Flying Lady with Cat

Book Reviews

A review by S D Anugyan of Madhuri’s most recent book of poems and paintings in celebration of cats.

A while ago I sought refuge from a volatile situation and the relentless rain, in a cinema which fortunately was showing a film I wanted to see. Not so fortunately, a preceding trailer for a musical subjected me to the most excruciating sounds I had heard within memory, made worse by the sheer volume of the cinema speakers. I don’t like musicals generally, but this was taking caterwauling (an appropriate word as it turns out) to a new level. Mercifully, the sounds came to an end and, relieved of the pain, I straightened up. So it was I learned that a movie had been made of the musical Cats. T.S. Eliot had a lot to answer for, I thought.

Sentimental anthropomorphism, as opposed to genuine affection, towards animals had always irritated me, and cats have often got the worst of it. A little-known book called The White Lions of Zimbabwe explores a startling truth behind our relationship with felines. Apparently excavations in Africa revealed that big cats (such as sabre-tooth tigers) and humans co-habited in caves during the last Ice Age. This could not have been a cosy relationship. Unlike dogs, cats have never really been domesticated, as any owner can tell you. They have their own lives. Cats must have had an equal as well as unpredictable, even dangerous, relationship with early humans rather than a servile one, though the details remain hidden in time.

And so I come to Madhuri’s new book, a collection of poems and paintings that do more than justice to the complexity of that relationship.

Even superficially the book is very different from anything I have seen before. On one hand, it is a coffee-table item, one that looks good whether closed or shut, and rewards even a casual dipping in and a random glancing at pages. The colours and design are gorgeous. It also feels very solid, something that will last for generations, which is apt as both adults and children will find much to appreciate. Like any great work of art, it can reveal new truths indefinitely, and be a trusted legacy in any household.

Cats here have infinite purposes and aspects of which I have to limit myself to only a few.

First, I should stipulate, they are Zen-like mirrors. It is appropriate that Madhuri has this quotation at the beginning:

To learn about Zen, you can read about Zen.
Still better, serve a cat.

She has clearly been serving cats her whole life! The poems are, thankfully, listed as they detail both location and date. Through the extraordinary mirror that is Cat, we learn much of Madhuri’s personal journey from a Californian childhood to her later years in the northern wilds of England, and so much in between, so many places, revelations and healing. Through her and various felines, we meet the world and ourselves, whether by means of a paparazzi-hating leopard in the Himalayas or a cat talking about the wind one stormy day in England. In two opening lines Madhuri can convey sense, nuance and place before we even meet the subject of the poem:

On this cold wind-pushing November
Night in Warsaw…

This sensitivity to place is reflected through her and cats’ senses throughout, inviting us to explore a bigger world both inner and outer.

Part of that reflection is due not to anthropomorphism, but its opposite for which there is no word of which I am aware but, sticking to the Greek, I shall call it gatamorphism, ‘likening other things to cats’. In a poem written in the drab English town of Milton Keynes,

the primping beings,
combing and grooming and taming
and enhancing with claw
and fingernail and damp –

This celebration of being alive, is both enhanced and counterpointed with a picture of women dancing, and preening, with cats. There is joy, but also a startling ambiguity due mainly to a woman at the back. A cat is standing on its hind legs, front paws in hers. The woman’s face is looking down at her dance partner but could also be looking directly at us.

This gives a nuance, a subtle menace, to the picture, which takes me to my next point, that Madhuri is as far from being sentimental as one can get. She knows full well that cats are hunters, for example in the poem detailing the grisly dismembering of a praying mantis. We are constantly being granted insights into some of the possible dynamics in that Neolithic cave.

Madhuri

The complexity of vision is nowhere more to be experienced than in the poem written three years ago, Still Life with Thunderstorm, where she takes gatamorphism to new levels:

The cloud raced towards us
over the land,
snarling like a vast panther,
shape-shifting on billowing paws –

She is in England but spanning continents, recalling a lake in the Ozarks as she and her lover flee

Falling towards the door
just as a waterfall crashed upon us
and the panther tore the world up
chewing with fangs of light.

It is a maturity where she has ‘graduated to sedate pursuits’, a maturity always latent in her earlier Teenage Poems and What I Have Learned Since, now fully emergent.

This ripened vision and style is in evidence earlier, such as Rain in the South of France:

In these wild blue mountains,
sage,
menthe sauvage, chestnut, weed-fence
– a trill of cat from the weave –
speak of frequent kisses
between dirt and wine and sky.

The life-rich experience throughout her poems, and the way it is articulated, I find comparable to D.H. Lawrence, a comparison which I have no idea whether she enjoys or resents. She hasn’t got back to me on that one! Certainly, in many ways I find her superior to Lawrence, with a far greater range. This is demonstrated in her humour which is often unexpected, real laugh-out loud stuff, and can be conveyed in paintings such as Dull Man Graced by Cat, a description of a cat’s inappropriate third eye (its arsehole) or the poignant – even tragic – humour of a lonely cat on heat.

The humour has great depth to it. The light-hearted title, The Son of Man is a Poor Benighted Idiot, while the Son of Tomcat is Pretty Smart, depicts in a few succinct stanzas the insanity of man’s attitude to nature. FB Does Some Good goes even further. Tomcat Handyman Blues, showing even more how great her range is, has one tapping one’s foot with the rhythm alone. And she must have a close relationship with the blues because, despite being set in England, the ballad Two Cats Up on the Moors tells a story redolent of the southern States, with one of the cats in question known as Fats Domino.

Inevitably with an artist such as Madhuri, the sense conveyed is of something Beyond. Whether through ecological and ethical concerns, wry humour as in a city bus with a bicycle on its front grille becoming a tiger with a kitten in its mouth, or ultimately the gift of meditation from our Zen-like companions, it is due to her skills as an artist and writer that we are left with Mystery.

Certainly there is much here for cat-lovers to enjoy, but ultimately it is for anyone who knows how to live, love – and laugh!

Don’t buy small chair for
cat. She will sit in yours and
you will have small one.

Flying Lady With Cat by Madhuri

Flying Lady with Cat
by Madhuri Z K Akin
Lulu, 3 July 2023
Format: A4 Landscape, 112 pages
ISBN: 9781739639549
Buy from: madhurijewel.com/cat

Some of the poems featured in the book
Anugyan

After a long eclectic career, Anugyan is now a writer, Feng Shui consultant and explorer of higher dimensions. patreon.comsdanugyan.com

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