Cats, Love & Other Surprises by Otis Kidwell Burger
Illustrations by Katherine Burger
ISBN : 978-8182500891 2017 Hardback pp 65
Cats, Love & Other Surprises is an astonishing book of poems by 93-year old Otis Kidwell Burger, of New York City. Both a poet and a sculptor, Otis delights in the company of her cats in verse both whimsical and lyrical. Other poems reflect on a long life divided between New York City and a country cabin in the New England woods; these explore family memories, the vagaries of love, and the natural world, to which she is connected by both scientific curiosity (she was a zoology major at Cornell College) and philosophical questioning. The poems traverse territories from the quotidian to the metaphysical; from rejoicing in the return of a lost cat “sitting on my lap purring/and stitching us together again/with her tiny, needle-sharp claws” to imagining a prehistoric woman artist sitting on the floor of her cave, “whittling a bit of mammoth bone. /I don’t know yet if it will be/A horse or a bison. Prey. Food. Perhaps a charm for the hunter./Or perhaps a cave bear, immense, terrible./Death itself, but made small and manageable. A protection.” Solemn, yet also witty and accessible, these are American poems of great strength and a quirky animistic sensibility. They are also poignant. Musing on her unmatched “bachelor” socks, the poet imagines their lost, significant others and why they stepped out, never to return. In another poem, she mourns that “the darkness falls/And tucks us in our homes/No more telephones/No more visiting/No more conversations/No more sleepwalking, or I/Would be five miles away soon/And in bed with you.” Delightfully illustrated by her own daughter, Katherine Burger, this is a majestic little gift from a marvellous mother/daughter team.
American writer and artist Otis Kidwell Burger was born in 1923 in Staten Island, NY, and has lived in Greenwich Village since 1932. She graduated from Cornell University and married Knox Breckenridge Burger in 1946; they had two daughters, Neall and Katherine.
Her published work includes: An Interesting Condition, a novel; The String That Went Up, a children’s book; poetry in The New Yorker, Good Housekeeping, and Gourmet Magazine; science fiction in Galaxy and Astounding magazines. She’s written book reviews for The New York Times, Book of the Month Club; The Village Voice, and Kirkus Services, as well as articles in the Villager. All of the poems included in the book, except The Stag, were written in the last two years
Katherine Burger, Otis’ second daughter, is a playwright and artist. She and her husband Randy live in the Hudson Valley.
“Poetry Reading, 6 p.m.,” read the sign taped outside the doorway of the Bethune Street townhouse where Otis Kidwell Burger, 93, has lived for nearly 60 years.
Inside, from a rocker cushioned with red velvet, Ms. Kidwell Burger presided over the dozen or so poets gathered in her parlor, a cozy haven with Oriental rugs, a working fireplace and shelves of old books and general clutter.
Ms. Kidwell Burger, a writer and sculptor, lives with her two cats in the 1836 building that she and her then-husband, the late literary agent Knox Burger, bought in 1959. Its upper floors served as a rooming house, with rooms starting at $8 per week, she said.
“It was full of strange folks,” she said.
The room next to the magician was rented as a writing space by the author and activist Jane Jacobs, who worked on her seminal book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” there, Ms. Kidwell Burger said.
“Jane lived around the corner on Hudson Street, but she had a house full of teenagers and it was quieter here,” said Ms. Kidwell Burger, who joined forces with Ms. Jacobs in the ’60s to resist projects threatening the small-town character of the neighborhod
She recalled being with Ms. Jacobs at a 1968 public hearing for Robert Moses’s plan to build a downtown expressway.
“I said to her, ‘Is there any way we can stop this?’” Ms. Kidwell Burger recalled. “She leaped onto the stage and pulled the stenographer’s notes from the machine and was immediately arrested.”
“It hit the papers and brought attention to this stupid plan and people thought better of it,” she said.
Ms. Kidwell Burger long ago cleared out the rooming house operation upstairs but continued to rent out two upper floors. During the ’80s, the actress Jennifer Grey was a tenant, so Matthew Broderick was often around, and other young celebrities.
“I remember Madonna sitting on my stoop,” said Ms. Kidwell Burger, who lived as a child at the top of Todt Hill in Staten Island. She was a zoology major at Cornell University and settled afterward in Greenwich Village.
She and her husband hobnobbed with writers like Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut, a family friend who set part of his novel, “Mother Night,” at the Bethune Street townhouse.
Ms. Kidwell Burger raised two daughters, made and sold her sculptures, and wrote several books, as well as poetry, science fiction and book reviews for numerous magazines.
Her latest book came out this year “Cats, Love & Other Surprises,” illustrated by her daughter Katherine Wilcox Burger. She has a docket of public readings lined up.
Ms. Kidwell Burger, who turns 94 on Nov. 9, writes on a Smith Corona Sterling typewriter at a foldout desk. Her assistant then reads the work and types it into a computer.
Ms. Kidwell Burger is still an outspoken activist. She does not care for President Donald J. Trump, and she has been known to walk the neighborhood holding a cardboard sign with the message, “Nasty Man, Lock Him Up.”
She is also territorial. After flowers were recently stolen from her sidewalk planter, she taped a warning note “to the creep who keeps stealing these plants.”
Her Sunday evening invitation-only salons have a Bohemian feel. Many of the poets date back to the Village in the ’50s, and Ms. Kidwell Burger can reminisce about longshoremen working the piers and seaman living in local rooming houses and frequenting salty bars. She can recall freight trains clattering by on the tracks that are now part of the High Line.
“Now it’s one of the more expensive places in the city to live,” she said. “The billionaires are pushing out the millionaires.”
On a recent Sunday night, part of the reading was devoted to a cache of 45 sonnets that Ms. Kidwell Burger wrote some 50 years ago and then left in a drawer until dusting them off recently.
“They’re going to start comparing you to Edna St. Vincent Millay,” said Michael Graves, a poet and salon guest that night.
Mr. Graves then read a poem of his about an undocumented immigrant living in New York. Erik La Prade read his poem about the poet W.H. Auden, who lived on St. Marks Place in the East Village.
Shelley Seccombe read her poem “Interlude,” which ruminated on the challenges and rewards of negotiating New York’s alternate-side parking regulations. Yuyutsu Sharma, a Nepalese poet who treks in the Himalayas, read his poem about earning the right to be called a New Yorker.
Of course, as the old Village’s radical and political roots give way to the forces of soaring real estate, Ms. Kidwell Burger’s townhouse, which she bought for $30,000, is now appraised at $12 million, she said.
“People are constantly calling and leaving me notes asking if I want to sell,” said Ms. Kidwell Burger. She’s not interested. “The good lord isn’t making any more Village townhouses.”