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The Literary Life and a Little Death

By Dan Carpenter

I am fresh from an online debate with bookish friends about one of America’s most celebrated living poets when death comes to a family member who shares the poet’s name by sheer coincidence and shares a trademark quality of her favorite subject matter: Non-humanity.

No sooner do I vent my weariness with Mary Oliver’s incessant animal poems than Oliver dies on me; and I must try, against all hope of achieving poetry, to write him a decent eulogy. He earned it; he gave a pet’s perfection in his six willful and sporadically violent years, and he may have lasted his full feline half score and five had it not been for my lassitude, my complacency, my wishful thinking that his profound lethargy and pitiable crying of the last day was just one more occasion for a tough little guy to barf out his troubles and trot on. Probably poisoned by some plant or refuse he ingested, the vet surmised. Who knows? Who springs for a $100 autopsy for a cat, especially if it might yield an indictment that he could have been saved?

He died all alone against a chain link fence on a sublime Sunday afternoon, abandoned by the man who fed him, held doors open for him, provided feet around which he curled and gave ounces, if not pints, of blood to his playfulness of tooth and claw. My grief is commensurate with his innocence. My anger and anguish and remorse befit the death of a child. I’ve never questioned the instructive beauty of Mary’s dogs and bears; only their redundancy. She numbed me to the pain of the single speck of the wealth of fauna, lost and lodged in the eyelid and the heart.

Ollie was a ghetto boy, gray even to his whiskers, rescued from a cardboard box of newborns outside an abandoned house by my son. His namesake is a fellow orphan, Oliver Twist. My small comfort: Ollie’s life may have ended in days had it not been for Pat’s intervention, the whim that brought him to our house, the place whereto all complications converge. He grew from puffball to lean loping miniature panther in that domain, somehow keeping his infant voice, that comic and ultimately pathetic squeak that I heard over and over on his final day and will hear for the length of memory. A cry for help, missed by a lifelong journalist who prides himself on the rare skill of listening.

Such a mousy voice and sometimes, such a mean little bastard. Those bug eyes would dilate to full round black and he would leap and rip flesh. The lady of the house – also a Mary, it is – would scream for me to seize him and toss him into the outdoors. And yet . . . Yet there’s a feline sensitivity to the environment and its human component that compelled him, when she was convalescing in lonely despondency from a stroke, to post himself at her side and on her lap for hours at a stretch. We choose to believe, anyway, that such were the workings inside his tiny skull.
I labored to exhaustion digging a grave behind the garage, in an overgrown border patch where Oliver was wont to hang out on his pretend-predator forays. The ground was stubborn, ribbed with tree roots, yielding up a brick, a bottle cap, a scrap of black garbage bag. I remember a funeral back here three decades ago, when a toddler joined me in saying goodbye to a goldfish named Simon. A tender, made-for-vignette moment, which I duly conveyed in my newspaper column. A light life given for lightweight literature.

Now, the stiff, staring corpse of a family member we all mourn goes into the hole with hard effort, and he and I and my wife make this passage alone. I pull the rocky dirt and dry leaves over my final view of my beloved Ollie, half-wrapped in a ludicrous iridescent green grocery bag, and I slap a broken piece of concrete steppingstone atop lest I forget where the earth reclaimed him, and I kiss my fingers and touch the filthy surface, grateful for the milky sky that will wash his rough bed a few hours hence, trying to be grateful the world has greater miseries than this one that tears at me right now.

Dan Carpenter is a freelance writer and former newspaper columnist who lives in Indianapolis. His poems and stories have appeared in Flying Island, Fiction, Poetry East, Pearl, Laurel Review and other journals. He is the author of Indiana Out Loud: Dan Carpenter on the Heartland Beat (Indiana Historical Society Press).