Housecat Kung Fu: Strange Poems for Wild Children by Geoffrey Gatza
(Meritage Press, St. Helena & San Francisco, 2009)
In his previous work, Geoffrey Gatza has written innovative poetry with a wide range of reference and stylistic approaches. He is also the editor of the journal BlazeVox and directs its press. Though Housecat Kung Fu is subtitled Strange Poems for Wild Children, this book of children’s poetry is not confined to pre-teens. Borrowing from Barnum and Bailey Circus, the back cover bio trumpets: “children (of all ages).”
Like much children’s poetry, Gatza’s book features animal imagery (often put to allegorical use) in 27 of the 32 poems, comical wordplay, goofy surrealist imagery and narrative effects, and bits of moral edification. The illustrations are also amusing and well done, but rhyming poems like “Lorikeet Landing” are the exception.
Readers of various generations attuned to the “strangeness” of innovative adult poetry will have much to enjoy here—for example, the title-poem, which opens the volume:
The smell of buttered toast overwhelms this poem.
How do you explain your moment of wild abandon
to anyone other than those who were there to feel
the momentous weakness of time’s grasp on change;
on growing up. It’s a poor heart that never rejoices (9)
The title is but a decoy for a very brief philosophical poem. The opening line’s first five words beckon us to recall a marvelous experience, but the rest of the line cancels the invitation with an absurdity. Perhaps “overwhelmed” by a smell, the writer nevertheless chooses words for a poem, and a reader/listener must be able and willing to reactivate a past olfactory experience to share this feeling.
In the question without a question-mark that occupies the two couplets, the poet may be suggesting a communication barrier between adults and children, as though opening a book of children’s poetry by calling that very enterprise futile. If not, he may be posing a challenge, not an impossibility. The lengthy object of the infinitive “to feel” complicates the sentence further: “time” as the immaterial medium of “change” is neither “weak” nor “strong”; it “flows” while “containing” continuity and change and does not “grasp.” However, we can read “time” as human beings’ imperfect conception of duration and flux, a paradigm disrupted by “change.”
Disrupting any expectation of further difficulty, Gatza concludes with a clear statement of moral/psychological instruction typical of children’s poetry. The impulse to “rejoice” is one common denominator of the generations and can help readers overcome the conceptual difficulties involving time and change.
Two other poems, “The Inner Peace of Animals” and “Fredric Squirrel,” include a sizeable dose of didacticism, but Gatza makes us question whether he is mainly trying, while entertaining his audience(s), to teach the lesson literally articulated or whether he is parodying his sub-genre’s convention. In “The Inner Peace of Animals,” “a very old lion” is visiting “an old leopard/ who lived in a bird’s nest” to inquire about “the most important lesson of living.” The leopard provides a rather general answer:
Do no evil, do only good.
Purify your heart. Fulfill the talents of your soul!
The lion had expected to hear a very long explanation.
He protested, “But even a cub can understand that!”
Yes, replied the wise sage, but even an old lion cannot do it. (33)
Does Gatza agree that wisdom is simple but hard to put into practice, or is the “old leopard”—using the listener and not himself as a negative example—indulging in brinksmanship to plump up his ego? In the work of an Ezra Pound-influenced poet who strives to make every word count, the repetitive “wise sage” must signify an undercutting of the leopard’s authority, perhaps even implying pseudo-wise pseudo-sage. Though the lion wrongly focuses on the explanation’s length rather than its content, the “teacher’s” advice is easy to dispense; it would be far more challenging to present a means to accomplish these goals. And do we trust a platitudinous “leopard” who has colonized the home of a much smaller, less powerful creature? Is such an action an example of doing “good” through empathy with an “other” and fulfilling one’s own spiritual talents or is it a politically suspect appropriation and an evasion of one’s natural modes of fulfillment?
“Bergamot Bunny” is more obviously a parody of somewhat purple, didactic, abstract verse, especially when one considers the puncturing of the bunny’s musing in the penultimate strophe with a narrative of disaster in the last one:
During this time of transition, I wish
to do what is not expected, to be here
but also with you, there, under wild
Perspectives of the soul, adrift, riding under
unruly waves, every moment reminding
of our immediately slight insignificance . . .
That is until last year when most of his machinery,
and ship, tragically, was destroyed by a tidal wave.
After that he vowed to voyage only in warm dreams. (47)
Following two tercets that could reflect the hand of a cannier kids’ poet, this passage involves the grownup parody of sophisticated awkwardness. Like John Ashbery in Three Poems and later seventies work, Gatza sports a clunky idealizing rhetoric hovering near cliché yet happily marred at various turns. For example, the preposition “under” attached to the object “Perspectives” “is not expected”; it feels “wilder” than the expected “within” or “from,” because the vantage point somehow subjugates (not intersects with) the perceiver, as do the waves under (not on) which he is “riding.” Further, the adverb/ adjective/noun combination preceding the dreamy ellipses has a jarring effect: is the slightness understandable at once, or is it simply compelling, and is the last word redundant of its predecessor, or does the adjective undo the noun’s impact, suggesting greater significance? Even before the “tidal wave” destroys the bunny’s “machinery,” something has jammed its verbal machinery.
Manifesting an elegant compression in direct contrast to “Bergamot Bunny’s” expansionist tendencies, “The Raccoons of Chinatown” joins allusions to Chairman Mao and (American urban) Chinatown restaurants with surprising wordplay:
The raccoons of Chinatown
fear not the long march
The raccoons of Chinatown
Do fear the great wok,
chili garlic sauce and the
cleavers of Chinatown chefs (43)
The lightning pun of “march/wok/walk,” to cite Gatza in “Lorikeet Landing,” produces “the honey of a wild spelling bee” (11). Also, note the complexity of troping in the middle of an otherwise reasonably transparent narrative, “One Heck of a Tree”: “little green men wear crayon sin caps” (12). “Rayon” is a logical material, but the addition of the letter “c” at the beginning turns these diminutive grownups into kids. And the odd idea of headwear producing a negative moral state is complicated by the fact that a “sincap” is a squirrel, and a “syncope” is a loss of consciousness or a rhetorical use of deletion.
Children’s poems often make liberal use of surrealism to explore affective states, and Gatza’s “Elephant” does so with poignancy that can move readers “(of all ages).” Seeking emotional sustenance through memory, the elephant at first “reminisced on nothing wafers” (16) and could not satisfy its hunger. To further its quest, the speaker strove to transcend carnal presence, mere appearance, in order to recognize and assert the “inner self”: “so I took off my nose and unzipped/ my skin and folded it neatly by the reflecting/ pond. . . .” This is preparation for the spiritual act of “deep prayer/ to the memory machine,” but the elephant’s psychospiritual opportunity turns out to be mediated by consumer capitalism: the machine “cost 50 cents/ more than I had/ in my ear” (17). Forced to choose between quantity and quality of memory, the speaker elected for “three dollars of leaded/ memory” over “a half pump/ of super premium”; this pragmatic decision is interrupted by a disorienting shift in surreal impact: “green smoke// chugged a printout face from/ its furry eye and responded// ‘When Elephants fly.” Yes, this is a deux ex machine, but we can delight in how commerce gives way to the potential for “flight,” a trope for liberation, especially for an animal so influenced by gravity.
I wish that Housecat Kung Fu had been around between 1993 and 1996, when there seemed to be a dearth of “wild,” “strange” enough children’s poetry in my local library for my two daughters to absorb. Though I remember giving them premature smatterings of Mallarme, Dickinson, and Yeats, Gatza’s admirable crossover poetry would have launched their poetic education splendidly.
Thomas Fink is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Clarity and Other Poems (Marsh Hawk Press, 2008) and two books of criticism. He is also co-editor of a 2007 collection of essays on David Shapiro. Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs published his chapbook, Generic Whistle-Stop, in 2009. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s). Fink’s paintings hang in various collections.