Surprise! Surprise!

The city of white donkeys evoked in the title poem of this exhilarating new collection from the American poet James Tate is an underground metropolis just beneath the earth—or so Polly, one of the book’s teeming cast of more than slightly off-kilter characters would have us believe: the inhabitants of this city “are very pale,” she explains,

but they can
see in the dark. Of course there are no cars or anything
like that, but a few have carts pulled by albino donkeys.
They live on root vegetables, potatoes, carrots, radishes
and onions. Oh yes, and grubs, they love grubs. Their houses
are made of mud. They’ve never seen the sky, or light of
any kind, never seen a sunset, so they don’t miss them. They
fall in love, much as we do. They experience joy and pain
and sorrow much the same,” she said.

Polly knows all this because she was born and grew up there, and only escaped by accident—though “escaped” is the wrong word, since she never wanted to leave, and has since missed her family terribly. Charles, her interlocutor, has known Polly a long time and is initially profoundly disturbed by this tale of her subterranean origins. Normally they talk about politics, of which she is an astute observer. The next time they meet Polly tells him her mother is dying and she must return home, despite “certain logistical problems”:

I have only
the faintest memory of where I surfaced all those years ago.
I was only a child at the time, and the shock of the light
is all that has stayed with me,” she said.

Charles urges her to try to recall her first experience on Earth, and eventually she remembers seeing a church steeple at a short distance from where she emerged. So they set off to visit the seven church steeples in the area: “At each church,” he relates,

Polly got out of the car and wandered around in
fields, and sometimes people’s yards. She looked like a dream
out there, the wind plowing through her hair and lifting her
white dress. She looked so happy. Then, when she had finally
given up on the seventh, she started walking back to the car
and something happened. It was late afternoon and the sun was
in my eyes, so I didn’t actually see it happen. All I know is,
I never saw Polly again.

The epigraph from Return to the City of White Donkeys comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s notebooks: “The trees reflected in the river—they are unconscious of a spiritual world so near them. So are we.” Like the trees and their reflections, Tate’s unlikely anecdotes present a beguiling mixture of the reassuringly solid and the mirage-like. However implausible their narratives, the poems are always full of the most ordinary things—shoes, vegetables, banks, TVs, shops, potato chips. Most are set in small-town America, the kind of place that has a farmer’s …

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