Saturday, February 26, 2011

"The Cat" by Miroslav Holub

Outside it was night
like a book without letters.
And the eternal dark
dripped to the stars through the sieve of the city.

I said to her
do not go
you'll only be trapped
and bewitched
and will suffer in vain.

I said to her
do not go
why want

But a window was opened
and she went,

a black cat into the black night,
she dissolved,
a black cat in the black night,
she just dissolved 
and no one ever saw her again.
Not even she herself.

But you can hear her
when it's quiet
and there's a northerly wind
and you listen intently
to your own self.

I was first struck with the unusual figurative language in the poem. The techniques themselves are ordinary enough, but their use is not. In the first line, the night is compared to "a book without letters." Normally, figurative language is used to clarify an idea or image, but here it just confuses it. How is the night a book without letters? Is it mysterious or empty? Coded or forgotten? Interesting or useless? Or what about "the eternal dark/ dripped to the stars?" Normally when we think of "drip" we think of things going down, but the stars are up. And what is the "sieve of the city?" These strange connection set up the poem; it doesn't quite take place in reality. It isn't completely fantasy, either, more like an alternate universe. The first stanza sets the tone and style for the poem, both are import in order for the reader to believe the last line when a cat suddenly becomes "your own self." Holub also puts some alliteration in the third and fourth lines: "dark dripped" and "sieve of the city." It makes the last lines of the first stanza flow. In fact, the whole poem flows, though written in free verse. The words make rhythms. "The Cat" is not written in strict iambic meter, but stressed and unstressed syllables of the words push and pull the reader through the poem. They dictate pauses, accelerations, or stress that makes the poem move like a song. This conventional side of poetry helps the reader move through the less conventional comparisons and phrasing. It makes the reader comfortable enough to read through the poem several times until he catches the meaning -- if there is a meaning.

There could be a very specific meaning to this poem. Holub could be describing a specific memory or experience. He may be portraying an specific idea. Or he may simply be presenting an small scene. The first stanza gives a very strange description of night, and yet, if one looks closely at the descriptions, he can actually see a darkened city, filtering the darkness that reached up to the stars. The poem then narrows its scope, looking into just one house where a man pleads with his cat. What he says seems to represent the human fears of darkness. On the one hand, we fear what could be hidden by it, what it could do to us, and on the other hand, we fear that is nothing and that it will turn us, too, into nothing. "But a window was opened/ and she went." The black cat, which, naturally, is part darkness itself, doesn't fear the darkness. It leaves. In the darkness, it was invisible. It almost turned into nothingness, as the man had feared. But sometimes he could hear her, indicating that the cat had not turned into nothing as he had feared but had just become another one of the mysterious of darkness.

I found it important that Holub chose a cat as opposed to, say, a human, to leave into the darkness. I happen to like cats, black cats especially. I thinks they're pretty and intelligent. They don't automatically assume you're their friend, like dogs do, or really even believe that any human is their master. I greatly admire the way they are so autocratic and how little they let the opinions of others affect what they do. Black cats are the best. They are often called unlucky, but they seem to take that all in stride, enjoying disturbing silly humans -- or just wanting your food. The black cat in Holub's poem, then, is not some stupid animal, but a thinking, calculating being that has decided that the man's arguments are inadequate. Cats are rather know for wandering away from home, and so the cat in the poem does. It establishes its independence by disappearing in the dark. But, somewhere inside it, it still feels something for the man it left, and occasionally, it will call out, letting the man know its still out there, part of the dark.

Is there a deeper meaning that this? Could Holub be talking about death? It is like he described the night: mysterious, possibly hiding something or possibly nothing at all. The black cat is a symbol of death. He begs the cat not to go into the dark, and still it goes, just as we may ask someone not die, and yet, they do. But, sometimes, he hears it again. Not like he had heard it before. Now he has only a memory. It is his mind he hears, repeating what he had heard before. Or is the cat really still out there, speaking to him? Are the ones we loved still with out, even in death? The poem seems to suggest that hope. For a poem about death, this seems unusually calm and at peace. Most seem overcome with grief or anger or shock. But the speak seems only sad and accepting. Perhaps it is because he still believes the cat to still be out there, in the dark, and within him. It is a comforting thought.


  1. I also think the cat choice was intentional, thought I'm not sure about the whole thing either. Except, I know that a cat definitely has its own mind and to me it gives the feeling of others never owning it--like the person/thing in the poem. Love your thoughts on the "book without letters" and "dripping stars." I think the clichéd imagery we know so well is turned upside down in this one. Good!

  2. I love this! It's extremely long, but I enjoyed your thoughts. I hate cats, but enjoyed your interpretation. I also love how you write so many questions!

  3. the night captured the cat.the poem captured beauty indeed.

  4. the night captured the cat.the poem captured beauty indeed.