Jane Kenyon, “The Blue Bowl”

The Blue Bowl (from poetry 180)
Jane Kenyon

Like primitives we buried the cat
with his bowl. Bare-handed
we scraped sand and gravel
back into the hole.
They fell with a hiss
and thud on his side,
on his long red fur, the white feathers
between his toes, and his
long, not to say aquiline, nose.

We stood and brushed each other off.
There are sorrows keener than these.

Silent the rest of the day, we worked,
ate, stared, and slept. It stormed
all night; now it clears, and a robin
burbles from a dripping bush
like the neighbor who means well
but always says the wrong thing.


The philosophical significance of death is that death is not-being. However, death also has a political significance in a metaphorical sense: Benardete points out Hesiod’s identification of justice with Hades.

This poem is obviously not political. It deals with the mere fact of death. There are sorrows keener than these. And yet it feels this cat died trying something unjust. “The white feathers between his toes” and the nose that is not birdlike (“not to say aquiline”) make me wonder if this cat ate a bird and died from that in some way. The cat’s bowl is the only tool mentioned in the whole poem; the bowl does not merely represent, but dictates literally, the cat’s portion in life.

So like Hesiod and Genesis we’re back to the beginning, wondering about justice and the realm it belongs to: “like primitives,” “we scraped sand and gravel.” It isn’t clear this beginning has anything to do with life; “back into the hole” is the most elementary sense of justice, that of restitution. Without other people, it seems this sense could exist (i.e. environmentalism, and emphasis on “it seems” – please do not get carried away with this thought). Whatever this other realm is, it doesn’t need us. The only sounds are the “hiss” and the “thud” prior to the robin burbling. The cat is on its side. “Hiss” and “side” recall the serpent in the Garden, and while it seems a stretch, I don’t think it’s out of line to recall those pictures of Mary stepping on a snake’s head one sometimes sees in devotional tracts.

But there’s no triumph here, just restitution (“we stood and brushed each other off”), and that consoles no one. Perhaps the identification of justice with death is the fact that justice must always be accompanied by loss. In Plato, these issues are somewhat clearer. The just is distinct from the beautiful, and both in turn are distinct from the good. That the just is not necessarily good leads to the notion that inasmuch as a city needs justice, that city is imperfect. Perfect justice is no justice (and also, re: the above – the locus of justice can become human association. There may not even be a perfect sense of justice).

I’ll conclude by casting doubt on “there are sorrows keener than these.” That’s something we tell ourselves, part of the myth that accompanies our intuitive and even more rational notions of how things are morally. The list immediately following this statement has “worked, ate, slept,” governed by “silent” and with “stared” in between “ate” and “slept.” The center of the list is “ate.” “Silent” and “stared” are a reminder that beginnings are very discomforting, to say the least. The myth’s power cannot adequately address our sense of loss. We are moved to events that recall another myth – it storms, a bird calls out from a “dripping bush.” Death implies life; unjust Creation was replaced by a just race after the Flood. Of course this cannot satisfy, even for a cat. It would feel wrong, after all, to let one’s sense of loss be entirely dictated by the fact of loss, or even what we use to make sense of loss.

1 Comment

  1. I love this poem.

    The commentary following the poem is way off base, in my opinion. The white feathers between his toes are not bird feathers–they are the tufts of white fur on a long-haired cat. I have an orange and white cat very similar in appearance (with the aquiline nose, white “feathers” between the toes, etc.). The cat did not die doing something unjust. It just died, and Jane and Donald feel very sad. Jane is trying to convince herself that there are worse losses, but she’s really grieving. I love the ending about the robin burbling “like the neighbor who means well but always says the wrong thing.” And like the commentator who would have done better not to comment. . .

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