In the tradition of J. R. Ackerley”s My Dog Tulip and Christopher Smart’s “My Cat Jeoffry,” Patrick Keane’s “Rintrah” is a gorgeously jubilant, poignant, mysterious paean to the lifelong companionship of a pet. Patrick Keane is a great friend, a brilliant raconteur, an eminent scholar, and, yes, a lover of cats. This is his second contribution to the pages of Numéro Cinq; see his essay on the “lost” Waste Land manuscript here. But first, read “Rintrah.”
By Patrick J. Keane
In researching a book I recently wrote on Emily Dickinson, I came across a letter, written in the autumn of 1858, which has become controversial. Overwhelmed by the world of mutability in which she found herself, she seemed to equate the death-by-frost of flowers in her garden with the death of a servant’s “little girl through scarlet fever.” I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, who imagines people saying of her, “she cared much more for her roses” than for human “victims of cruelty and injustice.” But the comparison was unfair. Emily wasn’t being insensitive or callous. In addressing “Democratic Death,” she was really expressing the communion and equality of all living things that come to dust.
The life and death memorialized here span a near quarter-century that began with the end of my marriage and includes the pain-filled final years and death of my mother. Along with the ending of another long relationship, these losses affected me deeply and, though they are not front-and-center in what follows, they are an implicit part of my recounting of the adventures of Rintrah. Since Rintrah was “just a cat,” the love, admiration, and sense of loss expressed may seem excessive. But love is not restricted to our human relationships. Emily Dickinson herself, who anguished over the loss of so many close to her, was devastated by the death in January 1866 of Carlo, her beloved dog and constant companion. Anyone who has had a similar experience with a cherished animal will understand both her love and her mourning for what can never return.
I didn’t know then, and never found out afterward, where he came from. And, though I wish I could take the credit, I didn’t give him his wonderful name. One of my students did. We had just begun William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell when the kitten walked into the classroom. I almost said “strode” because, from the first instant, he displayed complete self-assurance. For all his confidence, he was small, not much beyond weaning. But his front paws seemed large (I later discovered he had six claws on each); and he already possessed a kind of majesty and grace. He even seemed aware that he was beautifully colored: a white mask and underbelly, tawny coat and ears, with that same soft amber surrounding a white star-shape between his gold-green eyes.
He took the measure of the room, then proceeded to stroll among the desks. At the end of his tour, he returned to the front, looked me over, leapt effortlessly to the chair, then to the desk. A student filled a paper saucer with water and placed it near him. The kitten nosed it, then took a few diffident sips. I petted him and he permitted me, despite the affront to his dignity, to pick him up and display him, tummy exposed, to an appreciative audience. The work we had been reading prior to this mysterious visitation opens with a poem that begins, “Rintrah roars and shakes his fires in the burdened air.” The kitten’s boldness and color inspired one of the students to propose Rintrah for a name.