a review of Christopher Shipman’s "Cat Poems: Wompus Tales & A Play of Despair" by Benjamin Haas
I was the rabbit in that play, once, not that long ago. Since then I have travelled and crossed paths with these characters, in a dotted line from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to Coney Island, New York where I am currently writing these words in the poison gasses of my computer screen. If I were to borrow the Prince’s telescope I might still be able to see our paths entangled. You see, the prince was also my best friend. And like the Prince and Rabbit we too find ourselves coming together in ever fleeting moments that too often feel like a game where the outcome is a predetermined exit. But I suppose all books must end.
Cat Poems: Wompus Tales & A Play of Despair (Kattywompus Press) is a book for which I feel a great connection. Christopher Shipman’s writing is the just found, clouded and broken mirror of a rural American junk shop. He combines a childlike wonder with thunderstorm darkness. The battle between idyllic youth and an abrasive reality seems pervasive in Shipman’s catalog, yet here that play is cut with a hopelessness that allows Cat Poems a fresh pass at articulating the struggle of emotional masculinity. While it is tempting to believe this to be a book about cats, this is truly a book about men.
Cat Poems begins with a series of quickly answered questions:
(Would you like to know what’s inside my box? I keep clouds inside my box. The clouds are burned, dead at the edges. Would you like to know why they are burned? I burned them, I had to. I had to fit them inside my box.)
These poems and plays (I am not particularly interested in drawing those dividing lines) do at times feel burned at the edges, yet not in the way they could be cut to some editor’s floor, but instead, the lines lose flicker and fly as ashen memories. This deft play of memory is most obvious in the beginning and end of the text. These “Cloud and Fragment” sections remind of the mist that marks an oncoming wave. It is as if Shipman in giving the preview, that he has created a Burroughsesque cut up of his own poems to the end of beautiful turns of phrase and juxtapositions. Here the poems are memory in a way that extends past representation. Like a window on a summer’s day into Shipman’s mind the book begins and ends in partially obstructed bits of sky.
The play, “Metaphysique D’ Ephemera,” on the page feels different than it did on stage (of course it’s in a different box). In some ways here it feels more like a retelling of that stage experience than the original work. One could say it’s ekphrastic if they were the type. Yet even with the additional audience cues and commentary, the story remains the same: A young prince wrapped in the nostalgia of times lost, represented by old Coney Issland and Ballerinas, comes face to face with a harsh and cruel reality in the forms of a conspiring rabbit, a sarcastic bird, and the ever escaping waves of time. As I said this is a book about men, and in particular emotional men. The Prince and the Rabbit’s relationship is one that tracks the complex working of 21st century masculinity. The characters aren’t two grizzled men, but instead a dainty prince and a mischievous rabbit. These characters talk about dreams, feelings, and secrets in ways long denied to many men. This denial is here too, in that the characters are doomed like so many feeling men are doomed to live in the shadows of cowboys and soldiers. The prince shall never win his frozen time, and even as the rabbit offers the losing ticket, he too hopes for the prince’s success. The complexity of this friendship, real and poetic, harkens to the contradiction at the heart of Shipman’s poetry: a desire for a different and more beautiful (and perhaps simpler) world in face of the unwavering ugliness modern life has to offer.
“My Brother is an evil motherfucker” so begins the tales of grandfathers, brothers, and men in mountain lion costumes every Halloween in “Wompus Tales.” There is, of course, also the wompus cat. In these poems the wompus cat is a boogey man, a bully, and a beast. Never do we hear the kindhearted tale of wompus cat love. And so in this way the wompus cat seems to be another box into which Shipman has placed boyish fears and fantasy. There is always uncertainty in Shipman’s poems, a never knowing what is coming next (from the wompus cat), as is true of all myths. And here the myth of the wompus cat as passed down to us at times feels like a story too bad to be true, and yet we are still afraid.
Shipman’s Cat Poems: Wompus Tales & A Play of Despair is a book with nooks and crannies. And like closed roadside attractions these poems are worth the time spent away from one’s intended destination. And there as the car pulls away might be Christopher Shipman, in a clown costume, offering to take a picture. And with the photo will come the reminder that this moment is too slippery to last any longer.
Benjamin Haas is an Assistant Professor of Speech, Communication, and Theatre Arts at Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University New York. He is also a poet, performer, activist, punk, and vegan. He has published poems in the New Delta Review, Ditch, Clockwise Cat, Dig and some other places too. He has shared two chapbooks on his website, BenjaminDavidHaas.com. Inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.