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 supply store one might dawdle around if feeling at a loose end, like the narrator of “Of Whom Am I Afraid?,” who finds himself soothed by contemplating the sacks of feed and seed. While browsing one day he falls into conversation with an old, grizzled farmer about to buy a rake:
I said to him, “Have you ever read
much Emily Dickinson?” “Sure,” he said, “I
reckon I’ve read all her poems at least a
dozen times. She’s a real pistol. And I’ve
even gotten into several fights about them
with some of my neighbors. One guy said she
was too ‘prissy’ for him. And I said, ‘Hell,
she’s tougher than you’ll ever be.’ When I
finished with him, I made him sit down and read
The Complete Poems over again, all 1,775 of them.
He finally said, ‘You’re right, Clyde, she’s
tougher than I’ll ever be.’ And he was crying
like a baby when he said that.”
Inspired, the narrator purchases some ice tongs, “which/made me surprisingly happy, and for which I/had no earthly use.”
What earthly use is poetry? This is a question that all poems, at some level, have to address. The comic exuberance of Tate’s surfaces has tended to obscure the absolute and impassioned nature of his commitment to poetry as the most effective and resourceful way of alerting us to the spiritual world so near us. His sense of the spiritual is not, of course, articulated in relation to biblical scripture or doctrinal controversy in the manner of Dickinson or Hawthorne, those last great scions of New England Puritanism. Tate was born and bred in Kansas City, Missouri, and a distinctly midwestern twang is integral to the voice in which his poems develop and perform their very tall stories. Nevertheless, Hawthorne’s famous description in “The Custom House,” his introduction to The Scarlet Letter, of the way moonlight “spiritualizes” the everyday, investing a child’s shoe or a doll or a wicker carriage or a hobbyhorse with “a quality of strangeness and remoteness,” might be seen as analogous to the way Tate’s uncanny narratives set about transforming the banal: once bathed in moonlight, Hawthorne writes, “the floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other. Ghosts might enter here, without affrighting us.”
“Afraid?” asks the Dickinson poem from which Tate—who has in fact lived in Amherst since the late Sixties—borrows his title: “Of whom am I afraid?/ Not death, for who is he?/The porter of my father’s lodge/As much abasheth me.” The most obvious earthly use of poetry is the potential it offers to translate what affrights us into a realm where ghosts may return and be addressed, argued with, reconfronted, and reconfigured. We are conducted to this realm, in Tate’s poetry, principally through the uses he makes of surprise. Indeed, surprise is so fundamental to his methods that one is tempted to say that for Tate poetry is surprise, wherever, however it occurs. It is his way of creating the state of what Keats called “negative capability”—“that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” There is no point in reaching after fact and reason when being told by an old friend that she was born in an underground city where people eat grubs and have carts pulled by white donkeys. Such a claim puts us, as it puts Charles, in a quandary: Should we dismiss her as a lunatic, and, to quote from the same Keats letter, “let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge”? Or should we, as Charles eventually does, suspend our skepticism and inhibitions and participate in the way events unfold, even if this means accepting an unnerving loss of control?
Tate’s poetry seems to me to illustrate, with almost obsessive fervor, the importance of learning to live in uncertainty. His outlandish narratives are designed to induct us into a kind of limbo where the Actual and the Imaginary meet in the half light of half knowledge, and where we find ourselves sliding from the mundane to the absurd in a pleasurable, all-accommodating trance. When we awake, at the poem’s conclusion, we may well wonder on what level we should interpret the story, or what kinds of anxiety or inner conflict inspired it. Such wonderings, however, are precisely what the poem aims to confound, for a surprise will stop being a surprise if it can be glossed as embodying a particular set of meanings or concerns.
Many critics appear to have found this aspect of Tate’s poetics frustrating; for although highly esteemed, indeed prize-laden, and a significant influence on the work of many younger poets, his oeuvre has not as yet generated much illuminating or sustained analysis.1 This may in part be because he rarely goes in for the kinds of epistemological speculation that make, say, John Ashbery or Language writers such as Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman so appealing to contemporary academics. Tate’s poems, in contrast, are wrapped up wholly in themselves; each devotes its energies solely to the challenge of developing out of its given premise, its “fine isolated verisimilitude,” a sinuous labyrinth of the unexpected.
Surprise depends on outflanking or overturning the reader’s expectations; we don’t expect the narrator of “Of Whom Am I Afraid?”—even if we recognize the source of its title—to demand so peremptorily of the old farmer if he’s read Emily Dickinson, and still less do we expect the farmer not only to have done so, but to have gotten into fights with his neighbors over her. On the other hand the poem, like most gathered in this book and in Tate’s previous collection, Memoir of the Hawk (2001), is explicitly in the tradition of the poem based on an encounter: the narrator meets someone, has a peculiar, often mystifying conversation, and ends the poem invigorated or consoled, or somehow re-angled:
“God,” said I,”be my help and stay secure;
I’ll think of the Leech Gatherer on the lonely moor!”
exclaims Wordsworth at the conclusion of what is perhaps the archetype of all encounter poems, “Resolution and Independence,” in which the poet’s chance meeting with a venerable collector of leeches enables him to overcome a crisis of anxiety over his poetic vocation.
While the nature of the exchanges in Tate’s encounter poems tends more toward the wacky and irreverent than is the case in Wordsworth, who nearly always reports himself admonished and uplifted by conversing with his various outcasts, the structure of the resultant poem is still roughly similar. “Of Whom Am I Afraid?,” for instance, follows exactly the stages of the “Resolution and Independence”–style encounter lyric: the narrator finds himself “a little at loose ends,” just as Wordsworth falls prey to “blind thoughts”; he seeks solace in nature, that is, the seed and feed sacks at the farmer’s supply store, meets an old man whom he accosts with a “stranger’s privilege,” as Words- worth puts it, and from whom he receives a reply that is contrary to his expectations, but that immeasurably cheers him up. In both poems the narrator’s happiness is released by the way the old man’s replies refute the imperatives of what Wordsworth calls “getting and spending,” the utilitarian capitalist world that considers poetry “prissy”; both encounters allow the narrator-poets to recover a sense of the importance and potency of poetry, however “useless” it may seem, and more generally, create a space for the expression of sentiment—in a delightful reversal, Clyde’s pugnacious neighbor cries like a baby when forced to acknowledge the “toughness” of Emily Dickinson. Tate’s narrator is not, however, seduced by the farmer’s unexpected validation of poetry into believing that his vocation sets him above or beyond the everyday world of commerce; rather, in another neat reversal, the poem’s conclusion suggests the possibilities of a poetic approach to capitalism: it is the purchase of a pair of ice tongs for which he has no “earthly use” that renders him “surprisingly happy.” One might say that this particular poetic narrative has “spiritualized” ice tongs.
Many of Tate’s encounters can be read as negotiations between a generic outsider and the institutions of a body politic that he or she can neither escape nor endorse. Despite the bizarre turns of event that have them ricocheting like pinballs through the arc of each poem, most of Tate’s characters seem as ready as Charles to adjust to the unlikely. Perhaps the one who suffers the most acute mental anguish is Leon, who one day receives a call from the White House, from the President himself, asking him a personal favor:
I like the president, so I said, “Sure, Mr.
President, anything you like.” He said, “Just act
like nothing’s going on. Act normal. That would
mean the world to me. Can you do that, Leon?” “Why,
sure, Mr. President, you’ve got it. Normal, that’s
how I’m going to act. I won’t let on, even if I’m
tortured,” I said, immediately regretting that “tortured”
bit. He thanked me several times and hung up.
But acting “normal” is not easy as soon as it becomes your “Bounden Duty” (the poem’s title). Poor Leon is almost instantly seized by devastating paranoia: Is he dressed in a “normal” way, or in a way that reveals he is trying too hard to look “normal”? Is that car outside his house “normal”? And the injunction to act as if nothing was going on forces him to wonder exactly what is going on: That farmer on TV the President shook hands with yesterday—was he a real farmer? Eventually Leon manages to leave the house to go out and buy milk; at the store he runs into Kirsten, who asks him what’s going on. “Nothing’s going on,” he replies tersely, and explains he is just buying milk for his cat. “I didn’t know/you had a cat,” she returns. “You’re right,” he concedes, “I don’t have a cat”:
“Nothing’s going on, Kirsten, I promise
you. Everything is normal. The president shook
hands with a farmer, a real farmer. Is that such
a big deal?” I said. “I saw that,” she said, “and
that man was definitely not a farmer.” “Yeah, I
know,” I said, feeling better.2
A still more extreme example of Tate’s topsy-turvy conjugations of the interface between public and private is “The Kennedy Assassination,” in which the narrator is interviewed forty years on by two law enforcement officers, Antliff and Merino, who want to know where he was on the afternoon Kennedy was shot. He embarks on an extended reminiscence about an ex-girlfriend called Rosemary Goldberg, who had fallen under the influence of a certain Carol; that afternoon he was spying on them as they played tennis in matching white outfits, but the news that the President had been assassinated makes both suddenly seem to him
“unbearably silly and irrelevant to anything
that mattered in this world. They couldn’t stop laughing, and it
made me sick to my stomach,” I said. “So that was it for you. The
president getting shot freed you from Rosemary,” he said. “I guess
you could say that,” I said, “though I never thought of it like that
before.” “Then it was a good thing for you,” Antliff said. “What
are you getting at?” I said.
In the event no charges are pressed, though it does indeed turn out that he was a major beneficiary of the Kennedy assassination, which probably saved him from becoming an unsolved murder case himself. He asks the officers what happened to Rosemary:
of three on Long Island. Apparently strangled her husband in his
sleep, but nothing’s been proven,” Merino said. “Still quite a good-
looking babe, if you ask me,” Antliff added.
The elegant symmetries and dead-pan derangements that Tate orchestrates throughout this book often had me almost weeping with laughter. I think it his best so far. Like those collected in Memoir of the Hawk (2001), its poems all consist of a single, sometimes pages-long, paragraph, and the line endings are again so arbitrary as to make them almost prose poems—indeed on their first appearance in magazines and other publications some were actually printed as blocks of prose. It seems to me they work much better with the ragged right-hand margin, for it gives them that little extra bounce, and makes them feel more hybrid, impure, and unselfconscious than when presented as exhibits in the long tradition of the prose poem, with its illustrious pedigree and origins in the hallowed work of nineteenth-century French poets such as Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud.
The prose poem was also a crucial genre for many of the European Surrealists whose work had an impor-tant effect on the evolution of Tate’s poetry in the period after he won the Yale Younger Poet’s Award in 1967 for The Lost Pilot. I suspect that one of the reasons Surrealism appealed to him was that it offered a way of escaping the narrowness of a regionalist style of poetry, to which he seems from the outset to have been averse, without committing him to presenting himself as an all-knowing arbiter of culture, in the fashion of Eliot or Pound or Lowell. Of the modes of international modernism inherited by America’s postwar generation of poets, Surrealism had the advantage of being implicitly iconoclastic and anti-authoritarian—despite the fact that it was the brainchild of a group of elite, highly educated Parisians, and the official “Surrealist Movement” was controlled by its figurehead and founder, André Breton, with a rod of iron. There has always, however, been something insistently American about Tate’s uses of the absurd, as Charles Simic pointed out in a review of Memoir of the Hawk in these pages: “If Tate is a Surrealist,” he observed, “he belongs to that native strain to which Mark Twain, Buster Keaton, and W.C. Fields also belong.”3
Tate himself has suggested that American poets—and American popular culture—have made such diverse and thoroughgoing use of the innovations of Surrealism that the word has become almost meaningless. One of the measures of the success of the poems in this volume, and of those collected in the almost equally good Memoir of the Hawk, is how completely they develop an idiom that fuses the excitements—and seriousness—of the Surrealist project with the colloquial speech patterns and unheroic dilemmas of everyday life. Tate has stripped his language of both grandeur and extravagance; and if the characters in these poems are occasionally vouchsafed glimpses into the spiritual world so near them, it is not as mystic seekers after elemental truths, but as victims of the illogic of farce and the humiliations of the pratfall.
Tate’s poetry has always sought to span the gap between the mishap and the sublime. His most direct expression of this compulsion is still the title poem of his first collection, “The Lost Pilot,” an elegy for his father, whose plane was shot down over Germany in 1944, a few months after Tate was born. Lieutenant Tate’s body was never, however, recovered, and the poem figures him endlessly orbiting the planet “like a tiny, African god.” The terms the poem uses to account for the distance between the unreachable, deified father and the earth-bound, abandoned son cast an interesting light on Tate’s subsequent development of a poetry that aims to approach the spiritual through slapstick:
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.
“Mistake,” “misfortune”—even after numerous readings of this poem I find the restraint of these words extraordinarily moving; they translate the helpless lurch in the line break between “doing” and “well” (what does it mean to be “doing/well” as a tiny African god orbiting the earth?) into a determination to live with what Keats called “half knowledge,” to accept life’s randomness and unknowability. And it is, I think, the conviction that this acceptance is somehow shared by his father that provides the frail link between the two in the poem’s haunting final statement that “misfortune/ placed these worlds in us.”
While few of Tate’s subsequent poems have emulated the solemn cadences of “The Lost Pilot,” most can be seen as dramatizing its search for ways of balancing the cosmic and the quotidian. One might argue that the Polly of the title poem of this new volume is the orbiting father’s female antithesis; while his features are imagined growing “dark,/and hard like ebony” as he spins across the “wilds of the sky,” she returns to a lightless kingdom of pallor and mud. Both, in their different ways, make use of the tradition of metamorphosis, and indeed Return to the City of White Donkeys is as packed as Ovid’s compendium of legends with the supernatural, with strange creatures such as flesh-eating moths, feral babies, a hungry dead man, a giant turkey, a talking raven, and with transformations that occur when one’s least expecting them. Margot, for instance, stops to relieve herself in the woods in the course of a Sunday drive, is bitten by something, and contracts the flying disease. Her companion glimpses her gliding above the woods and perching on trees:
I was speechless, and in awe
of her grace. It appeared so effortless and natural.
“What am I supposed to do?” I said. “I think you’d
have to put an arrow through me,” she replied.
I don’t have an arrow,” I said, “and besides I
could never do that. I love you!”
Like Polly she vanishes in a blur of light. “She was being called,” he decides; “By who, I don’t know./But I could feel it, and it was very strong.” And life, he ruefully concedes in the poem’s final line, is truly made of just such mishaps: “A/Sunday drive, a pee in the woods, and now this.”
December 2, 2004
There is as yet no single-volume critical study of his work. However, a collection of critical essays, On James Tate, edited by Brian Henry (University of Michigan Press), was published earlier this year. This volume includes both commissioned essays and a selection of long reviews. ↩
Tate has revealed that this poem was “based on a true incident. I had first met President Clinton when he was still in high school. His girlfriend had dragged him to a poetry reading I was giving in Little Rock. I met them and chatted with them briefly at the party afterwards. I was struck by the force of his personality. I think her name was Gigi. Years later, I was one of many poets invited to the White House. The president acted as if we were old friends. I was flattered, but suspicious. Several months later I got the call. He still sends me Christmas cards, but I fear that I let him down in some small way” (The Best American Poetry 2004, edited by Lyn Hejinian, Scribner, 2004, p. 270). ↩