Better Living through Cats (Clark A. Pomerleau)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

How hard to be a regular guy
Flint surrounded by steel women
and dams
whose male kittens couldn’t survive
in years of litters
tomhoods refused

Better living through cats
queered manhood isolate
Flint’s lot, (p. 8)

The lines above from Clark A. Pomerleau’s poem “Conditions” not only provide the title of  his recently released book of poetry, Better Living through Cats, but a context for understanding the rationale for the book itself. The amphibious title might be taken as an affirmation or a resignation and rationale for choosing to avoid living with other human beings. The cover of the book portraying three cats positioning themselves in relation to a window leaves that determination to the reader.

True to the cover, the first four poems of the book introduce each of the three cats and the nameless narrator. These initial poems also set up one of the main themes/threads that is woven throughout the book: domesticity. The two resident cats representing the domesticated and the feral—the natural world and the world as culturally created—make separate entrances in the first two poems. The third poem, “Blended Family,” introduces a new member to the feline family and its positioning between the other two:

Foundation shift, re-order
new young one
repeats the performance
mirrors outer sis
shadows inner sib (p.3)

With this stage set, Pomerleau follows with a set of poems that dive backward into his past and trace an associative linkage between a traumatized childhood in the rural south, and his current lifestyle.  “Conditions,” cited above, is the book’s pivotal poem, and, together with “Generational Trauma,” points back to the physical and emotional demise of males in his human family.

Bringing the reader back from his own reveries, the poet then juxtaposes two poems, “Torrent Projections” and “Nature Managed.” In the first, he records the power of nature those in the rain storms of the Pacific Northwest where he now lives frequently experience. In the second he says,

If I’m honest
I like managed nature
more than wild
Raw power elicits fearful respect
but taming builds trust and need (p. 18)

Like his indoor cat, Scout, the poet admits that he is “too pampered/ for feral freedom.” He prefers the life inside the house with the luxuries that it provides. However, despite this, and all of his deliberate distancing of himself from his birth and heritage, cannot free him from the dreams of the past that at times arise and overwhelm him.

The larger question that Pomerleau is setting up here is the age-old one between nature and nurture.  Was Jack London right, or, as so many in the wake of postmodernism seem to claim, is the idea of science and natural order merely a manifestation of one particular cultural viewpoint—one that was constructed and can be de-constructed? Can we ignore biological inheritance and simply re-invent ourselves, or is it a reality that we have to come to terms with, regardless of who we might like to be?

Pomerleau is neither heavy-handed nor insistent about his point-of-view, nor does he delve deeply into its implications. He raises the question, but does so while unapologetically enjoying the domestic life he has created with his cats.

One aspect of Better Living through Cats immediately apparent is that, for a first book, its poems seem to have a remarkably well developed style, one that makes them recognizable as having come from Pomerleau’s hand. That, in itself, is quite an accomplishment. It is a style of short, clipped lines that often asks the reader to fill in the connections. Occasionally, it asks too much. In a few poems, such as “What Do You Do (Ode to Rev. Fred Rogers)” and “Live on the Brim,” Pomerleau modifies his style a bit by infusing rhyme into the poems.

Better Living through Cats is a slim volume (and a chapbook). Given both the size of the book and the feline subjects of its poems, it would be difficult to call it profound or revelatory. Despite its own assertion that it floats above a field of underlying disturbances, most of the poems encourage us to “Pour coffee and cream/ to the brim/ inhale stacks of chocolate.” (p.20) Perhaps the fairest way to summarize the feeling that pervades Better Living through Cats is to give Pomerleau the last word.

Nothing Much

Beneath the hissing frother
yowls for milk punctuate
the sound of typing
one writes
the other begs
with nothing much to hunt
years of domestication
sharpen wit
cup batted off the table
cries
spilt milk (p. 23)

Title: Better Living through Cats
Author:  Clark A. Pomerleau
Publisher:  Finishing Line Press
Date: 2021

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About the Reviewer

Michael Northen is a past editor of Wordgathering. Along with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black, he edited the anthology Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability; with Sheila Black and Annabelle Hayes, he edited an anthology of disability short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (both books are from Cinco Puntos Press).

Read Clark A. Pomerleau’s review of torrin a. greathouse’s Wound from the Mouth of a Wound  and Pomerleau’s poetry in this issue of Wordgathering.