NOT GIVEN, BUT GIFTED: Lindsay Johnstone reviews The Cat Prince by Michael Pedersen

Pedersen exercises a dexterity with words that has the makings of a dialect all of his own, shining his linguistic light on the everyday with a buoyancy matched only by his barnet.

Six years have passed since Oyster, Michael Pedersen’s last collection, shucked open to reveal its cache of pearly delights. They spilled from salty sea water across the pages before sprouting miraculous legs and tearing their way across the city, over the Campsies and back again, finally ricocheting to and from France by way of Durham and Manchester. The reader was left panting in Pedersen’s wake.

Oyster followed 2013’s Play With Me, cementing his reputation in print as well as on the Scottish spoken-word scene. In these earlier collections, his poetry was rambunctious and fecund. Brassy in his Scots-bending, speaking cleverly of newness, lust and lovers. It chimed with a sense of the infinite only the young can invest in.

And then life – and death – happened.

Last year’s Boy Friends, Pedersen’s first published prose work, was formed in the gritty aftermath of friend and Oyster collaborator Scott Hutchison’s death by suicide. On a writing residency at Curfew Tower in Cushendall, Northern Ireland, Pedersen wrote his way into and around his grief, stretching beyond his immediate loss to consider auld alliances: friends who touched his life and left their indelible mark.

In turn, he chronicled intense friendship after intense friendship with boys who, like Scott, would become lost to him as consequence of time or tide. He tells tales of the friendships of youth recognisable to those of us lucky enough to have arrived at similar midlife moments – bonds which are swiftly forged yet, when tested, prove far too easy to break. With some of these boys, Pedersen skirted around and flirted with lives that, lucky for us, he chose not to live.

In this new collection, The Cat Prince and Other Poems, there is more of this looking back through sober, sometimes sobbing, eyes. And, as in Hutchison’s songs, there is water a-plenty.

At the beginning of the collection, Pedersen appears stuck under a stubborn weather-front that refuses to budge. One that serves to keep his face wet when the tears stop coming. By turns, he is caught in sudden downpours under ‘cheek-chiseling [. . .] Full metal jacket rain, porridging the soil’ and then dares himself to turn the spigot to cold for an intentional blasting in The Weak’s Guide to Cold Showers.

In storm above johannesburg, he recounts a sudden brutal assault from the skies during a tour of South Africa with Hutchison, ‘the deluge descends flailing’ and ‘the tempest turns the air gun-hungry.’

His momentary alarm is palpable, as is the grief when he laments the japes that they did not have that night. A night he’d live afresh in the eye of the storm; ‘swoop at its stormy vitellus – soak our skin / to the blue beneath, tumble over pissing everywhere.’ His proves to be a sorrow that lingers longer than any squall.

There are poems that overtly reference his grief, sure. In a fit of magical thinking in Queensferry’s Lost not Found Pedersen reimagines Scott as one of his own drawings, an ‘aquatic mummification, ‘ickle fish / enmeshed in thick beard.’ A ‘merman.’ Yet he admits, with disarming candour, he is glad he only ‘took the call.’ Is ‘relieved it wasn’t me’ who found his friend that ‘balmy Thursday night in May.’

Reflections on Hutchison’s death causes Pederson, in poems such as Dear Lover and of my own first word to consider his own legacy. There is an attempt to control the narrative. Influence, too, his means of exit and the ones who will be with him when the time comes, whenever that may be. There is romantic love in this collection but it’s well-worn, comfier and quieter than in Oyster or Play With Me.

Now, he offers himself up as an ‘armchair / by the night window.’ Invites his lover to ‘coorie in… douse down / the day’s flare of voices.’ Yes, he still comes at the end of it but there’s more to this rich world of his than a quick ‘blowie.’ He is stilled in his ecstasy by the sight of two love birds ‘mid-flight salsa / meld together.’ Or is he?

Elsewhere, Pedersen’s nostalgia is warm yet searing in its quest to understand the ways in which snapshots of childhood shaped the man. How masculinity was and is defined. Its limitations. The necessary swelling of those limits to embrace what it means to be a ‘gooey,’ messy human.

It is only possible to become a tender man who ‘will clasp my hand and beg me / be in touch more often, / to touch more often’ by having been, first, those boys who reach out for one another with ‘a rumple / of pinkies.’  

In these moments, The Cat Prince and Other Poems doesn’t read so much as a companion piece to Boy Friends, as one that’s on the other end of the house phone, the line kept open indefinitely in case the poet and the prose writer need to run something past one another before the next lines are written.

In Lines on the Melodies of Men he questions the unwritten missives on manhood he imbibed growing up. There were the ‘Popeye arms’ of an uncle, whose bicep was play-inflated by the young Pedersen. He ‘fake coveted them’ when what he really loved, ‘The physical play [. . .] The luminous / smell, like a kissing ritual / without the kiss.’ felt unutterable. Or, perhaps, he simply did not have the words, then.

Friends such as Daniel (the first of Pedersen’s ‘boy friends’ in the memoir) and Andrew appear in the titular poem. They are, again, 12: three ‘boyhood budbursts’ on the brink of adolescence. The inevitable transfiguration might expedite the stop his friends’ parents so want to all this carry-on.

Theirs is a friendship hewn from a concrete monolith, chiselled in corridor crushes and polished up when the school bell rings. After hours, Pedersen can morph into his true self: the stark-naked semi-feral Cat Prince. More feline than human, the conventions of civilisation don’t apply when he sheds his skin.

The boys are playful, nearly-not-innocent in their nakedness. Weak in the face of Pedersen’s cajoling, soon Daniel ‘strips / for a full feline transformation.’ We are reminded of that twin sensation: near-sexual thrill the flipside of a coin whose other face predicts that ‘absent classmates [. . .] might well / hear of this and smite us with shame.’ Perhaps they are dimly aware a door is closing. It is one that will eventually be bolted shut when university does what it is wont to do to such youthful bonds.

I fall in love with Pedersen in his poems. I want to see the world as he does. Experience and record it as he does. The writer in me craves flow as he embodies it in not so much given as gifted. Oh, when words pouring onto the page is akin to:

[. . .] riding this bike like a corsair
of the cycle paths hopping
potholes & snatching blackberries
straight from the bush

Moments such as these must be sought-after. Savoured.  Celebrated.

Pedersen’s voice is restored of its optimistic bounce in poems such as The Secret Life of Balconies, from whence ‘mystic jockeys’ return a ‘magisterial wave,’ ‘tinnie in hand,’ and The West End’s Great Leaf Harvester in which he plays accomplice to a stray moggy intent on looting autumn’s fallen leaves within which the season’s ‘stories’, ‘scandal’[s] and ‘shopping list’[s] have been stored. His skill for making the familiar unfamiliar is on top form here. I dare you to share salacious gossip in Kelvingrove Park, henceforth, without considering who or what might be listening beyond the hungry ears of your intended.

Ultimately, this collection is bookended by meditations on permanence – whether that be a person, a place or an institution. The Portobello High School building of his youth that once ‘marred the skyline’ suffers a slow death, ‘gouged by metal claws until / lower than a double bus,’taking far more than its concrete ‘massiveness’ with it. In the same way, some friendships end with a whimper while others go out with a ‘bang’ as sudden and brutal as the one that razed Cockenzie Power Station.

Though Boy Friends struck me as an important and oftentimes intrusive-to-read portrait of the intimacies of male friendship, in this collection, Pedersen is at home in his part-feline skin. He is the Cat Prince, the long-term partner, the poet, the friend, the bereaved.

He is also the wee boy growing up in Porty, attempting to parse the meaning of masculinity from elders who offer a warm, if wanting, version. A place where he is schooled to believe that Mike’s Tackle Shop offers The Ultimate Fishing Experience (read: sanctioned version of manliness). It is a construct he at once colludes in and is repelled by, ever searching for a better way to be. A ‘softness’ he knows is lacking. 

Time passes. Mike’s Tackle Shop shapeshiftslike an oyster. Like Pedersen. Like our definition of masculinity. It is, he proclaims, The Ultimate Reincarnation.  Peer through the shop’s glinting windows now and you’ll see the shiny trappings of that genteel/brutal pursuit replaced by a gilded cat’s bumhole shining at you from the dust jacket of The Cat Prince and Other Poems. Allow it to entice you like catnip through the open door before you swipe it from a shelf and paw, hungrily, between its covers.

Feast on the spoils of your catch. No mallet bashing required.

Click here to read a selection of poems from The Cat Prince

About our contributor

Lindsay Johnstone [she/her] is a writer based in Glasgow.  Her roots are firmly in the west coast, though she has been known to travel when the occasion calls. She writes about motherhood, the impact of intergenerational trauma and the interplay between the natural world and our mental health.  Lindsay was the recipient of a John Byrne Award in June 2023, was shortlisted for a Writers’ Award at the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival in 2022 and was supported by Creative Scotland and ASLA’s emerging writers’ programme, Our Voices, in 2021.

In her former life as a high school English teacher, Lindsay wrote for the Herald and BBC Bitesize. She is a regular voice on BBC Radio Scotland, and can (mostly) be trusted with a microphone. She works at the Scottish Book Trust and moonlights as one fifth of Glasgow band, Wall Sun Sun.

Her memoir, Held in Mind, is currently on submission with UK publishers while she works on her first novel. She also writes a Substack where readers can expect some of the above and more besides:

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The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is a review journal publishing short and long reviews, review essays and interviews, as well as translations, fiction, poetry, and visual art. We are interested in all forms of cultural practice and seek to incorporate more marginal, peripheral or neglected forms into our debates and discussions. We aim to foster discussion of work from small and specialised publishers and practitioners, and to maintain a focus on issues in and about translation. The review has a determinedly international approach, but is also a proud resident of Glasgow.

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