“An Offering for the Cat.” Mei passed the civil-service examination at the age of forty-nine, serving in various provinces and in the capital, but his career in government was undistinguished. Along with Ouyang Xiu—who once wrote of Mei’s poems, “The longer you suck on them, the better the taste”—he helped lead a poetic movement that advocated neo-Confucian critiques of contemporary life while celebrating the “old style” of unadorned verse. Mei once observed, “Today as in ancient times/it’s hard to write a simple poem.”
Since I got my cat Five White,
the rats never bother my books.
This morning Five White died.
I make offerings of rice and fish,
bury you in midriver
with incantations—I wouldn’t slight you.
Once you caught a rat,
ran around the garden with it squeaking in your mouth;
you hoped to put a scare into the other rats,
to clean up my house.
When we’d come aboard the boat
you shared our cabin,
and though we’d nothing but meager dried rations,
we ate them without fear of rat piss and gnawing—
because you were diligent,
a good deal more so than the pigs and chickens.
People make much of their prancing steeds;
they tell me nothing can compare to a horse or donkey—
enough!—I’ll argue the point no longer,
only cry for you a little.
© 1971, Columbia University Press. Used with permission of Columbia University Press.