Monday, August 7, 2017



(Kattywompus Press, Somerville, MA, 2015)

As I read Cat Poems: Wompus Tales & a Play of Despair by Christopher Shipman, I recall Walter Benjamin’s conception of the aura, the ephemeral glow that surrounds an original work of art. For Benjamin, as an art object is reproduced its aura fades until we’re left with nothing but the thought that what we’re witnessing might have, at some point, glowed. While some might find this to be a bleak approach to contemporary art making, one need only read Shipman’s work to recognize that when the aura fades, when the art makers seem to have disappeared, something new is always lurking in the shadows.

The book is comprised of two seemingly distinct works, woven together: first, the “wompus tales,” a collection of prose poems, and second, the poetic play in seven scenes, “metaphysique d’ephemera.” Bookending the play and the poems are sections called “Cloud and Fragment.” These moments of disorientation draw from the main text and serve to introduce the reader to both the text and context of the book. Textually, we might read Cat Poems as a story within a story. The play chronicles the disintegrating world of a prince whose desire is to experience the beauty and the art of others. But as the world crumbles, as the creators begin to fade, the Prince’s desire to be nothing more than a prince who enjoys the work of his subjects, is confronted by the inevitable absence of the subjects themselves. He is faced with becoming prince over nothing.

Breaking up the play every few scenes are the wompus tales. Featuring a narrator’s memory, marked by the presence of a wompus cat, these poems are situated in a world that is familiar, yet distinct. Dark, yet hopeful. Evoking both the mythological wampus cat – the distinctly American trickster figure, never tempered in her violence by having been a children’s story – and the slang wompus cat – the giant, nasty neighborhood stray – the poems play with themes of danger, despair, and family in the same way that we can imagine a w[a/o]mpus cat might play with a ball of string. Throughout these poems Shipman is able to draw into the light the darker side of everyday family relationships. The frustrations and fears of navigating sibling and parent relationships sit at the center of these poems. All the while, the wompus cat hangs out around the corners, waiting to pounce.

Reading the play cut by the wompus tales, the wompus cat appears as perhaps the dreamworld of the Prince. The Prince, who wants to experience the creations of others, is not himself a creator, and the wompus cat hints at why. The wompus cat, in all of its mass and danger, is a terrifying presence. It disrupts and makes things messy. It tears and scratches before sauntering off to sleep in a nook. It is the destructive force that the Prince keeps out of the pages of the play, so instead of being destroyed, everything simply disintegrates. The images of the wompus tales, deftly invoked by Shipman, are the mundane images of an individual’s world in the midst of the cycle of creation and destruction. The process of traveling through life, Shipman reminds us, is the wellspring from which the artist draws his ink. And though the Prince has surely traveled through his life (as have we all), he fears returning to the wellspring, the memories that mark his distinct yet familiar life, for once there he would have to encounter (as would we all) the wompus cat.

Shipman’s book is playful, yet dark – I laugh as the wompus cat yearns for destruction and death, while reading Catcher in the Rye; I am sad that no one will embrace the wompus cat, yet who would embrace those that embrace Holden Caulfield? But above all, the book reminds us of the pain of being an artist. Not the pain of creation, but the pain of knowing that you must create.


Ariel Gratch is an Assistant Professor of Communication. His teaching and research emphasize the unique role that stories play in the development of culture. In addition to his work as a professor, Ariel also tells stories and conducts storytelling and public speaking workshops. He lives with his family in the suburbs of Atlanta.

No comments:

Post a Comment