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:
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.
2 thoughts on ““Thou Shalt Not Write About Pet Death” (and Other Commandments Moses Never Brought Down)”
Nice poem. See how those figures of speech heighten and de-sentimentalize the subject matter.
I agree those “do nots” in poetry are a kind of pre-emptive-rejection of the muse’s gifts, not a way to keep her giving. Here’s my pet-death poem:
The vet opens our dog’s mouth
& shows us the gray mass on his palate,
the tumor that’s grown so big
his breath whistles through one nostril.
Our options–$6000 for radiation
or do nothing. Goddamn anyone
who denies him a soul. My wife squats
beside him on the linoleum floor,
crooning as he whistles into her palm.
Thanks for sharing your entry in the “Pet Death Sweepstakes”!
A reader from Goodreads also suggested Jane Kenyon’s take on pet death:
THE BLUE BOWL (by Jane Kenyon)
Like primitives we buried the cat
with his bowl. Bare-handed
we scraped sand and gravel
back into the hole. It fell with a hiss
and thud on his side,
on his long red fur, the white feathers
that grew between his toes, and his
long, not to say aquiline, nose.
We stood and brushed each other off.
There are sorrows much keener than these.
Silent the rest of the day, we worked,
ate, stared, and slept. It stormed
all night; now it clears, and a robin
burbles from a dripping bush
like the neighbor who means well
but always says the wrong thing.