In "Peter," the subject matter, a cat, is easily recognizable, the logical movement of the passages relatively accessible. But different fashions of description--scientific, metaphoric--compete in the presentation:
the detached first claw on the foreleg corresponding to the thumb, retracted to its tip; the small tuft of fronds or katydid-legs above each eye numbering all units in each group; the shadbones regularly set about the mouth to droop or rise in unison like porcupine-quills.
Each new mode of description redirects our attention, redefining what precedes it. It is hard to retain through these lines a natural image of a cat. The metaphors themselves represent different proportions and contexts, thus further complicating the visualization. Each part of the body is a piece of another realm. The poem goes on to play the shifting figure of the cat off against the shifting metaphors for it. That is, Moore presents a moving, multi-faceted creature, not by tracing that movement along the lines of visual conventions, but by presenting multiple images for it and thus conceptualizing motion.
In "Peter" our attention never fully breaks from a central image. But the elements of the picture are cut out of disparate depictions of life and the whole thing hangs together like nothing we have seen before. The play of the poem lies in the dialectic between the "natural" image of the cat and the internal, pictorial coherence of juxtaposed words. A tension is created between the sense of an external variety and an internal consistency, rewarding a desire for order while suggesting the inclusive density of life. It is this bidirectional pull that is the pleasure of many of Moore's "descriptive" poems. Of course poetry, with its temporal organization, has advantages over painting in presenting a thing from all sides. But Moore adopts from painters the double sense of looking at something. The impulse to find a conceptual unity within the visual multiplicity is one she shares with modernist painters. Her note from M. Krohgon on futurists could stand for her own work: "the Futurist ... has got to see feel understand and interpret the front side and the back side of things, the inside as well as the outside and the bottom as well as or better than the top."
From Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Copyright © 1981 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
"Peter," a domestic cat, does not have the brilliance of Christopher Smart's Jeffery (with which all cat poems, I suppose, must ultimately be compared), yet the poem succeeds in giving Peter an inviolable life of his own; he makes us see and appreciate catness. His human author begins by examining him in sleep, noticing eyebrow and whisker and "detached first claw." He is, like all Marianne Moore's animals, compared with a variety of forms we do not usually associate with cats. For instance, in sleep "he lets himself be flattened out by gravity, / as seaweed is tamed and weakened by the sun." He has a "prune-shaped head and alligator eyes"; he may, when he is asleep, be proxy for a snake or "dangled like an eel / or set up on the forearm like a mouse." He is a predator, but may be the prey of our imaginations while he sleeps, for then he is not himself.
Still, "profound sleep is not with him a fixed illusion," nor is it with the poet, who has certain dreamlike illusions about his inactive form.
Springing about with froglike accuracy, with jerky cries
when taken in hand, he is himself again;
to sit caged by the rungs of a domestic chair
would be unprofitable—human. What is the good of hypocrisy?
Cats do as they please, will not be tamed or misled by appearances as humans will. A cat has no use for pretense, will change occupations at whim (as cat-admiring poets may change images), and he will not condescend.
He can talk but insolently says nothing. . . .
As for the disposition invariably to affront,
an animal with claws should have an opportunity to use them.
As, we may add, should the poet of wit who, like the hero, does not like some things. Peter's mission is "to leap, to lengthen out, divide the air, to purloin, to pursue." In all these activities he is not unlike the poet who names him; curiosity may kill him and "a fight with nature or with cats" may scare him, but he does not hide his natural responses. He expresses them. "To do less would be nothing but dishonesty ."
From Marianne Moore: Poet of Affection. Copyright © 1977 by Syracuse University Press.