In “My Cat,” Ezekiel alludes to Verlaine’s “Cat and Lady” and Baudelaire’s “Le Chat.” Both of these poems come from the mid-nineteenth century, which is almost a century before Ezekiel himself started writing. In this poem, Ezekiel subtly shows how his poetry diverges from past literary tradition. Verlaine and Baudelaire’s poems each use the cat as tools for decadent associations: Verlaine’s cat brings up associations of evil while Baudelaire’s cat is sexualized and reminds the poet of his lover. As the speaker in “My Cat” puts it, the cat is “diabolic” and “a sphinx” (65). In contrast, Ezekiel’s cat in “My Cat” is a perfectly normal cat, which does not bring up unnatural associations of any kind: “She has a single mood, she’s merely bored, / Yawns and walks away, retires to sleep” (66). However, the speaker in Ezekiel’s poem is unsettling in a way that the speakers in Verlaine and Baudelaire poems are not. He admits in the final line to feeling violent tendencies towards his pet: “One night I’ll drown this cat” (66). The difference between Ezekiel’s predecessors and his own work shows how he consciously chooses to deviate from the literary tradition: instead of making the cat the oddity or chaotic force in the poem (as Verlaine and Baudelaire did), Ezekiel chooses instead to show how unhinged the speaker is through his interaction with an everyday cat. Thus, instead of drawing from the outside world and imbuing it with symbolic meaning, Ezekiel embraces the tenets of modernism and chooses to delve into the human psyche, to show what truly might be unsettling in a relationship between a man and his cat.
In “Episode,” the speaker alludes to Helen of Troy, who is a classical figure famous for the war that was fought over her due to her beauty. This war is known as the Trojan War and is detailed in Homer’s Iliad. She ran away from her husband, King Menelaus, to be with a beautiful man, Paris. She is a controversial character in Western literature, and references of her carry a suspicion of her honesty and her character.
“A Morning Walk,” from The Unfinished Man, compares the city to Dante’s purgatory: “Barbaric city sick with slums, / … / A million purgatorial lanes, / And child-like masses, many-tongued, / Whose wages are in words and crumbs” (119). Additionally, the hill that the speaker yearns for in the beginning of the poem alludes to the hill at the beginning of the Inferno that Dante tries to climb until he is stopped by three feral animals.