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Salvador Dali, meet Mickey Spillane
James Tate's
Memoir of the Hawk

by Arthur Alexander Parker

In Memoir of the Hawk, James Tate offers a collection of poems driven, intriguingly, by the logic of dreams.

When we were kids, my sister Margaret and I went to a funhouse that was part of a country fair one county over from where we lived in Virginia's Northern Neck. We crept up a flight of stairs and found ourselves in a long hallway. It was an old farmhouse the volunteer firefighters had fixed up for a fund-raiser. All the doors were closed. Tumbling goblins, chattering artificial bats, skirt-raising fans and eye-patched pirates swinging plastic axes beckoned behind those doors, but Margaret and I didn't know this.

"Should we go in here?" my sister asked, pointing to the first door.

"I don't think we're supposed to," I said.

We went back down the stairs and out of the funhouse.

I don't know about Margaret, but in the more than thirty-five years since that non-event etched itself into my memory, I've wanted to return to that funhouse and try all the doors.


Memoir of the Hawk
James Tate
Ecco Press
722 pp.
$25 order now logo

At last, with the publication of James Tate's latest book of poetry, Memoir of the Hawk, I have my chance. I can go back to that funhouse, fall through trap doors, get cold air blown up my jockey shorts and get gibbered at by goblins--because that is what Tate does to his readers. He scatters marbles in front of you as you climb the cliffs of his narratives, then saws off the limb you're clinging to after you've fallen off--or maybe you were pushed off, because Tate has a mischievous streak.

Each of the more than one hundred and forty poems in this collection is a small story suffused with the logic--or is it illogic?--of dreams. Here is "The Muse's Darling":


The day started strangely, with a

Hiccup. Then I drove a pencil into the

Wall and hung my hat on it. This brought

Me huge pleasure, a tingle ran up and down

My spine. I thought it was a mouse, and

perhaps it was, but I was never able to

capture it. I peeled, sliced and ate a

kiwi and that sent a bolt of lightning

through my brain. Then I saddled up my

horse and rode off into the dawning. I

arrived at work pale and exhausted.


Some of these poems make me think of automatic writing, as if Tate were watching his hand curiously to see what it would write next. Salvador Dali might have liked these poems. (In fact, Tate, like the great surrealist, seems intrigued with spiders; in "Hotel of the Golden Dawn," an entire hotel is populated with arachnids that keep the flies off a guests' eggs in the morning.)

As a reader, are you willing to grant to the storyteller the thing he craves the most--the suspension of your disbelief? Will you accept the story he is telling you instead of spurning the whole work as a strung-together series of random things, objects placed haphazardly on a garage shelf?

Sometimes, the answer is no, as with "Sudden Interest in the Dead," in which a man hearing of his mother's death begins "to shake and shudder / and was soon carried off by wild beasts." I was actually sympathizing with the fellow's plight until the beasts bore him away so offhandedly. Then I threw the book down.

I picked it up again, though. I found much to like. I was strangely comforted by "Blanc Is Noir," in which a protagonist perplexed by a thousand slings and arrows of urban life comes home, falls on the sofa and drifts "into a coma where strange appliances / tell me I'm an excellent human being."

And while Tate's narratives are dreamy, his language is always sharp and direct. From "All Over the Lot":


"Is that your son?" I asked of the lady. She shot me a

look that could fry eggs, and then she slapped

me really hard.


Or from "Scattered Reflections":


The dame

sitting next to me was tight

but not as tight as her sweater.


Salvador Dali, meet Mickey Spillane.

Strange things happen in Tate's poems, but his outlook is never bleak. Life has too many surprises to be a complete botch. "You Think You Know A Woman" is a tribute to love:


How many comets has she actually seen?

I don't know. But I do know her favorite spots in

Delaware, and her mystery play, her radar, her shorthand.

Her gift as a topiarist and her dew point.


Discovering a woman's dew point--it's as good a reason to live as any. In "Curious," I think there's more going on than I'll ever figure out:


Gabriella was lying on her back naked

on the living room rug when an antique toy

airplane came buzzing out of the sky and landed

just below her breasts and taxied to the edge

of her pubis. I had been painting a wall but

immediately put down my brush. She was smiling.

"That was an incredible landing," I said.

"Perfect," she replied.

My arousal embarrassed me.

"Just for you," she said, "I'll do it again."


I get the feeling that if I knew more about sex, I could interpret this poem properly. This may be Tate's message: instead of turning to books for information about life, let's all go out and live fully, so we can come back to books and understand what we find there.

I can't go back to the real funhouse. The firefighters burned it down one year for practice. Come to think of it, that's as nonsensical as anything in Tate's poetry. Click here to find any book!


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