Identity Crisis

He was urged to prepare for success: "You never can tell,
    he was told over and over; "others have made it;
    one dare not presume to predict. You never can tell.	

Who’s Who in America lists the order of cats
    in hunting, fishing, bird-watching, farming,
    domestic service--the dictionary order of cats

who have made it. Those not in the book are beyond the pale.
    Not to succeed in you chosen profession is unthinkable.
    Either you make it or--you’re beyond the pale.

Do you understand?"
                   "No," he shakes his head.
    "Are you ready to forage for freedom?"
                                          "No," he adds,
    "I mean, why is a cat always shaking his head?

Because he’s thinking: who am I? I am not
    only one-ninth of myself. I always am
    all of the selves I have been and will be but am    not."

"The normal cat," I tell him, "soon adjusts
    to others and to changing circumstances;
    he makes his way the way he soon adjusts."

"I can’t," he says, "perhaps because I’m blue,
    big-footed, lop-eared, socially awkward, impotent,
    and I drink too much, whether because I’m blue

or because I like it, who knows. I want to escape
    at five o’clock    into an untouchable world
where the top is the bottom and everyone wants to escape

from the middle, everyone, every day. I mean,
    I have visions of two green eyes rising
    out of the ocean, blinking, knowing what I mean."

"Never mind the picture, repeat after me
    the self’s creed. What he tells you you
    tells me and I repeats. Now, after me:

I love myself, I wish I would live well.
    Your gift of love breaks through my self-defeat.
    All prizes are blue. No cat admits defeat.
The next time that he lives he will live well."

He Foretells His Passing

I can imagine, years from now, your coming back
to this high, old, white house. "Home" I shouldn't say
because we can't predict who'll live here with a different
     name.
How tall the birches will be then. Will you look up
from the road past the ash for light in the study windows
upstairs and down? Go climb the black maple as first
in new sneakers you walked forty feet in air
and saw the life to come. Don't forget the cats.

Because you grow away from a house, no matter how much you
     come back,
if the people you love are elsewhere, or if the reason is,
     say,
nostalgia, don't worry about small changes or lost names.
Sit down for a minute under the tallest birch. Look up
at the clouds reflected in the red barn's twisted window.
Lean on the wall. Hear our voices as at first
they shook the plaster, laughed, then burned in the dry air
like a wooden house. I imagine you won't forget the cats.

Related Poems

Self-Portrait

Between the computer, a pencil, and a typewriter
half my day passes. One day it will be half a century.
I live in strange cities and sometimes talk
with strangers about matters strange to me.
I listen to music a lot: Bach, Mahler, Chopin, Shostakovich.
I see three elements in music: weakness, power, and pain.
The fourth has no name.
I read poets, living and dead, who teach me
tenacity, faith, and pride. I try to understand
the great philosophers--but usually catch just
scraps of their precious thoughts.
I like to take long walks on Paris streets
and watch my fellow creatures, quickened by envy,
anger, desire; to trace a silver coin
passing from hand to hand as it slowly
loses its round shape (the emperor's profile is erased).
Beside me trees expressing nothing
but a green, indifferent perfection.
Black birds pace the fields,
waiting patiently like Spanish widows.
I'm no longer young, but someone else is always older.
I like deep sleep, when I cease to exist,
and fast bike rides on country roads when poplars and houses
dissolve like cumuli on sunny days.
Sometimes in museums the paintings speak to me
and irony suddenly vanishes.
I love gazing at my wife's face.
Every Sunday I call my father.
Every other week I meet with friends,
thus proving my fidelity.
My country freed itself from one evil. I wish
another liberation would follow. 
Could I help in this? I don't know.
I'm truly not a child of the ocean,
as Antonio Machado wrote about himself,
but a child of air, mint and cello
and not all the ways of the high world
cross paths with the life that—so far—
belongs to me.