“Thou Shalt Not Write About Pet Death” (and Other Commandments Moses Never Brought Down)

old cat

As a high school English teacher, I can remember teaching a unit on admissions essays. We had many resources, of course, and almost all of them warned of clichés and clichéd topics. One of these verboten topics? You guessed it: pet death.

Pet death is an entry drug to bad writing, the experts warned. Admissions officers who read such essays complained of the treacly sentimentality, the sugar-coated hyperbole, and yes, clichés like blackflies in a Maine forest. Some said they even gave up reading the minute they realized they were reading “The Death of Fluffy.”

If you’ve read this blog any (and I know a few of you exist), you know I bridle at the whole idea of “Thou shalt not’s….” It bothers me when so-called experts say, “You can’t write about that topic. It’s tired.” It bothers me when the nabobs of knowledge say, “No to that word. And that one. Oh. And, of course, that one!” It bothers me even when a respected saint of the canon like St. Billy of Collins writes, apparently seriously, that he stops reading any poem the minute he comes across the word “cicada.”

But still. If you’re going to write about your pets death, proceeding with caution is advisable. Once your pet death poem is done, you and your critique pals can debate its success, given the degree of difficulty. Going where angels fear to tread takes some angelic spine, after all, and I like that in a poet.

As Exhibit A on the topic of “pet death” (insert sound of cliché alarms blaring here), I give you Robin Chapman’s “Enough,” about the death of her cat (which, by the way, opens up a whole new can of worms in the form of cat pictures on the Internet, but I’m not going there, thank you). See what you think:

“Enough”
by Robin Chapman

There is always enough.

My old cat of long years, who

stayed all the months of his dying,

though, made sick by food,

he refused to eat, till, long-stroked,

he turned again to accept

another piece of dry catfood

or spoonful of meat, a little water,

another day through which

he purred, small engine

losing heat—I made him nests

of pillow and blanket, a curve of body

where he curled against my legs,

and when the time came, he slipped out

a loose door into the cold world

whose abundance included

the death of his choosing.

 

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