If You Say It Right, It Helps the Heart to Bear It
After a series of wonderful poetry collections about sundry animals in their natural habitats, Joyce Sidman turns her prodigious talents to the most fascinating one of all: the human animal and its singular talent for language.
BLESSING ON THE CURL OF CAT
As cat curls
in a circle of sun–
sleek and round,
snug and warm,
a hint of ear
cocked in readiness–
so may I find my place
in this shifting world:
secure within myself,
certain of my worth,
equally willing to
What you can’t quite see is that this is a concrete poem in the shape of a cat, but it’s also a wonderful illustration of the principles of consonance and assonance. Consonance, on the one hand, is when consonant sounds are repeated over and over again, and when that sound is repeated at the beginnings of words, it is called alliteration. The most prevalent instance of consonance in this poem is sibilance, that is, the hissing sounds of “s” and “sh.” After those rebellious “z” sounds in the opening line we have these instances of sibilance: circle, sun, sleek, snug, readiness, so, place, this, shifting, secure, myself, and certain. The secondary instance of consonance is the hard “c” sound–cat, curls, circle, cocked, and secure–which provides an interesting contrast since the letter c in the poem sometime makes the soft “c” and sometimes the hard “c.”
Assonance, on the other hand, is when vowel sounds are repeated over and over again. Here it’s an r-controlled schwa: curls, circle, world, certain, worth, and purr. To keep it interesting, Sidman adds an additional trio of r-controlled vowels (ear, warm, secure) and an alliterative pair (round, readiness). The result is that the short, clipped lines coupled with assonance and consonance make this poem extremely pleasant to say and hear, while the concrete form coupled with the variant spellings of various sounds make it equally pleasant to read. This kind of stylistic use of language places Sidman at the very top of the pack in terms of the criteria of appropriateness of style.
She also gives a master class on interpretation of theme or concept. Sidman’s previous books have always been strong in this area, and you’ll remember that DARK EMPEROR had strong intertextuality on each spread between the poem, the caption, and the art (which we didn’t discuss) that really knitted the whole book together. Here she raises the bar even higher. The intertextuality here exists between poems and sections, reverberating throughout the entire book.
The narrator in “Blessing on the Curl of Cat” has found a couple of admirable feline qualities that to be blessed with. Nice theme, but simple. Consider its juxtaposition with the previous poem, “Blessing on the Smell of Dog” wherein that narrator essentially does the same thing for the dog, an animal that is sort of contrasting/complementary, not quite opposites, but something akin to that. Still a nice theme, a bit more complex.
Consider its juxtaposition to the following poem, “Blessing on the Downtrodden,” which aside from obviously being one of the blessing poems does not really have much in common with “Blessing on the Curl of Cat,” but it does share an interesting quality with “Blessing on the Smell of Dog”: they’re both list poems. The first one is a list of blessings the narrator desires (i.e. canine qualities), the second a cause/effect list (i.e. if this happens to you, then I will do this; if this happens to you, then I will do that, etc.). The list poem will be used two additional times in this section (“Silly Love Song” and “I Find Peace”) for a total of four; it only appears once in the rest of the collection. A list poem is very simple and is an easy form for even the most reluctant children to write, but Sidman provides such skillful variations that she reinvents the form each time we read one of her poems.
The third and fourth poems form a contrasting/complementary thematic couplet just as the first and second one did. If “Blessing on the Downtrodden” is about the dregs of the earth (“Should the crowd turn against you, I will turn against the crowd”), then “Blessing From the Stars” speaks to the celestial nature of humanity: “We are the stars. / We sing with our light / in our vast, brilliant constellations: / alone, / together.”
The fifth and sixth poems (“Teacher” and “Silly Love Song”) are praise songs, each dedicated to an influential person in the narrator’s life (a teacher and sweetheart, respectively). The seventh and eighth poems (“Lake’s Promise” and “I Find Peace”) both defy easy categorization. Are they blessings or praise songs? I still can’t decide; perhaps a bit of both. The other surprise these final two poems offer is that they are variations on the same thing–peace–but in the first poem, it is the lake (personified here, just as the stars are earlier) that gives solace and comfort from the cares of the world, where in the second the narrator who must earn peace for herself.
Within this one section, we’ve teased out some of the similarities and connections between the poems, but we haven’t teased out all of them (and certainly we haven’t even begun to consider this section in relationship to the other three). What began as a very simple theme in one poem has become one strand in a complex tapestry, one voice in a swelling chorus of voices.
So what do we have? We have a peerless display of stylistic language coupled with a masterful interpretation of theme (rivaled only by Jenkins’s ANIMAL BOOK). Sounds to me like the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. There, the cat’s out of the bag.
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at email@example.com
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