Book Review: Stray Cat Blues (Hal Sirowitz)
Reviewed by Ellen LaFleche
Stray Cat Blues (The Backwater Press, 2012) is a stunning poetic achievement. Hal Sirowitz deftly mixes poems about his childhood with poems about the joys and challenges of adult life. Strategically placed through the book are poems that serve as metaphorical hinges, transporting the reader into different time periods and blurring the boundaries between past, present and future. These sudden temporal switches constantly surprise the reader and are an important part of the book's metaphorical success. For example, several early poems provide mini-anecdotes of the author's childhood, particularly his relationship with his father, who revels in using common sayings to provide his son with mini-lessons on life. The fifth poem, "Put a Little Enjoyment in Your Life", is written from the father's perspective.
"All work and no play
In the hands of a less skilled poet, these anecdotes could easily devolve into cliché. But the poem quickly turns on itself and is transformed into a startling allegory; the ending provides a foreshadowing of might happen in future poems.
"We chose Harold. It means
This poem is a metaphorical success. What does it mean to name a child for life itself? Given what we all know about the vicissitudes of life, this poem generates tension in the reader. I re-read this deceptively simple poem over and over again, each time extracting more layers of analysis: the importance of naming in Jewish culture, how the word for life may take on different shades of meaning in various languages, a father's expectations for his son, the possible connections between a person's name and gender/ethnic/personal identity. And how do these themes relate to the title of the poem, "Put a Little Enjoyment in Your Life"? These and many other issues are explored throughout the book, raising philosophical questions that are reinforced by the way in which the book is organized into three sections. Life is Funny; Life is Serious; Life Just Is.
The "Chaim/Life" poem, like most of the poems in Stray Cat Blues, increases its inherent tension by mixing in wry humor and pop cultural references that make the reader smile or even laugh out loud. I was settling comfortably into the first section of the book when I encountered a poem entitled "A Famous Ballplayer". As a devout baseball fan, I anticipated another childhood poem, perhaps an anecdote about the poet attending his first major league ballgame with his father. But the poem turned out to be about something else entirely: the diagnosis of the poet's Parkinson's disease.
At least if one had Lou Gehrig's disease,
I experienced this abrupt transition into adult illness as jarring. This poem is out of sequence, I told myself. Which, I quickly realized, was exactly the point of placing it so early in the book and disrupting the initial series of poems about childhood. The poem's placement provides an apt metaphor for the intrusive and unexpected nature of illness. Illness bends time around itself, twining itself into our memories about the past and altering the shape of memories not yet made. And the specter of death is in this poem, hovering over the poet in the last few lines. The diagnosis of Parkinson's disease forces him to identify with a dinosaur bone hunter (by definition, an expert on extinction, the very opposite of "Chaim/Life") rather than a famous baseball player who despite his eponymous illness achieved baseball immortality (the very opposite of extinction) by making it into the Hall of Fame. So the earlier poem in which the poet was named for "Chaim/Life" now takes on even deeper levels of meaning. Reconsider these lines about "Chaim/Life" in light of the diagnosis:
"Please show more signs of it.
How does illness change a person's identity? Does illness metaphorically change a person's name/identity? Interestingly, there are only a limited number of poems that directly describe the poet's physical experience with Parkinson's disease. This strategy reinforces the metaphorical blurring of time and space. Illness is only one part of his life, the poet seems to be insisting. Poems about Parkinson's disease are situated in and around poems about childhood memories, marriage, adult flirtations, and literary meditations, always blending droll humor with startling images and cultural references. "My Rewritten Bar Mitzvah Speech" is an important hinge poem that once again uses a poem about a childhood ritual to foreshadow the future.
… God uses people as tools.
The Lou Gehrig poem introducing illness is followed by several consecutive poems that deal directly with the physical aspects of Parkinson's. In "Rattle Brain", we once again hear the father's voice:
… That's one more reason
I love how this poem takes an unflinching look at a topic rarely explored in poetry: the complex reactions of a parent to an offspring's disease. The father stays true to his character by using a pop culture reference in relation to his son's illness. By resorting to common sayings and cultural references, the father seems to be keeping some emotional distance. But I as the reader could not keep my emotional distance. The deep layers of meaning inherent in the poems do not allow emotional distance. Reacting to the rhythm in the last two lines, I couldn't help picturing Elvis Presley gyrating on stage while singing "I'm all shook up" and hearing Jerry Lee Lewis banging on the piano to the lyrics "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." These images of rock-star gyrations were superimposed in my mind over images of the tremors caused by medications for Parkinson's disease. I was forced to explore yet another metaphorical border, this time the boundaries between laughter (Life is Funny) and hardship (Life is Serious).
These brutally honest poems about Parkinson's disease were followed by a series of poems about imaginary visits with William Carlos Williams, Shakespeare, Thomas Merton, Charles Bukowski and Sylvia Plath. These wittily entertaining poems provided a kind of emotional relief. But the relief caused me to feel a low-level anxiety, wanting and not wanting to encounter another poem that provided specific details about Parkinson's disease. The tension between wanting and not wanting more information is yet another strong metaphor for illness.
Complicating my emotional reactions even further is the fact that even the witty poems can be read as metaphorical mediations about illness. Parkinson's is always there yet sometimes not there. One of the strongest poems is "Mistaken for a Turkey". Told in simple declarative sentences, the poem once again uses the father's voice.
The father's fear/emotion is beginning to be revealed. His son could be "shot." (extinction). But the father, as always, is mitigating his emotion with a witty anecdote.
I especially appreciate the writer's style: short declarative sentences that convey powerful imagery. The poems are accessible to all readers while conveying layers of meaning that seem to deepen with each reading. In a few rare instances, the images in a poem are expected, as in the vampire reference in the poem about sucking his own blood. This is a very small complaint in a book that provided me with so much literary pleasure. It also forced me to think hard and long about my own illness in light of the questions raised by the poet: identity/how to place illness into my life/how it has inevitably changed my temporal references. This book is so thematically diverse and multi-layered it feels impossible to adequately convey its full richness in a review. In other words, it is a must-read book and an important contribution to disability literature.