“Red in Tooth and Claw” by James Davis May

James Davis May


Even on the night my friend died 
    after a long illness— 
I won’t use the word 
    but the cancer was gone, 
and then it came back, like some slasher film killer— 

even on that night, the feral cat, the one 
that’s white and fluffy and sometimes affectionate, 
still crossed our driveway, quietly, 
from our neighbor’s pines to our rhododendrons, 

even on that night, she would look for some rodent 
or bird to terrorize and mangle 
and maybe fully kill. 

And I, drinking and grieving on our deck, 
was appalled by the world and its gross refusal 
to stop being the world, 
   and then embarrassed 
not just by my own naivety (though there’s plenty of that) 
but by my innate human sickness that believes 
we matter, 
      that someone is listening, 
that civility isn’t just something we imagined 
and don’t really follow anyway. 
That night 
I wanted everything to be better than it is, 

so I went to the fridge, got out the milk, 
poured it into a little bowl, which I left on the porch 
and found empty the next morning.

from Rattle #66, Winter 2019
Reader’s Choice Award Winner


James Davis May: “Having had several friends die from cancer, I’m increasingly uneasy with the predominant metaphor we use to discuss disease, whether cancer or some other illness: that the experience is some sort of war between the patient and the diagnosis. In this poem, that unease mixes with both grief and existential angst to form something like a secular crisis of faith (faith in nature and faith in humanity), and I’m still not sure whether the gesture at the end, that bowl of milk, is a feeble or convincing answer to that crisis—maybe both …” (web)

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