Thursday, July 10, 2014

...holding a cat

I see I have fallen into the trap.
I hold it against my breast
but not on the side of my heart. If you observe closely
you will see my fingers pressed into the fur
of my liable cat my escape-cat who would much rather be stalking
in the great elsewhere at ground or sky level, seldom in between
        where people's heads are.
There is a tenderness in the way I balance its back paws on my palm.
I have shaped my arm to fit its body.
It's all quite by chance.
I am frowning hard. I too would much rather be
at my own level where I seldom meet a soul
except perhaps a travelling word or two, hordes of memories,
and because there is a tomorrow, a few meditative dreams
that will accompany me in my pleasurable inward world
my secret mirror of your great here and my great elsewhere.

'A Photograph of Me Holding a Cat', from The Goose bath: Poems, by Janet Frame (Edited by Pamela Gordon, Denis Harold and Bill Manhire)

The author photograph: most of us would rather not be there. It's the conundrum of being a writer. The work comes from an intense inner world, your natural, preferred place.  But then people want to see what you look like, they want you to 'perform', and talk about the work, which should by all rights stand up for itself.

And so both cat and Frame want to escape. Perhaps neither of them are really 'there' - writers and cats are difficult to pin down.

Frame described her inner world as a 'mirror city', and the imagination as the envoy from there, linking the two (hence the title of the third volume of her autobiography, The Envoy from Mirror City). Or as the place 'two inches behind the eyes', as the painter Malfred Signal thought of it in Frame's novel A State of Siege.

Janet Frame's cats: I went looking for pictures on the net. I knew from Michael King's Biography that she had at least two: Neg (or Negative - she was a white cat) whom Frame had for 15 years, and then Penny. And then there were numerous cats and kittens from her childhood and adolescence.

But Janet Frame later. Here are some of my other favourite writers, holding a cat.

Jack Kerouac

From the cover of The Portable Jack Kerouac, edited by Ann Charters.

Name of cat unknown. Jack loved his little kitties. And look at the expression on both their faces. I think it's the gentlest, most humble picture I've ever seen of him.

VS Naipaul

Old VS and I go back a long way - well over 30 years. At first, all I knew about him was his writing - the style he said he wanted to be so limpid that no one would notice it. And then, the more I read about him, I found that he was grumpy, monstrously egotistic, sexist ...

But then there's this photo on the cover of one of his later books. Almost forgiven, VS. You look almost human -  a little uncertain of yourself. Playing second fiddle to a cat, that's why. You know that everyone will ignore you and go Awwww - what a beautiful cat.  I bet that cat could write better than Jane Austen, too. If it's a boy.

Haruki Murakami

I read somewhere that he said it was a happy day for him when he met a cat. And it was cats that drew me to his work - a black cat on the cover of Kafka on the Shore, and in the blurb it mentioned an old man who talked to cats.  I know a lot of people talk to cats (I for one), but this man really did - and they talked back.

Take your pick: There's a picture of Murakami with a black cat:

Or white cat:

That kitten looks like it wants to escape.

And at last, Janet Frame

I went searching the net for pictures of Janet Frame with cats and found this, at the blog of Pamela Gordon, who is Frame's niece and literary executor.

Thank you to Pamela for permission to use this photo she took of her aunt towards the end of her life, with her cat Chilli, who outlived her.

This is a really lovely photo of a writer with her cat. Unposed, they are both completely themselves, unaware of the camera, comfortably in their own worlds.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Read Owls Do Cry

With You

(To Janet Frame)

Can you hear me Whangaparaoa?

Listen to your seas, listen to your tides,
To the moon pulling the deep.

I am there, under the waters,
In the winds, in the leaf that sighs.

I am there, sleeping in the rocks,
Under the houses, below the promontories.

I am the sea, I am the wind,
Everything and nothing, with you.

Charles Brasch, from Wrestling With the Angel, a life of Janet Frame, by Michael King, (2000)

 Charles Brasch wrote this poem virtually on his death bed to Janet Frame, who was at that time living in Whangaparaoa.  I've just finished reading, for the second time, Michael King's biography of her, written and published while she was still alive (she died in 2004, at the age of 80).

It's one of the best biographies I've read, along with David Marr's biography of Patrick White. For me, the biography of a writer should answer this question: Where did the writing come from?

Recently, I've also read the three book volume of Frame's autobiographies, comprising To The Is-Land, An Angel at My Table, and Envoy From Mirror City, which only take her life up to her return to NZ from 'overseas' (Britain, Europe, the US) in 1964.

I'm now reading Living in the Maniototo, which must be one of the most enjoyable, funny, clever and revealing books about writing that there is. (And in fact, if you look here, there is an interesting discussion of this book, which says everything I should have said if I wasn't suffering from kitten brain*.)

In February, just before I went to New Zealand for the first time I read Owls Do Cry, her first novel. I have read it before, over 30 years ago. Both were library copies, but I now have my own.  Text Publishing have just issued it in the Classics series (with an introduction by Margaret Drabble: double delight!).

I'm not going to say anything about it, just echo what a friend of mine, a poet, said to me urgently in the 1970s.

'Read Owls Do Cry, by Janet Frame,' was all he said, without explanation. I can still see him saying it.

It stuck in my mind.

And you do need no explanation to read Janet Frame. Just do it, and it's self-evident.

* kitten brain: similar to having had a baby. The floor is littered with toys, the house is in disarray and the small one won't leave you a moment alone to think, let alone type.