Tag Archives: Sydney Smith

The White Cat and the Monk

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The White Cat and the Monk
Jo Ellen Bogart and Sydney Smith
Walker Books
Having been totally bowled over by Sydney Smith’s Footpath Flowers, I knew I wanted to review this book despite not being familiar with any of its author’s work. (In her note at the back she tells us ‘In Irish, the word bán means white. Pangur has been said to refer to the word fuller, a person who fluffed and whitened cloth. We might think, then, that Pangur Bán was a cat with brilliantly white fur. Perhaps she even glowed in the candlelight.’) In Sidney Smith’s spread here, she surely does so …

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In fact in all his glorious illustrations herein, I detect the portrayal of a similar reverence for life and learning shown by the two characters , the monk and the cat, as those of the adult and child in Footpath Flowers.
Essentially, this is an interpretation of a medieval Irish poem penned by a Benedictine monk and it’s through the monk’s lenses that we view his solitary world. The scholarly monk shares his cell with the white cat of the title and with readers, his meditation on life with Pangur and with his ‘peaceful pursuit of knowledge’ through his books. While he does this the cat in its turn is busy with his own pursuits in the spartan abode: he stalks a mouse …

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Each is content with his lot and both are completely absorbed in what they do.

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There is actually within this story, another story for one of the monk’s manuscripts shows this –

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an even more ancient portrayal of another monk and cat. And we’re treated to a marvellous illuminated manuscript spread which in itself opens up a wonderful opportunity to discuss the art created by medieval monks.

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My first encounter with the poem was through the W.H. Auden adaption wherein the monk addresses the cat and begins:
Pangur, white Pangur,
How happy we are
Alone together, Scholar and cat.
Each has his own work to do daily;
For you it is hunting, for me, study.
This second, thanks to Bogart and Smith is for me, more beautiful, more wondrous. Towards the end, Smith’s ink and watercolour frames take us towards the window …

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and the monk’s final words

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” … and I find light in the darkness.” Pangur seemingly, is the light in more than one sense. Both monk and cat can delight in and celebrate each other’s good fortune : so too can we if only we choose to view the world through similar lenses.
Like the partnership between monk and cat, that between author, Jo Ellen Bogart and artist Sydney Smith is totally in harmony; and the outcome of their collaboration is so much more than the sum of its parts.

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Footpath Flowers

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Footpath Flowers
JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith
Walker Books
To me this is a poem in pictures – poetry in motion only without the words and a pretty near perfect one too; an ode to young children, to the small wonders of nature, to joy in fact. The whole book is a small treasure.
Hand-in-hand, a child (I think a girl) and a man walk, through an urban landscape seemingly without speaking to one another. He is preoccupied with his mobile, the shopping and getting home. The child however, keeps stopping to pick the wild flowers that grow out – as wild flowers do – from all manner of cracks and corners;

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she smells each one lovingly and soon collects a small bunch. But then, still paying attention to the small things around, she notices a dead bird on the path and with due reverence, leaves her first bouquet on the bird.

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Next to receive her attention is a man (homeless?) snoozing on a park bench: he too receives a floral gift, as does a dog

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and once home she bestows floral offerings on her mum and her siblings. That leaves her just one flower:

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and she’s still walking. Whither next we wonder?

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Those of us who work with young children know that they often exhibit – like the child here – a sense of awe and wonder, a connectedness with nature and with their fellow beings and given opportunities for living in the moment, they demonstrate that felt sense, or sometimes even flow state, that young children can inhabit. To me this book is a demonstration of that and it’s achieved by its creators really getting down to the child’s eye level and showing us things from that perspective. I cannot praise too much the Canadian poet author’s storyline and the way in which he has left Sydney Smith to translate that into visual poetry with just the right amount of sentiment and judicious use of colour.

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His perspective in both full-page scenes and smaller strip-frames, is always that of the child; and this is key. So too is the fact that at no time does the adult become impatient or harass the child; rather he walks on but waits with outstretched hand at appropriate moments. (Would that every child had such an adult who showed that depth of understanding.)
Full of poignancy, this is a book to revisit and to cherish.

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