Recently I reread a poem by Richard Cecil entitled “Communication,” and my perspective had changed enough for me to understand it. I think it’s not so much about the desire to be forgiven for what we haven’t said as it is about how private feelings and thoughts can keep us from being able to talk to each other.
The categories of indulgences, in the poem, are like the expected things people can say about big topics–love and death, the existence of god, who believes in ghosts. Calling to the kitties is like the unexpected way a person sometimes reacts—an elderly cat is no longer on your bed at bedtime and one night his absence makes you remember something you should have said to your elderly mother years ago.
Thank god for cell phones! Now I can talk
while walking by myself but not draw stares
from people passing by me on the street,
since one of every two or three lone walkers
shouts to an invisible companion.
But still I keep my voice down when I say,
“Sweet Kitties!” to my absent cats, now dead—
a habit I took up when they moved in
twenty years ago and started acting
so cute all day and night that I praised them
even when they weren’t there to listen.
“Pretty kitties, darling kitty cats,”
I whisper like the Pope’s ejaculations,
which have indulgences attached to them:
“Blessed Virgin Mary Pray for Us,”
“Lord Have Mercy on My Sins,” etc.
Each repetition cuts the sinner’s sentence
by fifty days or so in Purgatory.
Once in fifth grade I logged a hundred years
of time off my to-be-determined sentence.
But constant praying drowned out all my thoughts,
and so I bombed the quiz in long division
and got a sixty on the spelling test.
And, besides, all of my sins were Mortal,
which meant I’d spend eternity in Hell,
“from which there is no possible reprieve,”
according to the Catholic Catechism.
Forever minus a century’s forever—
that’s the math I fully understood.
What I needed was a Plenary Indulgence,
the kind that popes sold in the middle ages,
where the buyer’s soul is cleansed of all its sins
and its sentence to be roasted is commuted.
But since the Reformation you can’t buy those;
in modern times the only way to earn
a Plenary Indulgence is martyrdom.
So I stopped muttering ejaculations
except for cheers and curses—“Holy Shit!”
But still I couldn’t seem to keep my mouth shut.
I had to talk, if only to myself,
which got me into trouble in the classroom
until I got promoted to professor,
where doing all the talking is encouraged
by students who refuse to raise their hands—
though they’re the ones who, filing out of class,
instantly dial up their friends to chat
on their way to the dining hall or dorm.
I let them get two steps ahead, then call
out to my absent cats—“Oh, you darlings”—
the way I used to when they waited for me,
listening for my footsteps on the porch.
Now they’re somewhere I can only reach
By talking to myself. “Sweet kitty cats”
Reconjures them for me just for a second:
hungry and meowing by the door,
knowing that I’m coming home to feed them.
“What would you kitties like to eat for supper?”
I whisper as I pass a girl who’s weeping
into her cell phone. The kitties say, “Thin air.”
The professor’s call after a few of the young people who have been tongue-tied in class—“Oh, you darlings”—is to the memory of the cats, but also, obliquely, to the young people, who only show him their tears in another context. They can be moved. They are moved by the professor’s attempts to feed their hunger to know more, but he can’t find a way to reach them except by talking to himself, and the act of talking to himself makes him ridiculous.
We see a young girl weeping into her cell phone and we think we know the story. We see an old man talking to himself, and we’re almost sure of it. And yet, how much more could we learn with a little more time for observation, a little more interest in what pulls the individuals we meet to observe the routines and rituals that shape their lives?