"Purring" by Coleman Barks
The internet says science is not sure
how cats purr, probably
a vibration of the whole larynx,
unlike what we do when we talk.
Less likely, a blood vessel
moving across the chest wall.
As a child I tried to make every cat I met
purr. That was one of the early miracles,
the stroking to perfection.
Here is something I have never heard:
a feline purrs in two conditions,
when deeply content and when
mortally wounded, to calm themselves,
readying for the death-opening.
The low frequency evidently helps
to strengthen bones and heal
Say poetry is a human purr,
vessel mooring in the chest,
a closed-mouthed refuge, the feel
of a glide through dying.
One winter morning on a sunny chair,
inside this only body,
a far-off inboard motorboat
sings the empty room, urrrrrrrhhhh
Coleman Barks is better known for translating Rumi’s poems without following the rhythm and rhyming of their original Persian. Instead he does something new, something unheard of, possibly deemed sacrilegious by die-hard Rumi fans: he turns them into modern free verse. Regardless of this, critics have to agree he still manages to capture the essence of Rumi’s verses.
In this piece, from a new collection of his own works, Winter Sky: New and Selected Poems, 1968–2008, published by University of Georgia, where he once taught poetry and creative writing, Barks attempts to explain to us how a cat purrs.
It appears Barks himself has been making empirical experiments to get some answers. In the third stanza you get a cutesy image of him as a little boy coming across cats and “stroking” them “to perfection”, to get the purr out of them; which is a miracle to a child. Here, there are more "purr" alliterations in "miracles,/the stroking to perfection."
Whether the cat is happy or wounded, he still purrs. Apparently he does this to “ strengthen bones and heal/damaged organs”. Personally this writer has seen cats heal themselves by finding and ingesting certain plants, regurgitating the bolus later.
In stanza six Barks compares poetry to purring, but of a human kind. Here, he repeats "say", from the first stanza, where "The internet says", as we humans "say", not "purr", unless if it is poetry. He gives us an image of a vessel moored in the chest. You “feel” it “glide through dying.”: poetic purring apparently heals.
In the last stanza we see what this “vessel” looks like: a motorboat. Its “purring” is so audible, humming (“sings”) in “the empty room” of “One winter morning on a sunny chair”. We have "this only body" because only cats have virtually nine. There is such joy picked up in "inboard motorboat/sings the empty room". This vessel doesn't merely "sings" in "the empty room". The transitivity of the verb includes the empty room in the singing. It’s like some operatic aria, building up from a little sound, like “a blood vessel”, to an actual vessel (note the repeating of vessel as a rhyme), a motorboat.
The final lines realise this purring. Reading out loud the “urrrrrrrhhhh”s is like a chorus singing a prayer, or an incantation.