchment
Leaving its trail that is the word of God.
Pangur, you are so trim beside the lion.
– Unlike Jerome in the mouth of his desert cave
Wrapped in a wardrobe of robes despite the heat,
I in this Irish winter, Pangur Ban,
Am cold, without so much as your pillow case
Of fur, white, with ginger tips on ears and tail.
My name is neither here nor there, I am employed
By Colum Cille who will be a saint
Because of me and how I have set down
The word of God. He pays. He goes to heaven.
I stay on earth, in this cell with the high empty window,
The long light in summer, the winter stars.
I work with my quill and colours, bent and blinder
Each season, colder, but the pages fill.
Just when I started work the cat arrived
Sleek and sharp at my elbow, out of nowhere;
I dipped my pen. He settled in with me.
He listened and replied. He kept my counsel.
Here in the margin, Pangur, I inscribe you.
Almost Amen. Prowl out of now and go down
Into time’s garden, wary with your tip-toe hearing.
You’ll live well enough on mice and shrews till you find
The next scriptorium, a bowl of milk. Some scribe
Will recognise you, Pangur Ban, and feed you;
You’ll find your way to him as you did to me
From nowhere (but you sniffed out your Jerome).
Stay by him, too, until his Gospel’s done.
(I linger over John, the closing verses,
You’re restless, won’t be touched. I’m old. The solstice.)
Amen, dear Pangur Ban. Amen. Be sly.
from The Resurrection of the Body, Michael Schmidt 2007