Monday, 14 May 2012

The Rosy Cats of Doctor Paracelsus - and other poems

Further to The Time of Achamoth, and before that The Hole in the Zero, I've just been looking at the poetry of the 1950s-70s New Zealand author MK Joseph.

He was pretty good. The Poetry Archive has a feature on him - MK Joseph - with nine of his poems; but I just found a very good weblog, Reading for Believers, which has a number of his hard-to-find poems (check out the internal search) such as The Rosy Cats of Doctor Paracelsus. There are undoubtedly copyright issues with this poem, but he's long out of print and I reproduce it out of sincere homage to a great writer.

The Rosy Cats of Doctor Paracelsus M.K. Joseph

(paste-up, with montage of old movies)

Paracelsus claimed that he could make homunculi
(Little men) a span high, growing the lifeseeds
in vessels buried in dungheaps to maintain
a mild and even heat . . . Wise Paracelsus believed that if a rose
was burned in a crucible to finest ash
then in the heatshimmer as the smoke ascended
it would hover and shape itself into the grey
ghost of a rose. My grey ghost hand
plucks from the air, presents to you
This ghost of a rose.

When Nijinkski danced the Spectre of the Rose
leaving the dreaming girl he seemed to
float out of the window into the moonlight
light as a rose petal
then fell into a chair
backstage, where two attendants worked him over
like a heavyweight boxer's seconds with towel and sponge.

That was Jean Cocteau's story, perhaps he was lying.

Cocteau the magician conjured an Orpheus
who could walk through mirrors into death's kingdom.
He also had a story about cats. It went like this.

'The English poet Keats once rode
At night-time through an gloomy wood
When all at once he seemed to hear
A sound of tiny trumpets near.
Dismounting from his horse he sees
Small torches flickering through the trees
Bobbing and twinkling two by two
And presently came into view
Cats all dressed in funeral black
Marching along the woodland track.

Only the tap of drum is heard,
Six drummers pass without a word,
Then the trumpet's mournful cry
As six cat-trumpeters march by,
Six cats in mourning for the dead
Wave six black banners overhead,
With trumpets' cry and tap of drum
And flapping bannners on they come.

Then guards-men cats with arms reversed
Of which six musketeers were first
To fire the volley at the grave,
Six swordsmen-cats with whiskers brave,
Six grenadiers with drooping tail,
Six pikemen with pikes at trail,
Six cat-princesses glided by
Blackveiled and sobbing bitterly.
Last came six blackgowned pallbearers
Bearing heavily on their shoulders
The coffin draped, and on it set
A tiny golden coronet.
Silent they marched by where he stood
And vanished in the darkling wood.

When many a weary mile was past
Keats reached a friendly house at last.
Beside him on the hearth-rug sat
And purred a handsome ginger cat
As resting by the fireside
He told of his strange evening ride -

Torches and drums and minstrelsy
Banners and guards and heraldry
Princesses sobbing bitterly
But when he came to the coronet
Upon the little coffin set
The cat said: That means I'm king
Of all the cats.
With sudden spring
He cleared the windowsill and quite
Disappeared in the summer night.'

(And when Swinburne died - so Karl Stead
told me - Yeats said
Now I'm king of the cats).

but Mary Shelley heard of this from Monk Lewis
at Geneva in the summer Frankenstein,
she also believed that if a cat ate roses
it would turn into a beautiful woman.

'Quickly, come quickly, the little cat
is eating the roses. It will turn into a beautiful woman
with green eyes and short sharp fingernails.'

O catwoman mother of monsters
may the pads of your paws be
as soft and pearly as rose petals
your claws no sharper than thorns.
(A huge hand ripped off in a closing door
clawed with gigantic thorns.
Where could this be? In the arctic hut in
The Thing from Outer Space
the tall walking vegetable vampire*
whose seedlings must be nourished
with human blood. Trapped in the end
screaming in electric arcs
fried down for compost.)

*(played by James Arness later known as Matt Dillon.)

[Samuel Johnson had a cat named Hodge.
When it fell ill his friend the barroom doctor
Levett prescribed a nourishing diet of oysters.
Dilemma: should he send his black servant
Francis Barber who might feel put upon
running errands for a fat old cat?
Solution: Doctor Samuel Johnson went himself
to Billingsgate to purchase oysters for
Hodge who recovered. This is a digression.]

Doctor Pretorius (played by Ernest Thesiger)
was a paracelsian who kept his homunculi
imprisoned in glass belljars; when they knocked
with tiny fists upon the glass it rang
like toy telephones: this in The Bride of Frankenstein
In which the Bride (the Monster's of course: Frankenstein's
bride was played by Valerie Hobson who later
married a British Cabinet minister named
John Profumo, which is strange but not relevant)
was played by Elsa Lanchester who in 'real'
i.e. offscreen life was married to Charles Laughton
who was Quasimodo in the second Hunchback
of Notre Dame
and Doctor Moreau in The Island
of Lost Souls
in which the leader
of the Beast Men was Bela Lugosi who
(need I say it?) played the title-role in the original
Dracula in which Renfield the madman
who ate flies was Dwight Frye who acted
the malignant hunchback who in Frankenstein the first
selected the wrong brain for the poor Monster
(doomed from the start) who was played
by Boris Karloff who was played by
a very gentle Englishman named
William Henry Pratt.

Ash in the crucible revives
Roses and monsters hover in the mind.

Bernard de Fonatanelle who lived for a century
And dreamed of men dwelling on other stars
Also listened-in on the conversation of roses.
He overheard one rose say to another
No gardener has ever been known to die.
As a paste-up, it may well have meaning only discernible to the reader, but it's readable as a stream-of-consciousness piece by a writer who had wide interests across literature and popular culture. MK Joseph's interests show through in this poem - echoes of Samuel Johnson and Dr Pretorius turn up in The Hole in the Zero (see the update) and one of the future vignettes in The Time of Achamoth repeats the Paracelsus and Mary Shelley stories.

See The king of the cats for a follow-up on the Keats allusion.

- Ray

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