On Cats by Charles Bukowski

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Like many great cities around the world (Rome, Jerusalem, London), New Orleans runs rampant with feral cat colonies. The Faubourg Marigny, the downtown neighborhood where I call home, can at times look like Planet of the Apes, except with beasts of a different stripe: cats.

When I moved onto my home, the king of the block immediately made himself known. He was the ugliest creature I’d ever seen, the veteran and survivor of a thousand cat fights. His black and white coat was mottled with scars and various skin lesions, his nose had been mostly chewed off, and he walked with a distinctive limp. I named him Mickey Rourke.

Mickey and I kept our distance from each other, walking on opposites sides of the street, always wary of a stray brush up against a leg, a lowering of boundaries that might let fingers touch fur. He’d often disappear for long stretches, no doubt raising hell in the adjacent colonies. Weeks or months would pass, until one afternoon, while soaking up some sun on my back porch, I’d look up from the pages of whatever book I was reading, and there he’d be, perched on the fence or gargoyled on my neighbor’s roof: watching me. Before I could move, he’d turn and walk away with a raised tail, from under which hung a pair of the most prodigiously pendulous testicles to ever swing their way around this world.

Charles Bukowski, the late writer and cat fancier, would have loved poor Mickey. Who else but Bukowski could pen an ode to the beauty of the unneutered feline, here, from “Looking at the Cat’s Balls”:

sitting here by the window

sweating beer sweat

mauled by the summer

I am looking at the cat’s balls.


there’s his tail, damned thing,

hanging out of the


I view his furry storage tanks—

what can a man think about

while looking at a cat’s nuts?

certainly not the sunken navies of

great sea battles.

certainly not a program to aid the


certainly not a flower market or a dozen


certainly not a broken light switch.

balls iz balls, that’s all—

and most certainly a cat’s balls,

Those balls most likely belonged to Butch Van Gogh Artaud Bukowski, a one-eared tomcat who, more than once, bit the hand that fed, saved, and eventually had him fixed. Butch appears frequently throughout Bukowski’s On Cats, a slim anthology of poetry and prose, much of it previously unpublished or issued in a different form. It is the middle volume in a trio of companion collections edited by Bukowski biographer Abel Debritto. It’s perhaps telling that the trilogy launched, this past July, with On Writing. This is the poet, after all, who famously advised potential writers to forsake the chase, to lay down their pens: “unless it comes out of/your soul like a rocket,/unless being still would drive you to madness or/suicide or murder,/don’t do it.” Following Cats, On Love arrives early next year, setting up a sublimely Bukowskian paradigm: a man who would die for his writing, might have loved cats more than he did humans. “I don’t like love as a command, as a search,” he wrote his friend Carl Weissner in a letter contained in this volume, “it must come to you, like a hungry cat at the door.”

Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski

Felines were frequently Bukowski’s muse, scratching at door to his creative and often tortured soul. His cats were brawlers, bruisers, and blood-thirsty boozers, much like the poet himself. They were both “funny animals” and “beautiful devil[s],” who stalk the world “insane with prey.” You wouldn’t want to lend this book out to your good friend Jonathan Franzen:

yesterday the cat walked calmly up the driveway

with the mockingbird alive in its mouth,

wings fanned, beautiful wings fanned and flopping,

feathers parted like a woman’s legs in sex,

and the bird was no longer mocking,

it was asking, it was praying

but the cat

striding down through centuries

would not listen.

If there was any justice in the world, Bukowski’s brood of misfits, which at one point numbered up to nine, would stare out at us from tote bags, calendars, and Instagram posts, rather than Lil Bub, Grumpy Cat, and the other contemporary celebrity kitties. But until that day comes, we are left with stories of fat, black Butch — “big and/mean a cat as anybody/ever remembered/seeing” — who surreptitiously used a crate filled with his owner’s original, preserved manuscripts as a litter box. Ting, a sweetly curious fellow who accompanies the poet at his typewriter: “I/hit a key and/he/leaps away.” And all-white Manx, Bukowski’s longtime companion and subject of the poem “The History of a Tough Motherfucker”:

and now sometimes I’m interviewed, they want to hear


life and literature and I get drunk and hold up my cross-


shot runover de-tailed cat before them and I say, “look,



at this!”

but they don’t understand, they say something like, “you

say you’ve been influenced by Celine . . .”

“no,” I hold the cat up before them, “by what happens, by

things like this, by this, by this! . . .”

This, and the rest of On Cats, is hardly beautifully rendered verse, but it does, perhaps, best reveal why we read, or do not read, Bukowski. He was a bard who found beauty in the sordidness of the city and the grotesqueries of the soul. A self-described “dirty old man” who we wouldn’t mind inviting in for a bath and a shave (though we’d be sure to scour the bathroom tiles with bleach after he left). The poet we’d most want to share a beer with, but a man who’d we never wish to have as a friend. A loathsome romantic partner, whose scarred mind and body attracted innumerable companions, Bukowski lived much like the cats he loved: stalking the world as a stray, purring while drawing blood, creating the life of a beautiful devil.

Though I’ve never really tried to love my own neighborhood devil, Mickey Rourke, I have accepted his presence and all that it brings: the arrival of a new litter of kittens each spring, the unsprung traps I set with the hopes of finally getting him fixed, the feelings of fright or disgust that his appearance provokes in visitors. So after two years of living with and without Mickey, I adopted a cat, my first, from a local shelter. Sam looks much like Mickey’s doppelgänger — same size and stature, same black and white pelt — but without the visible scars. Rather, Sam’s wounds are internal; he was a street cat, toughened and traumatized from being shot with a BB gun. Sometimes I find Mickey and Sam staring at each other through a screen door, nose-to-nose, mirror images, like a scene pulled from Bergman’s Persona, if Bergman’s Persona was remade starring cats. Cats have nine lives, we’re told from childhood, so there’s no reason to doubt that two of those lives can’t exist at the same moment in time, or, to borrow a line from Bukowski, “A Cat Is a Cat Is a Cat Is a Cat.”

I usually chase Mickey away — fleas can jump through the tiny holes in a screen door, I suppose — but I stopped myself from interrupting this last meeting, after recalling a few lines that I had just read in On Cats, plucked from an interview Bukowski gave to Sean Penn in 1987:

Having a bunch of cats around is good. If you’re feeling bad, you just look at the cats, you’ll feel better, because they know that everything is, just as it is. There’s nothing to get excited about. They just know. They’re saviors. The more cats you have, the longer you live. If you have a hundred cats, you’ll live ten times longer than if you have ten. Someday this will be discovered, and people will have a thousand cats and live forever.

Mickey watched Sam and I watching him, until he turned tail, exposing us to his gloriously intact cathood, and walked away.

Rien Fertel is a writer and teacher who lives in New Orleans. His first book, Imagining the Creole City, a literary history of New Orleans, is out now. The One True Barbecue, a personal/historical reflection on race, labor, and foodways in the modern South, is out in the Spring of 2016 from Touchstone/Simon & Schuster. More from this author →