A Theory of Prosody, By PHILIP LEVINE

When Nellie, my old pussy

cat, was still in her prime,

she would sit behind me

as I wrote, and when the line


got too long she’d reach

one sudden black foreleg down

and paw at the moving hand,

the offensive one. The first

time she drew blood I learned

it was poetic to end

a line anywhere to keep her

quiet. After all, many morn-


ings she’d gotten to the chair

long before I was even up.

Those nights I couldn’t sleep

she’d come and sit in my lap


to calm me. So I figured

I owed her the short cat line.

She’s dead now almost nine years,

and before that there was one


during which she faked attention

and I faked obedience.

Isn’t that what it’s about--

pretending there’s an alert cat


who leaves nothing to chance.

From “New Selected Poems” (Alfred A. Knopf: $24), which updates his “Selected Poems” with selections from “Sweet Will” and “A Walk With Thomas Jefferson.” Philip Levine was born in Detroit in 1928 and now teaches in Fresno. This collection is being published together with his new book, “What Work Is.” 1991 by Philip Levine. Reprinted with permission.