James Tate |
This is the hardest part:
When I came back to life
I was a good family dog
and not too friendly to strangers.
I got a thirty-five dollar raise
in salary, and through the pea-soup fogs
I drove the General, and introduced him
I had a totalitarian approach
and was a massive boost to his popularity.
I did my best to reduce the number of people.
The local bourgeoisie did not exist.
One of them was a mystic
and walked right over me
as if I were a bed of hot coals.
This is par for the course-
I will be employing sundry golf metaphors
henceforth, because a dog, best friend
and chief advisor to the General, should.
While dining with the General I said,
"Let's play the back nine in a sacred rage.
Let's tee-off over the foredoomed community
and putt ourselves thunderously, touching bottom.
He drank it all in, rugged and dusky.
I think I know what he was thinking.
He held his automatic to my little head
and recited a poem about my many weaknesses,
for which I loved him so.
James Tate |
Some people go their whole lives
without ever writing a single poem.
Extraordinary people who don't hesitate
to cut somebody's heart or skull open.
They go to baseball games with the greatest of ease.
and play a few rounds of golf as if it were nothing.
These same people stroll into a church
as if that were a natural part of life.
Investing money is second nature to them.
They contribute to political campaigns
that have absolutely no poetry in them
and promise none for the future.
They sit around the dinner table at night
and pretend as though nothing is missing.
Their children get caught shoplifting at the mall
and no one admits that it is poetry they are missing.
The family dog howls all night,
lonely and starving for more poetry in his life.
Why is it so difficult for them to see
that, without poetry, their lives are effluvial.
Sure, they have their banquets, their celebrations,
croquet, fox hunts, their sea shores and sunsets,
their cocktails on the balcony, dog races,
and all that kissing and hugging, and don't
forget the good deeds, the charity work,
nursing the baby squirrels all through the night,
filling the birdfeeders all winter,
helping the stranger change her tire.
Still, there's that disagreeable exhalation
from decaying matter, subtle but everpresent.
They walk around erect like champions.
They are smooth-spoken and witty.
When alone, rare occasion, they stare
into the mirror for hours, bewildered.
There was something they meant to say, but didn't:
"And if we put the statue of the rhinoceros
next to the tweezers, and walk around the room three times,
learn to yodel, shave our heads, call
our ancestors back from the dead--"
poetrywise it's still a bust, bankrupt.
You haven't scribbled a syllable of it.
You're a nowhere man misfiring
the very essence of your life, flustering
nothing from nothing and back again.
The hereafter may not last all that long.
Radiant childhood sweetheart,
secret code of everlasting joy and sorrow,
fanciful pen strokes beneath the eyelids:
all day, all night meditation, knot of hope,
kernel of desire, pure ordinariness of life
seeking, through poetry, a benediction
or a bed to lie down on, to connect, reveal,
explore, to imbue meaning on the day's extravagant labor.
And yet it's cruel to expect too much.
It's a rare species of bird
that refuses to be categorized.
Its song is barely audible.
It is like a dragonfly in a dream--
here, then there, then here again,
low-flying amber-wing darting upward
then out of sight.
And the dream has a pain in its heart
the wonders of which are manifold,
or so the story is told.
James Tate |
All night a door floated down the river.
It tried to remember little incidents of pleasure
from its former life, like the time the lovers
leaned against it kissing for hours
and whispering those famous words.
Later, there were harsh words and a shoe
was thrown and the door was slammed.
Comings and goings by the thousands,
the early mornings and late nights, years, years.
O they've got big plans, they'll make a bundle.
The door was an island that swayed in its sleep.
The moon turned the doorknob just slightly,
burned its fingers and ran,
and still the door said nothing and slept.
At least that's what they like to say,
the little fishes and so on.
Far away, a bell rang, and then a shot was fired.
More great poems below...
James Tate |
It seemed as if the enormous journey
was finally approaching its conclusion.
From the window of the train
the last trees were dissipating,
a child-like sailor waved once,
a seal-like dog barked and died.
The conductor entered the lavatory
and was not seen again, although
his harmonica-playing was appreciated.
He was not without talent, some said.
A botanist with whom I had become acquainted
actually suggested we form a group or something.
I was looking for a familiar signpost
in his face, or a landmark that would
indicate the true colors of his tribe.
But, alas, there was not a glass of water
anywhere or even the remains of a trail.
I got a bewildered expression of my own
and slinked to the back of the car
where a nun started to tickle me.
She confided to me that it was her
cowboy pride that got her through .
Through what? I thought, but drew my hand
close to my imaginary vest.
"That's a beautiful vest," she said,
as I began crawling down the aisle.
At last, I pressed my face against
the window: A little fog was licking
its chop, as was the stationmaster
We didn't stop.
We didn't appear to be arriving,
and yet we were almost out of landscape.
No creeks or rivers.
even remotely reminding one of a mound.
O mound! Thou ain't around no more.
A heap of abstract geometrical symbols,
that's what it's coming to, I thought.
A nothing you could sink your teeth into.
"Relief's on the way," a little
know-nothing boy said to me.
"Imagine my surprise," I said
and reached out to muss his hair.
But he had no hair and it felt unlucky
touching his skull like that.
"Forget what I said," he said.
"What did you say?" I asked
in automatic compliance.
And then it got very dark and quiet.
I closed my eyes and dreamed of an emu I once loved.
James Tate |
My felisberto is handsomer than your mergotroid,
although, admittedly, your mergotroid may be the wiser of the two.
Whereas your mergotroid never winces or quails,
my felisberto is a titan of inconsistencies.
For a night of wit and danger and temptation
my felisberto would be the obvious choice.
However, at dawn or dusk when serenity is desired
your mergotroid cannot be ignored.
Merely to sit near it in the garden
and watch the fabrications of the world swirl by,
the deep-sea's bathymetry wash your eyes,
not to mention the little fawns of the forest
and their flip-floppy gymnastics, ah, for this
and so much more your mergotroid is infinitely preferable.
But there is a place for darkness and obscurity
without which life can sometimes seem too much,
too frivolous and too profound simultaneously,
and that is when my felisberto is needed,
is longed for and loved, and then the sun can rise again.
The bee and the hummingbird drink of the world,
and your mergotroid elaborates the silent concert
that is always and always about to begin.
James Tate |
Jesus got up one day a little later than usual.
He had been dream-
ing so deep there was nothing left in his head.
What was it?
A nightmare, dead bodies walking all around him, eyes rolled
back, skin falling off.
But he wasn't afraid of that.
It was a beau-
How 'bout some coffee? Don't mind if I do.
Take a little
ride on my donkey, I love that donkey.
Hell, I love everybody.
James Tate |
Speaking of sunsets,
last night's was shocking.
I mean, sunsets aren't supposed to frighten you, are they?
Well, this one was terrifying.
Sure, it was beautiful, but far too beautiful.
It wasn't natural.
One climax followed another and then another
until your knees went weak
and you couldn't breathe.
The colors were definitely not of this world,
peaches dripping opium,
pandemonium of tangerines,
inferno of irises,
all swirling and churning, swabbing,
like it was playing with us,
like we were nothing,
as if our whole lives were a preparation for this,
this for which nothing could have prepared us
and for which we could not have been less prepared.
The mockery of it all stung us bitterly.
And when it was finally over
we whimpered and cried and howled.
And then the streetlights came on as always
and we looked into one another's eyes--
ancient caves with still pools
and those little transparent fish
who have never seen even one ray of light.
And the calm that returned to us
was not even our own.
James Tate |
There's a fortune to be made in just about everything
in this country, somebody's father had to invent
everything--baby food, tractors, rat poisoning.
My family's obviously done nothing since the beginning
They invented poverty and bad taste
and getting by and taking it from the boss.
O my mother goes around chewing her nails and
spitting them in a jar: You shouldn't be ashamed
of yourself she says, think of your family.
My family I say what have they ever done but
paint by numbers the most absurd and disgusting scenes
of plastic squalor and human degradation.
Well then think of your great great etc.
James Tate |
She has one good bumblebee
which she leads about town
on a leash of clover.
It's as big as a Saint Bernard
but also extremely fragile.
People want to pet its long, shaggy coat.
These would be mostly whirling dervishes
out shopping for accessories.
When Lily winks they understand everything,
right down to the particle
of a butterfly's wing lodged
in her last good eye,
so the situation is avoided,
the potential for a cataclysm
is narrowly averted,
and the bumblebee lugs
its little bundle of shaved nerves
forward, on a mission
from some sick, young godhead.
James Tate |
I swerved to avoid hitting a squirrel
in the center of the road and that's when
the deer came charging out of the forest
and forced me to hit the brakes for all I
was worth and I careened back to the other
side of the road just as a skunk came toddling
out of Mrs.
Bancroft's front yard and I swung
back perhaps just grazing it a bit.
quickly in the rearview mirror and in that
instant a groundhog waddled from the side
of the road and I zigzagged madly and don't
know if I nipped it or not because up ahead I
could see a coyote stalking the Collier's
Oh well, I said, and drove the rest
of the way home without incident.
James Tate |
for my father, 1922-1944
Your face did not rot
like the others--the co-pilot,
for example, I saw him
His face is corn-
mush: his wife and daughter,
the poor ignorant people, stare
as if he will compose soon.
He was more wronged than Job.
But your face did not rot
like the others--it grew dark,
and hard like ebony;
the features progressed in their
If I could cajole
you to come back for an evening,
down from your compulsive
orbiting, I would touch you,
read your face as Dallas,
your hoodlum gunner, now,
with the blistered eyes, reads
his braille editions.
touch your face as a disinterested
scholar touches an original page.
However frightening, I would
discover you, and I would not
turn you in; I would not make
you face your wife, or Dallas,
or the co-pilot, Jim.
could return to your crazy
orbiting, and I would not try
to fully understand what
it means to you.
All I know
is this: when I see you,
as I have seen you at least
once every year of my life,
spin across the wilds of the sky
like a tiny, African god,
I feel dead.
I feel as if I were
the residue of a stranger's life,
that I should pursue you.
My head cocked toward the sky,
I cannot get off the ground,
and, you, passing over again,
fast, perfect, and unwilling
to tell me that you are doing
well, or that it was mistake
that placed you in that world,
and me in this; or that misfortune
placed these worlds in us.
James Tate |
I take the long walk up the staircase to my secret room.
Today's big news: they found Amelia Earhart's shoe, size 9.
1992: Charlie Christian is bebopping at Minton's in 1941.
Today, the Presidential primaries have failed us once again.
We'll look for our excitement elsewhere, in the last snow
that is falling, in tomorrow's Gospel Concert in Springfield.
It's a good day to be a cat and just sleep.
Or to read the Confessions of Saint Augustine.
Jesus called the sons of Zebedee the Sons of Thunder.
In my secret room, plans are hatched: we'll explore the Smoky Mountains.
Then we'll walk along a beach: Hallelujah!
(A letter was just delivered by Overnight Express--
it contained nothing of importance, I slept through it.
(I guess I'm trying to be "above the fray.
The Russians, I know, have developed a language called "Lincos"
designed for communicating with the inhabitants of other worlds.
That's been a waste of time, not even a postcard.
But then again, there are tree-climbing fish, called anabases.
They climb the trees out of stupidity, or so it is said.
Who am I to judge? I want to break out of here.
A bee is not strong in geometry: it cannot tell
a square from a triangle or a circle.
The locker room of my skull is full of panting egrets.
I'm saying that strictly for effect.
In time I will heal, I know this, or I believe this.
The contents and furnishings of my secret room will be labeled
and organized so thoroughly it will be a little frightening.
What I thought was infinite will turn out to be just a couple
of odds and ends, a tiny miscellany, miniature stuff, fragments
of novelties, of no great moment.
But it will also be enough,
maybe even more than enough, to suggest an immense ritual and tradition.
And this makes me very happy.
James Tate |
I sit on the tracks,
a hundred feet from
earth, fifty from the
inching toward me
as grim, slow, and
determined as a
season, because he
has no trade and wants
It's been nine months
since I last listened
to his fate, but I
know what he will say:
he's the fire hydrant
of the underdog.
When he reaches my
point above the creek,
he sits down without
spits profoundly out
past the edge, and peeks
for meaning in the
ripple it brings.
He speaks: when you
walk down any street
you see nothing but
of shit and vomit,
and I'm sick of it.
I suggest suicide;
he prefers murder,
and spits again for
the sake of all the
great devout losers.
A conductor's horn
concerto breaks the
air, and we, two doomed
pennies on the track,
shove off and somersault
fleas, ruffling the
poised on the water
with our light, dry bodies.
he sails downstream like
a young man with a
swim toward shore as
fast as my boots will
allow; as always,
neglecting to drown.
James Tate |
Jim just loves to garden, yes he does.
He likes nothing better than to put on
his little overalls and his straw hat.
He says, "Let's go get those tools, Jim.
But then doubt begins to set in.
He says, "What is a garden, anyway?"
And thoughts about a "modernistic" garden
begin to trouble him, eat away at his resolve.
He stands in the driveway a long time.
"Horticulture is a groping in the dark
into the obscure and unfamiliar,
kneeling before a disinterested secret,
slapping it, punching it like a Chinese puzzle,
birdbrained babbling gibberish, dig and
destroy, pull out and apply salt,
hoe and spray, before it spreads, burn roots,
where not desired, with gloved hands, poisonous,
the self-sacrifice of it, the self-love,
into the interior, thunderclap, excruciating,
through the nose, the earsplitting necrology
of it, the withering, shrivelling,
the handy hose holder and Persian insect powder
and smut fungi, the enemies of the iris,
wireworms are worse than their parents,
there is no way out, flowers as big as heads,
pock-marked, disfigured, blinking insolently
at me, the me who so loves to garden
because it prevents the heaving of the ground
and the untimely death of porch furniture,
and dark, murky days in a large city
and the dream home under a permanent storm
is also a factor to keep in mind.
James Tate |
A motorist once said to me,
and this was in the country,
on a county lane, a motorist
slowed his vehicle as I was
walking my dear old collie,
Sithney, by the side of the road,
and the motorist came to a halt
mildly alarming both Sithney and myself,
not yet accustomed to automobiles,
and this particular motorist
sent a little spasm of fright up our spines,
which in turn panicked the driver a bit
and it seemed as if we were off to a bad start,
and that's when Sithney began to bark
and the man could not be heard, that is,
if he was speaking or trying to speak
because I was commanding Sithnewy to be silent,
though, indeed I was sympathetic
to his emotional excitement.
It was, as I recall, a day of prodigious beauty.
April 21, 1932--clouds
like the inside of your head explained.
Bluebirds, too numerous to mention.
The clover calling you by name.
And fields oozing green.
And this motorist from nowhere
moving his lips
like the wings of a butterfly
and nothing coming out,
and Sithney silent now.
He was no longer looking at us,
but straight ahead
where his election was in doubt.
"That's a fine dog," he said.
"Collies are made in heaven.
Well, if I were a voting man I'd vote for you, I said.
"A bedoozling day to be lost in the country, I say.
Leastways, I am a misplaced individual.
We introduced ourselves
and swapped a few stories.
He was a veteran and a salesmen
who didn't believe in his product--
I've forgotten what it was--hair restorer,
parrot feed--and he enjoyed nothing more
then a a day spent meandering the back roads
in his jalopy.
I gave him directions
to the Denton farm, but I doubt
that he followed them, he didn't
seem to be listening, and it was getting late
and Sithney had an idea of his own
and I don't know why I am remembering this now,
just that he summed himself up by saying
"I've missed too many boats"
and all these years later
I keep thinking that was a man
who loved to miss boats,
but he didn't miss them that much.