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Cat Menagerie

Clíona Ní Ríordáin

Ghost of the Fisher Cat, by Afric McGlinchey, Salmon Poetry, 78 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-1910669396

Afric McGlinchey’s second collection, Ghost of the Fisher Cat, is firmly rooted in French terrain. The book is articulated around a central conceit – the eponymous fisher cat [le chat qui pêche], familiar of the fifteenth century alchemist Dom Perlet. The book’s cover reproduces an image of the black cat (credited to the graffiti artist Némo) and a note on page 76 informs the reader of the cat’s fate. Drowned by “vigilantes” in the Seine, the animal disappeared, as did his master, only for both to reappear some time later and return to their previous pursuits.

Conjuring up the ghost of the fisher cat enables McGlinchey to pursue various cat-like poses and postures. The five sections of her collection each contain cat poems, like “Cat Music”, the first poem of the collection. This elongated series of unrhymed couplets traces the transformation of a “drownling” into catgut; the poem’s form mimics the process, concluding neatly with the ghost of the cat seeming to issue from a tuned instrument.

The stray cat continues to prowl throughout the pages of the book. Sauntering through “Souvenir”, leading the poet to unexpected territory in “Leap”, recently spayed in “Tea with Tiresias”. “Le chat qui pêche” reappears both as a locale in “La Rue du Chat qui Pêche” and as a cat in the eponymous “Ghost of the Fisher Cat”, or in “Familiar”, voiced for the vigilantes, with the demise of the cat described in gruesome detail. The cat poems are frequently shaped by the movement of the cat itself; the poem “Hunters” wanders from one run-on line to the next, tracking the motion of the yelping cats’ mating game. Elsewhere, the crazy city cat of “A River of Familiars” pushes the couplets out of kilter. This poem, with its taxonomy of cats, comes closest to the playful spirit of TS Eliot’s celebrated Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, but McGlinchey’s cats are more whimsical and surrealistic, branding the poet narrator in “Scratch”, leaping with an energy that is inspired by Henri Bergson’s concept of élan vital, the “vital impulse” in a poem that mirrors the suggestive Matthew Hollis epigraph “I have a cat now. It comes in, it goes out.”

The polished formal mastery of the cat poems summons up another French ghost for this reader, the shade of the poet Yves Bonnefoy, who died on July 1st, 2016. Bonnefoy, in a two-part interview with Michael O’Loughlin, published in the review Graph (4, 5, Spring and Autumn 1988), evokes what he calls the “lure of forms”, arguing in favour of what he calls “écriture”, to which he attributes “a new meaning in the concept of writing”, where the writer enters the flux of language. McGlinchey seems to immerse herself fully in the possibility of language in the poems that are not inspired by her colony of cats, but in poems like “In Sunlight” or “Whoosh”, where the power of words is deployed without the need to pursue an elusive cat. The most convincing poem of the collection, “I Is Not Always Me”, carries an epigraph from Arthur Rimbaud (Je est un autre) where McGlinchey via her Other, her migrant double, muses on how a foreign language percolates:

until its idioms even permeate your dreams.
That’s not just acquisition, but erosion too.
It’s only when I follow the slow river,
and the first real sun of summer
kisses fire to its skin, that I remember.

Perhaps, therefore, it may not be unreasonable to suggest that the book contains two collections – Afric’s Book of Impractical Cats and Aifric’s Slow River of Language. In the latter, echoing Bonnefoy, her work is characterised by “this I who decides to be” and she follows the flow of language itself.

1/10/2016

Clíona Ní Ríordáin is professor of English at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, where she teaches translation studies and literature. Her most recent book is Jeune Poésie d’Irlande: les poètes du Munster 1960-2015, (Éditions Illador, 2015) co-edited and co-translated with Paul Bensimon. 

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published this month. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is the blog post “Orange Socks and Guacamole” from 2015 about the relationship between perceived “sophistication” and political virtue, particularly in Britain. Here is an extract:

There is a long tradition of associating “sophistication”, particularly when that means a weakness for elegance or ostentation of dress or what is seen as a too refined or cosmopolitan taste in food or drink, with decadence, sexual licence, “effeminacy” and a decline in the homespun values (which of course have served us well). George Orwell, always a blowhard in such matters, routinely referred to some of the most accomplished poets of his era as “pansies”. Some of them were indeed homosexual or bisexual but Orwell, whom it would be inaccurate to see as homophobic in the normal sense of the word, was thinking of many things other than sexual orientation. When he said that certain people (fashionable literary-political intellectuals) took their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow, he was referring to what he saw as an unfortunate deviation from the natural, plain and decent, healthy and normal virtues – virtues he perhaps overvalued. Auden, one of Orwell’s favourite targets, was, curiously enough, referring to much the same cultural gulf between the plain and the sophisticated in his oft-quoted lines “To the man-in-the-street who, I’m sorry to say, / Is a keen observer of life, / The word intellectual suggests right away / A man who’s untrue to his wife.”

But how easy is it to establish what is plain and healthy and decent? Is an apparent lack of sophistication or intellectuality, a sturdy normality, an essentially English trait? Certainly it is one that can pay a political dividend: while poor Ed Miliband showed to the satisfaction of many through his inability to convincingly eat a bacon sandwich that he was not prime-ministerial material, Nigel Farage loves to be photographed with a pint of beer in his hand, and sometimes a cigar, just like a normal bloke. And the camera normally does not follow him into the restaurant, where it is said he has been known to polish off a bottle or two of Nuits-Saint-Georges.

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