Cat Poems: Wompus Tales & a Play of Despair
Christopher Shipman
Kattywompus Press
ISBN: 978-1-936715-84-8

Reviewer: Maia Elgin

          Christopher Shipman’s Cat Poems: Wompus Tales & a Play of Despair begins with a box. The box is a lot of things, but first it is most like a box of memories under a child’s bed; only, in order to fit into the box, all the contents have been destroyed. The undercurrent of Cat Poems is a sort of Tom Waitsian “The rose has died because you picked it” concept. This puts the reviewer in a sticky spot. After all, a review is most certainly a box. The world of this book is stardust and fairy tales; it is spectacle, horror movie, and sentiment the way only a child can feel it. It is part Göransson in its impossible theatre and part Plato in its contemplation of reality. It is a story, a play, and poems, or fragments that speak in poem form, echoing the stories. How, then, to fit Shipman’s grand, catty performance into a box without destroying it?

          As mentioned above, Shipman’s book begins with a box. A box of memories that is also a theatre. The box opens and closes during the “Cloud and Fragment” sections like a plush, red curtain, revealing and hiding the art/artifice within as if art/artifice were something that can be taken out, played with, and then put away neatly. Fortunately, the purpose of the “Metaphysique D’Ephemera” seems to be to deconstruct this belief through double meanings, forced realities, and sometimes violent subjectivities. Shipman’s creation of a premise only to then destroy it is in keeping with the creation/destruction binary present throughout the work. As he writes in “Boomerang,” the speaker’s grandmother used to say “that to name something is to give it life,” while the Wompus Cat asserts “that to name something is to begin killing it.”

          Likewise, the Prince is obsessed with applying his own meaning to the world, with naming the spectacle around him, and he is oblivious to the destructive consequences outlined in the very structure of the work. It is fitting, then, that he is first seen with a telescope, a tool that is associated with projecting human artifices into the night sky and naming them “constellations.” The Prince is asserted as an authority figure when the Ballerina says, “Look at him/ looking through his telescope,” and it is worth noting that the Ballerina herself is described as having been “traced” by the Prince in the stars. The authority the Prince holds, or tries to hold, is the ability to enforce his perception on the world around him. The Prince seeks to create a kingdom of memory that the other characters can look through (similar to, perhaps, the lens of art, which would tie the Prince to the poet). He “pays no attention to the other characters,” but seeks to enforce his perception on them, despite the logical/illogical arguments of the Rabbit, who argues for the stars (the “coney” of the Prince’s memory is, after all, not nonsense, not even an island of theme rides and junk food, but the word for rabbit in Dutch.) But the Prince’s most dangerous projection of reality is his desire to trace his kingdom on the body of the Ballerina. Unlike the Rabbit, The Ballerina is given no island, no voice to fight back, and her body is appropriated until she is left “sleeping” after dancing her swan song. Through her, Shipman mirrors the dead bodies of women found in a millennia of poetic traditions, but does he challenge this objectification?

          Shipman discusses the politics of the female form and the use of the female body, dead or alive, throughout history, and particularly art history, as a site of creation and destruction. It is worth noting here that the “Metaphysique” begins and ends with references to the womb as a theatre. The Ballerina, whose gender is only mentioned twice, through the use of feminine pronouns, becomes the female site on which the Prince rebuilds the ideals of his memory. Through her, Shipman explores the concept of definition by comparison. She is described by her body size, as contemporary women, in various media, so commonly are. Not only is she a Ballerina—and, let’s be honest, stereotypically speaking, it doesn’t get more waifishly feminine than that—Shipman chooses to make her a “fat Ballerina.” Is she fat, but only when compared to the average Ballerina? Is she fat when compared to the average woman? What is average? Is she fat in some measurable way; i.e., clinically obese? By offering no specific physical descriptions, Shipman suggests that the definition of “fat” cannot exist without the “skinny box” to which it, and in turn the Ballerina, is compared. This idea is echoed in the “biggest of the smallest” concept that weaves its way throughout the work.

          Shipman also uses the Ballerina to open the discussion of objectification by applying it in its most commonly understood form—male projection of desire onto a female form. The Prince tells the Ballerina how to perceive the stars, critiques her body, voice, and movements, and at one point even describes her as a toy. Shipman’s emphasis on costuming and mask-wearing throughout the book suggests that all self, even male self, is only construction, but unlike the “me” of the “Wompus Tales,” or the Wompus Cat himself who “puts a cat mask over his cat face,” the Ballerina’s sense of self is constructed for her and “lit by a cheap lamp.” In other words, the Ballerina is not just devoid of a sense of self, she is robbed of it. During her swan song, she says, “I am the Prince’s desire to be nothing more than a Prince,” “I am nothing if not what you are,” and even, “He never wanted me.” In the end, the Prince’s appropriation of her body and perception leads to her death (as his crowning her makes her transparent). In an (intentionally?) anticlimactic twist, even her death seems cheap, Hollywood, derivative of Natalie Portman in Black Swan.

          It is worth noting that male-to-female is not the only form of objectification Shipman critiques in “Cat Poems”; in fact, the whole project seems to be an exercise in objectification, perhaps pointing its sharpest critique back to Shipman himself as he scathingly examines the artist’s/poet’s projection of meaning on the audience. Sill, it is also worth noting that he does not pass judgment beyond the fact that the Ballerina’s death suggests the Prince’s failure to recreate his fairy-tale past. In naming her, the Prince has created and destroyed her. Does Shipman condemn him for this? (Is it even the job of the poet to condemn?) What cannot be ignored is that the Prince has power over the Ballerina from the start: a power she never resists, unlike her male counterpart, the Rabbit. Why doesn’t the Ballerina wrest herself from the Prince’s daydreams like Freddy Krueger and the Wompus Cat in some fecund act of violence? Sadly, the only violence she enacts is upon herself. Perhaps Shipman is commenting on what seems to be a universal trope: revolution is enacted on the bodies of the colonized.

          Of course, Shipman also ends with a disclaimer of sorts, “I don’t know what to think of any of this,” as if these reflections of patriarchal violence need not resist the system they oppress. Or perhaps he fears that in creating a resistance, he will have already destroyed it.

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