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
And while Tate's narratives are dreamy, his
language is always sharp and direct. From "All Over the
"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":
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
Delaware, and her mystery play, her radar,
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,"
"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.