In ‘Another Insane Devotion,’ Gerald Stern weaves together two seemingly disconnected memories. The first is an unsettling experience of sharing a sandwich with a street cat. The second memory is of a woman that the speaker loved but did not stay with.
The poem is a reflection on life’s difficult choices and the ongoing pull of the past. It uses a free verse structure to tell a complex, emotional story. The speaker of the poem has never fully understood the connection between the two memories that he describes.
Explore Another Insane Devotion
‘Another Insane Devotion’ by Gerald Stern is a reflection on the power of memory and choice over the course of a lifetime.
The poem begins with the speaker remembering a street cat in Rome that climbed on him to get his sandwich. Rather than running away, the speaker of ‘Another Insane Devotion’ shared his food with the cat. That day, he met a woman he was having an affair with for the last time. Years later, the speaker muses on the connection between his memory of the cat and his experiences with the unnamed woman.
Though he never meets her again, he knows that she was pregnant when they parted. He has a son or daughter somewhere in the world. His memory of the cat helps anchor his understanding of his love for the woman.
Structure and Form
‘Another Insane Devotion’ is a free verse poem, meaning that it does not have a particular rhyme scheme or meter. It is not broken up into individual stanzas. The whole poem is 57 lines long, and most lines are approximately the same length. The poem’s structure gives it a meandering quality that reflects the speaker’s musings on memory.
Without distinct stanzas, the poem shifts freely from past to present and back again. The lack of rhyme or rhythm allows the poem to resist categorization. In the same way, the poem’s subject remains somewhat mysterious to the speaker.
- Repetition: the use of the same word or phrase more than once. While the poem does not have a rhyme scheme, it does use repetition to convey its ideas. The phrase “but not only that” occurs twice in the poem, in lines 14 and 19. The speaker uses the phrase to explain what was unusual about his meeting with the cat.
- Enjambment: when a sentence or phrase carries over from one line to the next without punctuation or a break. There is a lot of enjambment in this poem. It is only in the last few lines that the speaker slows down and starts to use more punctuation. He is falling further into the details of his memory.
- Personification: giving human characteristics to non-human subjects. The speaker of the poem personifies the cat when he describes his cunningness and his stubbornness. He suggests that the cat was making a conscious decision to share food and space with him. The cat is a major character in the story because of this personification.
- Imagery: the use of words and phrases that conjure clear images or evoke certain senses. The speaker uses vivid imagery to describe the cat and to describe his current life. The poem comes alive because of the use of these techniques.
This was gruesome—fighting over a ham sandwich
with one of the tiny cats of Rome, he leaped
on my arm and half hung on to the food and half
hung on to my shirt and coat. I tore it apart
and let him have his portion, I think I lifted him
down, sandwich and all, on the sidewalk and sat
with my own sandwich beside him, maybe I petted
his bony head and felt him shiver. (…)
The speaker of ‘Another Insane Devotion’ begins in the midst of the action. On the streets of Rome, a small cat climbs up his arm to try to eat his ham sandwich. The man breaks the sandwich apart and lowers the cat to the ground. The two of them sit on the sidewalk together while they eat. The man “maybe” pets the cat on the head. The cat is small, bony and shivering, and clearly very hungry.
This dramatic opening paragraph sets the stage for the rest of the poem. The inclusion of words like “maybe” and “I think” helps situate the reader in the realm of memory. This altercation with the cat happened long ago. The speaker is remembering the experience but has forgotten some of the details. Memory is one of the major themes of the poem. The speaker wants to talk about something besides the cat, but he starts in this dramatic moment. It may be the first thing that comes to mind when he thinks of this time in his life.
(…) I have
told this story over and over; some things
root in the mind; his boldness, of course, was frightening
he sat beside me, eating, and I didn’t run
into a trattoria, say, shaking,
with food on my lips and blood on my cheek, sobbing;
In these lines of ‘Another Insane Devotion,’ the speaker stops describing the events of the experience and starts analyzing them. This memory of the cat is very important to him; he says he has told the story many times. There are several things about the encounter that the man remembers with particular clarity. First, he remembers the cat’s unusual behavior. He must have been extremely hungry to be so bold and so insistent. The cat broke boundaries to get so close to him. The speaker also remembers the fact that he and the cat ate together. They could both have run away to a safer place, but they both chose to sit and eat on the sidewalk.
The speaker has complex feelings about this experience. Most of all, he thinks that what happened was unusual. It was a highly memorable encounter. He might have forgotten the experience of eating that particular ham sandwich in Rome had it not been for the cat. He also might easily have gone into a restaurant to finish eating after the cat attacked him. As fate would have it, he and the cat found an uneasy peace after the initial violence of their encounter.
but not only that, I had gone there to eat
and wait for someone. I had maybe an hour
a clue, or I was giving myself a clue,
across the street from the glass sandwich shop.
The speaker suddenly provides more context on why this encounter with the cat was so important. He was not just having lunch; he was waiting for someone. While he and the cat ate together, the speaker was anticipating his meeting. He says that he has “resisted for years interpreting this” connection. Ultimately, he believes that his meeting with the cat was some kind of clue to help him understand his other meeting that day.
‘Another Insane Devotion’ is about how certain moments function as anchors for memory. These lines are the first time that the speaker hints that this poem is not actually about a cat. The cat is his entry point into another, much more significant, memory. He finds it difficult to parse the connection between these two events. Nonetheless, the cat and the other meeting remain permanently intertwined in his mind.
That was my last night with her, the next day
I would leave on the train for Paris and she would
a daughter or son somewhere, darling grandchildren
in Norwich, Connecticut, or Canton, Ohio.
The speaker finally acknowledges what was really important about the day when he met the cat. He was waiting to meet a woman he was having an affair with. It was the start of their final day and night together. The next morning, the speaker says, he took the train to Paris. The woman returned to her husband, and the two of them never met again. In fact, the woman was pregnant at the time with the speaker’s child. He knows that he has a daughter or a son living somewhere in the world, most likely in the United States. He may even have grandchildren, given how long ago the affair took place.
In these lines, ‘Another Insane Devotion’ suddenly opens up. It is no longer a poem about a cat that stole a man’s sandwich. Now, it is about the end of a love affair. This day in the speaker’s life was not just memorable because he met a hungry kitten. It was his final day with a woman he loved who was pregnant with his child. The day that the poem is describing was a fundamental turning point in the speaker’s life. Whenever he tells the story of the cat, as he says he has done many times, he will necessarily be reminded of what else happened that day.
Every five years I think about her again
and plan on looking her up. The last time
in Florence and Rome. We rowed in the bay of Naples
and floated, naked, on the boards. I started to think of her again today.
The speaker jumps forward in time to the present day. It has been thirty-five years since he last saw the woman in the poem. He still thinks of her, but only infrequently. The last time she was on his mind, the speaker learned that her husband was a teacher at Princeton University. He heard nothing about the woman and wondered if she was still alive and still married. He says that he tried calling her. The poem implies that his call did not reach the woman. The speaker thinks of the time he and the woman spent together in Italy.
For the first time, ‘Another Insane Devotion’ describes the speaker’s life in the present. There is suddenly a gulf of time and distance between the cat (and the affair) and the speaker’s current life. When he says that he tried calling the woman, he says, “I went that far.” His phrasing suggests that he thinks that calling the woman was crossing a boundary. His actions, in this instance, echo the actions of the cat. Drifting back to the past, the man thinks for the first time of moments in his affair outside of that final day. He has a somewhat idyllic view of the past.
am horrified by the cat’s hunger. I still
I bought memory. I could have lost it.
How crazy it sounds. His face twisted with cunning.
The wind blowing through his hair. His jaw working.
In these final lines, the speaker reflects once more on the cat and on his life as a whole. He compares the cat’s desire for the sandwich to his own enduring affection for the woman. They are each “another insane devotion” that cannot be easily understood. Although he maintains his feelings for the woman, he can think of her without pain. At last, the speaker seems to understand why the cat was so important. In giving the cat half the sandwich and sitting with him, the speaker “bought memory.” His experiences with the woman can never be forgotten, even though he can never go back. He is happy with his life, and the cat will always remain an intense reminder of the love he and the woman once shared.
Ultimately, the speaker of ‘Another Insane Devotion’ does not regret his experiences. He is glad that he shared his sandwich with the cat instead of running away. He is glad that he had his affair with the woman, but he is also glad that they parted ways. The day with the cat was a turning point. The man chose to remember his experiences fondly but to follow a different path. By giving the cat his sandwich, he created a memory that he can never let go of, but that cannot hurt him. The final image of the poem is of the cat eating.
The main theme of the poem is memory. The speaker spends the poem carefully unraveling the connection between two seemingly disconnected memories. One is the memory of a feral cat that tried to eat his sandwich, while the other is a memory of his affair with a married woman.
The poem is wistful in tone. The speaker is not sad when he thinks about the woman he had an affair with, but he does remember his time in Italy fondly. The poem is a careful, open-minded exploration of the speaker’s memories and feelings.
The poem is about the choices that people make in their lives and the memories that they associate with specific events. The speaker is not unhappy that he and the woman did not stay together. He still thinks of her, but he is aware that he made the choice to have a particular life as she did.
- ‘In Memory of a Happy Day in February’ by Anne Brontë explores the power of positive memories in a person’s life.
- ‘The Tiger in the Menagerie’ by Emma Jones examines a potentially violent interaction with an animal.
- ‘Sonnet 142’ by William Shakespeare is a poem that examines the impact of an affair.