Our Spring 2010 issue contains the poems “The Cat” and “Making Small Talk, the Cashier at the Grocery Inadvertently Creates a Religion” by Amy Newman.
The first poem takes a small moment, watching a cat, and builds wonderment up toward “the creature’s stubborn desire / to find its commonplace, its eternal, as if anything ever adds up to poetry.” We lose track of the cat’s needs in place of our own. The second poem’s title explains it; an excerpt:
And passing the figs:
So complex, what’s on the inside.
Everything worthwhile has a kind of mystery.
I don’t bother with it more than that.
Here, Newman looks at the meaning beyond everyday occurrences and recalls the cashier who inspired her:
Looking over these poems I see that I have again failed to become Emerson’s “Transparent Eyeball,” and am rather, after Zola, a temperament through which nature is filtered. Watching a cat move through the yard in his daily pattern after his day of wandering, I observed the possibilities awaiting him as if through a series of overlapping transparencies, Run Lola Run style: struggle, weakness, adversity, death, nothingness. Though I am interested in interrogating the violent design of the natural world, in this poem I hoped to study it without regret, to recreate the energy of what I imagine to be nature’s articulation of victory and vitality. Yet I hear myself in there near the end, that fascination and irritation with the natural world’s indifference: an image of a long-dead creature now undressed to bone, and the world vigorously unaffected, snapping into place for another 24-hour cycle.
“Making Small Talk, the Cashier at the Grocery Inadvertently Creates a Religion” might be the only poem I have ever written that began with its last lines, requiring that I work backward; I wanted to understand why the world became dimensional when the cashier made this characteristic, casual remark. She is the definition of stoicism, even impassivity: brisk and polite, she has no use for your chatting about the weather. She delivered the poem’s final lines to me with a slow shake of her head, and I left the shop chastened and invigorated. It was not only what she had said–something about the experience had created the landscape where the lines became significant. Though uninterested in humans, this cashier has the most delicate way with groceries, respectful of each item. She will take minutes to pack the bag, rearranging it several times so that the single perfect peach will not bruise on its journey to your home, so that the figs with not crush. The combination of her offhand and disinterested remark and her deferential physical care with the produce is striking. Some lines, including her final comment about the weather, she actually said; others I imagined later, to reflect her physical care and love of the items as she held them.
Being Jewish, I have the luxury of being an outsider and therefore have long been fascinated by the Eucharist, a moment when belief overcomes doubt, a magically dimensional moment of depth. Did I buy wine that day, and did she ring up those items in just the order I described? In the poem she passes wine and wafer over the scanner–ordinary details in an ordinary world, easy to miss–as a tiny, near- invisible Eucharist. Being unannounced, this experience might suggest a spirituality in the real, the everyday, ambiguous. That was all, then. What was left was bittersweet: my momentary wonder, or recognition, my glimpse of the divine manifested as a cold, turned-away face, indifferent though still loving the things of this world. In this way, even the cat of “The Cat” would not be overlooked. In truth, it was only a sweet remark by my favorite cashier, but it unearthed all my longing.
Amy Newman’s most recent book is Fall (Wesleyan, 2006). New work appears in Narrative Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Hotel Amerika, Witness, and elsewhere. She teaches at Northern Illinois University and is the editor of Ancora Imparo, the interdisciplinary journal of arts, process, and remnant.