by Robert Peters

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The Poem

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“Kittens” is a long poem written in free verse; its short lines are grouped into ten stanzas. It is an elegy, a poem written in grief or mourning. This poem is also a song, a lyric lament for Robert Peters’s son Richard, who died suddenly in childhood. It laments unfulfilled wishes and lost promise. The poem is generated by the boy’s wish to have kittens and his father’s wish that his son had lived to experience more of the world.

The poem begins with the kittens that finally did come to fulfill the child’s wish—after his death. They are filled with energy and life: “plump dark woolly cats/ with eyes like olives/tumbling/ on the floor . . ./ lapping up blue milk.” Only “death-day/ morning” and perhaps the milk’s tinge suggest an elegy. In addition, the stanza that follows, a finely paced account of the birth of the kittens, celebrates abundance and beginnings. The kittens, “fur wet like licorice,” “fell/ into a land of honey.” The description of the births, although precisely detailed, conveys the mystery of the event.

In stanzas 3 and 4, however, the poem moves with fortitude and resignation into the body of another mystery: death. The poet describes the breakfast conversation during which the boy expressed his wish for kittens. His last wish, however, was rejected that “wish-day/ death-day” by his father, who tried to explain about pets:

“they die.Their little toescurl up like leaves,their waxy eyes go shut,their tails hang limptheir whiskers droop.”

Stanza 4 reveals a central admission. As if death itself were communicable (and parents are good at imagining that it is), the poet observes, “Dreading each death’s/ advent, I sought to/ spare you.” A fear of invasion emerges: “Each lost/ pet might break deep,/ deep within your heart” —in almost the same way that an infestation might “crystallize” inside the boy “into long beads of rice/ to feed the worm.” One senses the father’s realization that he feared becoming a helpless witness to his son’s death almost more than he feared the death itself. The stanza ends with a surprising tactile image—each pet’s death might be “a buzz,” like an eel’s tail delivering “a fatal jolt!”

The following two stanzas document the deaths of Snake and Mouse, and their elaborate funerals. The father retells these tales to the boy in “proof” of the folly of keeping pets. Mouse, for example, left “sprinkling mortality/ like ivy-juice/ all over you that day.” Again, the theme of contagion arises, as if mortality were a condition that one might carefully avoid, but death is one of the inescapable consequences of being born. Stanza 6 ends with a rumination on transformation; the bones of the mouse and the boy are imagined as ash slipping down between layers of rock in the “earthy crypt.” These lines introduce a mood of calm acceptance.

The boy was not swayed by the scare tactics, his father’s tales of “deep-felled nightmare,” and although already carrying (invisible in his brain) “the hung smoke of the/ sleeping fatal fever,” the delighted child snapped the wishbone to “free [his] wish.” The poet looks back at this moment and confronts joy and loss simultaneously; as the bone breaks in the poem, one is aware of an instant of innocent yet fervent hope coupled with the father’s sudden snap of agony over the boy’s absence. Tenderness is accompanied by pain. The finality of the last line in stanza 8 echoes the suddenness and finality of the child’s death.

The last two stanzas return to the present, a house filled with tumbling kittens,...

(This entire section contains 703 words.)

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like tiny reincarnations of the boy’s delight and movements. The kittens “do all the acts,/ make all the gestures that/ you knew live kittens make.” These facts, the knowledge the boy took “into the night,” are better than the “shouts of passion,/ war; the violence of cars,” which he was spared. Sorrow is both relieved and rekindled in the end, as it has been throughout the poem. The poet mourns “the poetry that never/ broke itself against/ your ears,” and although he struggles to accept Richard’s loss, still wishes “that there had been more.”

Forms and Devices

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“My poems to my son were meant to give the illusion that a five-year-old child could understand them” says Peters. His language in “Kittens” is therefore direct, his rhythm plain, and his diction simple. Although the poem is not really written for a five-year-old (the metaphors and allusions are grown-up, and some of the vocabulary is too hard), the poem nevertheless is simple. This surface plainness allows a clear-eyed rumination on the boy’s death, on life and death, which does not fall prey to gross sentimentality or overlush expressions of sorrow. The poet/speaker simply talks; on the surface, he shares what happened.

The poems in Songs for a Son grew out of an emotionally charged situation and thus are blessed with a sudden abundance of energy that peaks, seemingly paradoxically, and turns into musical celebration at precisely the moments of greatest sorrow and pain. A good example in “Kittens” is the indented final lines of the seventh stanza, which lead to the jumbling, joyful liveliness of the next stanza. The short lines help sustain this energetic movement; the poem moves quickly through thoughts and memories.

In “Kittens,” the stanzas vary in length. Their form is loose enough to accommodate the varying needs and depths of the scenes. The poem’s temporal movement from scene to scene (stanza to stanza) gives the poem a narrative shape. It has chronology and various settings, both of which are familiar components of storytelling. The narrative begins in the speaker’s present, moves back in time to the death-day, moves further back in time to the funerals of Snake and Mouse, comes back to the death-day, and finally returns the reader to the present and the new kittens. Thus the poem is a cycle that examines, celebrates, and reveres, by means of the child’s death, the basic cycle of birth, life, and death. The sections of the poem represent eras in the boy’s short life.

What lends the poem further unity is that, like a talisman, the wish, which is directly referred to in four stanzas and is implicitly there in the rest, becomes almost an entity, a being with its own life that must be protected. An abstraction somehow concretized, it becomes an energy source in the poem, especially when it is fulfilled by the birth of the kittens.