I remember my mother and father fighting “like cats and dogs” as my grandparents used to say. Now, my grandparents had a cat. It was black and white and striped like a zebra. They called it Spot. My parents had a dog. It was an English Cocker Spaniel, gold in color, and off-spring to a famous sire. They called it Wimpy but it was by no means a wimp and fought with everything in sight, especially the cat.
So when my father and mother fought and the family cat and dog fought, I thought, quite reasonably in my opinion, that dogs (with their short hair) were male and cats (with their long hair) were female, and that was the reason why they fought like cats and dogs. And “never the twain shall meet” as my grandparents used to say about my mother and father and the cat and the dog. I guess it was too early to learn about the birds and the bees when, young and all too innocent, I was learning about the cats and the dogs.
And of course it’s only natural that the twain should meet. My mother and my father, the cat and the dog, had to meet somewhere, didn’t they? How else would I be here? We weren’t the sort of family that practiced contraception by throwing stones at the storks to keep the babies away. But I could never work out why the cat always had female kittens while the dog had all-male off-spring. That was a bit too much for me, and nobody ever explained anything in those days.
And look, in spite of the differences between them, even cats and dogs can sometimes live together in peace. And opposites can and do attract, don’t they?
So, I can’t draw dogs, nor people, nor reality. But I can draw spirits, and moods, and emotions. This is NOT my neighbors’ dog. It is the spirit of their dog: energy, joy, happiness, and total and complete love. What more could a doggy want or an artist, however useless, do.
Boo: I salute you. Woof!
Original drawing, dated 9 August 2014, can be found in my drawing notebook of that year. I used it as a model for the painting, was completed on Tuesday, 30 November 2021.
Reading the poem aloud, I changed some of the word order to the rhythm of my speaking voice. It’s reading before an audience and hearing their reaction that tells me when a poem is right or needs retouching. Alas, those live readings are gone for now. Anchor, Spotify, Facebook, Twitter, and this blog are good, but not quite the same. But, for a rhythm and voice poet, who loves live readings and welcomes a live audience, they are better than that midnight silence under dark trees.
Fell softly, quietly, soundless, in the night. I knew it was there. A lightness in the air, a subtle change in the quality of light. Now everything has changed: yesterday’s bare trees wear their winter dresses, frilly tresses garnished with garlands of snow.
The deer will arrive, sooner or later. They always do. They troop from right to left, west to east, as day turns to night, then troop back, east to west, in morning light. They step dark and diligent, flitting shadows beneath snowy trees, one after another, forging a single passage from yard to road, crossing it, then vanishing into dark woods.
I saw them one night in a midnight dream. They stood on their hindlegs underneath the mountain ash and danced, so delicate, reaching up with long, black tongues, to steal bright berries from lower branches. They danced in a full moon’s spotlight and filled my heart with joy and pain. How I long to see them dance again.
I guess if she were a boy she’d be a Lolly Laddy, or a Loblolly Laddy, depending on the circumstances. Did this one at 4:00 am when I was non compus mentis, whatever that means at that time of the morning. Just trying to keep from falling downstairs, I guess. I love the colors: violet for tranquility, red for strength and energy, yellow for clarity, and blue for feeling blue at that time of the morning.
I suppose, if I were Rimbaud, I would be able to write letters instead of colors. Alas, now I no longer know where to hang these things: I am running out of wall space. And frames. And nails. “A nail, a nail, my kingdom for a nail”… Richard III aka the Hunchback of Loblolly Alley. Mind you, I think his nail was detached from the shoe that fell from his horse. “To lose one horse is a tragedy. To lose two is careless.” Oscar Wilde on parenting.
I love the sparkles though. We have several sparklers and we keep them for the sad times when the world needs brightening, as it does all too often nowadays. The seasons roll on. The year is trickling by. I have decided to sleep under my duvet. It is certainly warm under there and the Teddy Bears really appreciate it. They want to hibernate, but I refuse to let them. If I let them hibernate the cat will be up on the bed, and we can’t have that, can we? Not me, and definitely not the bears. And here’s why not: Teddies or Cats? Click and you’ll find the answer. Or maybe you won’t. So try clicking here: Teddy Bears FFS. Oh dear, I think there’s a typo there: a Teddy Bear Typo. Never mind. I am sure you won’t mind.
I wouldn’t go down to the woods today, if I were you. And I think you know why! You shouldn’t go alone, either. But if you venture out, think twice about taking your teddies. They might run away to join the picnic and leave you all alone with the Night Bumps, the acorn throwers, the wild folk, and the Wood Chuck wood-chuckers.
Art has almost always told a story, even though, as in the case of the Cave Paintings in Altamira, Puente Viesgo, Lascaux, and elsewhere, we may not know exactly what that story is. On the other hand, many of the great paintings of the Spanish Golden Age (1525-1680) have a hidden narrative that we can often work out. Take, for example, Vulcan’s Forge (1630), painted by Diego Velázquez after his first trip to Italy (1629). On the surface, this is a painting of a typical Spanish Forge of the seventeenth century. Ordinary workmen labour away at their daily tasks, but, and there is always a but, the figure on the left is adorned with a god-like halo. Why? Because he is the bearer of a message. Vulcan’s wife, Venus, has been having an affair with Mars, the god of war. Vulcan has forged a net of fine, golden chains and placed it over the bed where they will loiter. Now, Mars and Venus are trapped in that net, caught in the act, so to speak. No wonder the mouths of Vulcan’s helpers are open in wonderment.
Before the arrival of photography, painting was the only way to record the world, to make a picture of what was happening, to tell a story in paint. That is why a picture is worth a thousand words. I have retold the narrative of the painting of Vulcan’s Forge in 128 words. There is, of course, a great deal more to tell about his and other paintings and how they represent the artist’s narrative reality. The advent of photography changed the artist’s vision of the world. As photography developed and became quicker, faster, and offered what some might consider to be a more accurate version of reality, so artists rethought their role. Was it to capture, in paint, the world as they saw it, with a single visual entry point, and a constant perspective? Or was it to catch the way light fell upon objects (Monet), or to offer multiple entry points (Braque), or to paint the turmoil of the inner mind (Picasso, Miró, Pollock)? Artists could do such things. Until recently, with the advent of the computer, it was much more difficult for the camera to do so. The camera recorded, but artists created and re-created their own narratives of the world around and inside them. Now we can enter photoshop and the equivalent and play around with out own photos of reality, distorting them and twisting them as we please.
Verbal to Visual to Verbal
Which came first, the chicken or the egg, the verbal or the visual? Or was there a sort of spontaneous combustion? In the case of Scarecrow, the artistic collaboration between myself, the author, and Geoff Slater, the artist, the words came first: “In the beginning was the word.” He heard me reading my story, started to sketch the characters, and within six months we had produced an illustrated book.
Words and narrative first, then an artist’s rendition of key moments in the narrative. However, in the case of Twelve Days of Cat, our second artistic collaboration, Geoff sent me 12 drawings of a cat and I looked at them and worked out a narrative that would join them together in a symbiotic relationship. Scarecrow is an illustrated narrative in prose. Twelve Days of Cat is a narrative in poetry based on what was once an independent series of charcoal sketches. Who cares which came first, verbal of visual, when the results are so pleasing to ear and eye.
Some days, monkey winds himself up like a clockwork mouse. Other days he rolls over and over with a key in his back like a clockwork cat.
Monkey is growing old and forgetful. He forgets where he has hidden the key, pats his pockets, and slows right down before he eventually finds it and winds himself up again.
One day, monkey leaves the key between his shoulder blades in the middle of his back.
All day long, the temple monkeys play with the key, turning it round and round, and winding monkey’s clockwork, tighter and tighter, until suddenly the mainspring breaks
and monkey slumps at the table no energy, no strength, no stars, no planets, no moon at night, the sun broken fatally down, the clockwork of his universe sapped, and snapped.
Comment: Monkey Temple is A Narrative Fable for Modern Times written in verse. The poems show strong links to Surrealism and Existential Philosophy. They portray the upside-down world of Carnival and out line Monkey’s Theory of the Absurd in a dystopian world that mirrors that of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, LaFontaine’s Fables, the esperpento of Valle-Inclan, and the witty conceptismo of Francisco de Quevedo. This is a walk through the jungle of the Jungian innermost mind. But watch out for those monkeys: they bite.
Timothy heard his older brothers moving from room to room, searching for him. He knew they would find him but for now he had found refuge beneath his grandfather’s double bed. It was dark under there in that sepulchral space. He had placed his grandfather’s enormous Royal Doulton chamber pot between himself and the door so that the dog would not pick up his scent, run to his hiding place, and lay the Judas lick upon his cheek.
His grandfather had forgotten to empty the chamber pot. Dark urine splashed on Timothy’s hands and sleeves as he squeezed behind the giant china pot that overwhelmed his nose fills with his grandfather’s nocturnal vapors.
The voices got louder as his brothers climbed the stairs and approached the bedrooms on the upper floor.
“Where is he now, drat him?”
“Don’t worry, we’ll find him.”
“And then he’ll be for it.”
“I’ll beat him with the little red brush they use for cleaning the fireplace.”
“That will teach him.”
Timothy was familiar with those threats, especially the little red brush.
He remembered the fox the hounds killed at his feet, one sunny morning a year before. He cycled down the lane outside his family’s summer cottage. The fox limped along the side of the lane, saw the boy on his bike, but too tired to run from him, continued limping in the roadway. Timothy got off his bike, leaned it against the rough stone country wall, and watched the fox. Its tail, speckled with mud, dragged behind its low-slung body, sweeping the ground. Timothy observed the twigs and thorns protruding from its black-tipped orange redness.
Timothy walked towards the fox. It tried to move away from the boy but collapsed and lay at the edge of the lane, flanks heaving, tongue lolling out through the white strings of thick foam that choked the muzzle and streaked saliva on the forequarters.
The hounds came from nowhere, an incoming, barking tide that rounded the corner and rushed towards Timothy who froze with a fright that pressed him against the wall. Sun-warmed stone jutted sharp edges into his back. As he stood there, unable to move, a rough hand came over the wall and grabbed him by the shoulder. He felt himself hauled upwards. The flint points dug into his back and he yelped as the firm hand drew him over the top of the wall to safety.
“Get out of there, you stupid boy, or the hounds will have you.”
Timothy hid his face in the farmer’s rough homespun shirt. He shuddered as the dogs bayed and growled and scrapped and scratched. Then the fox, it must have been the fox, let out a high-pitched yap and whine and the pack gargled itself into a drooling, slobbering sort of silence. The farmer pushed Timothy’s face away from his shoulder and forced his head towards the spot where the hounds, on the other side of the protective barrier, rubbed their ears into the dead fox’s torn and bloodied body.
“That’s what they’d have done to you, my boy. Never come between a pack and its kill.”
Timothy watched a member of the hunt staff pull a knife from his jacket. The foxhunters broke into cheers and howls of pleasure when the man severed the fox’s brush and held it on high. The farmer thrust Timothy towards the Master of Hounds.
“Here, blood him, Master, he was in at the kill.”
The Master of Hounds opened his mouth to flash a smile filled with pointed, foxhound teeth. He stooped, dipped his fingers in the still warm fox blood, and streaked a smear across the boy’s face.
“There,” he said,” you’re blooded now. One of us, eh what?”
The mingled scents of fox and hound and blood and death and urine and feces made a heady mixture and Timothy started to hyperventilate. His breath came hard in his throat and, as he struggled to breathe, tears rolled down his cheeks.
Timothy feels safe in his secret hiding place beneath his grandfather’s bed. He can hear his brothers’ taunts and calls as they search for him, but they haven’t found him yet. Sticks and stones may break my bones, he whispers, but names will never hurt me. But names do hurt. Tiny Tim they call him and ask him where he hides his crutch. I don’t limp, Timothy once replied. When he said that, one of his brothers, Big Billy, kicked Timothy as hard as he could with the toe of his boot, just above the ankle. Timothy screamed with pain. You’ll limp now, said Big Billy, and his other brothers found the joke so funny that they all called kicked Tiny Tim at every opportunity. Limp, Timmy, limp, they chanted as they chased him round, limpTiny Tim, Tiny Timmy.
“He’s not up here,” one of his brothers called out.
“Must be out in the garden, the coward, we’ll have to hunt out there for him,” another replied.
“Can’t run, can’t hide,” said Big Billy. “Get the dog, we’ll track him down.”
The voices finally faded. Protected by the barrier of his grandfather’s cold but intimate body waste, Timothy curled up like a fox in his den and fell asleep. He dreamed of the proud brush of a tail flying in the wind, of a warm stone wall, drenched in sunlight, and of a farmer’s strong, all-protecting arm.
Comment: I have written several versions of this story, some longer, some much shorter, some in the first person singular, some in the second person. In all of them, the word-play on the little red brush (fox and fireplace) is paramount. This particular version occurs in my short story collection, Nobody’s Child available on line. Sometimes a story will not leave me alone. It wanders around, takes slightly different twists and turns, and new images and scenes emerge, as they do in this particular piece. Alas, I didn’t have a photo of a fox, so I used a photo of three plump pigeons hiding, you might even say ‘cowering away’, from a hungry hawk circling overhead while they hid in a crack in a wall in Avila, Spain. It always surprises me to know how many people (and animals) flee from what Robbie Burns called “man’s inhumanity to man”.