James Tate, who died the summer before last at the age of seventy-one, after being in poor health for many years, was one of the most prolific and admired American poets from the time his first book of poems, The Lost Pilot (1967), was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets while he was still a student at the University of Iowa, making him one of the youngest poets ever to receive that honor. The title poem is dedicated to his father (1922–1944), a B-17 pilot who was killed on a bombing raid over Stuttgart during World War II when his son was four months old. The plane crashed, but his remains were not found, though the rest of the crew survived. In the poem, his son imagines him still orbiting the earth and hopes to cajole him to land for an evening, so that he could touch and read his face the way a blind man touches a page in braille, promising that he would not turn him in, nor force him to face his wife, so he could go back to his crazy orbiting without his son asking and trying to understand what it means to him.
Tate was born in Kansas City in 1943, in a family that had no memory of ever living in any other state except Missouri. Both of his maternal grandparents worked in a bank. The others in the family were shopkeepers, clerks, plumbers, and handymen, and the women they married were deeply religious, spoke in tongues, attended churches with names like Full Grace Tabernacle of the Holy Spirit, and believed in faith healing.
Tate’s father’s father was a one-legged caretaker at the Kansas City Zoo and lived in a shack on the premises, where Tate and his mother went to stay after her husband was inducted into the air force, but the old man and his wife both died of grief a few months after they learned of their son’s death, so Tate and his mother moved in with her parents. The seven years that they lived with them and three aunts and an uncle he recalled as an idyllic time in his life. There were several kids around his age on the same block to play with and roam the streets with. All that ended when his mother married a handsome man who looked like his father, but who turned out to be a dangerous lunatic who shot holes in their house with a .45 automatic.
Her next marriage was even worse. The new husband was a traveling salesman who sold shock absorbers. He was gone all week and on weekends he used to beat his wife black and blue with her son watching.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.