Soul, world, and two days of Rosh Hashanah
Getting to know Shalom Auslander

Animal psalms

Good used bookstores sometimes put me in a kind of fugue state. I roam slowly, waiting to recognize which of the books I've browsed need to accompany me home. My traffic patterns are predictable; I always scan the religion shelves, of course, and the travel-writing shelves. I visit the "arctic/antarctic" section, if there is one. I stop over in poetry.

On our recent trip to the Big Chicken Barn (where Ethan picked up an amazing coffee-table book of photographs from around the world, circa 1892) I wasn't sure what I was looking for. Their religion section is big, but doesn't usually do much for me. It's heavy on pop Christianity, but not so great where other religious traditions are concerned. So I tend to skim it and move quickly on.

This time, though, I found a gem: a slim paperback with a very 1974 cover (a line drawing of a cluster of smiling animals, surrounded by lime-green swirls and leaves) titled From Television: Captain Noah's PRAYERS of the ANIMALS.

"Captain Noah," it turns out, was the television moniker of the Reverend W. Carter Merbreier, a Lutheran pastor and former police chaplain from Philadelphia. His television program, Captain Noah and His Magical Ark, aired locally on weekdays from 1970-1978 and continued as a weekend program until 1994. The show featured puppets, cartoons, celebrities, songs, and -- from time to time -- "Captain Noah's prayers of the animals."

Each poem is in the voice of a different animal, all speaking directly to God in the manner of the psalmist. One poem makes oblique reference to the Christian story of the birth of Jesus, but otherwise these psalms are nondenominational, and each is paired with a pen-and-ink drawing by by Mary Ellen Bilisnansky. (Bat, vulture, and bison are my favorites.)

Like most poetry written for kids, these poems are direct, devoid of artifice, and above all gentle and approachable. The very brief prologue indicates that "this collection of prayers is meant for those who, like myself, are incurably whimsical and forever children," so I figure I'm within the book's target market.

When I used to teach introductory poetry workshops at Inkberry, I used to assign the project of writing a poem in the voice of someone or something non-human. (I wanted to dislodge the often subconscious notion that poetry has to be personal, confessional, and drawn from the "real life" of the writer.) As examples, I would offer Mark Doty's Beau: Golden Retrievals and Louise Glück's The Wild Iris. Next time I teach such a class, though, I may have to use one of these. Like the poem I'm enclosing in this post, below the extended entry link, which reminds me of The Weakerthans' Plea from a Cat Named Virtute (mp3.) The last stanza makes me smile.

The Prayer of the House Cat

there seems to be two of me.

For when I curl cozylike beside the hearth
or snuggle on a lap
there lies just beneath the surface of my tranquility
ready to pounce,
another I:
the nocturnal hunter.

I stalk the yarn-ball
exactly as the jungle cats track their pray:
my purr the muted roar
of our common ancestry.

I can not deny a certain pleasure
when crouching at the entrance to a mouse hole,
twitching my tail;
drawing and sheathing my claws.
And for this inborn proclivity,
generations of grateful farmers and innkeepers
attest to my worthwhileness.

So, I am somewhat pleased
with the we of me:
the cat of lightning grace;
the house companion of independent poise.

And should you need a cat
Yourself, Lord,
look for the one who licking his paws
is ever cleansed for holy service.


(Reprinted from Captain Noah's Prayers of the Animals, published by Captain Noah, Inc., 1974.)

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