for my father, 1922-1944

Your face did not rot
like the others–the co-pilot,
for example, I saw him

yesterday. 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

distinction. 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. I would
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. You

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.

Analysis, meaning and summary of James Tate's poem The Lost Pilot


  1. Marina Gipps says:

    “The Lost Pilot” is about being forced to live with several perspectives on death. The death of Tate’s father is so estranged that it takes on a form of familiarity where both the survivor and the deceased inhabit that same grey area of the psyche. It is there that random emotions stream within Tate’s use of imagery. Death and alienation are one the same–which is why this poem is oftentimes said to be universal. The survivor feels just as alienated as the living would expect the deceased to feel. Most of Tate’s poetry seems to be playful on the surface with his use of unusual language and yet…it really is quite grave. I heard him read once while a student at UNH where I studied with Simic (his close friend). I will always remember that their writing was what spurred my interest in poetry to begin with. “The Lost Pilot” is one of the finest American contemporary poems. Not only is it lyrical, it is deeply felt. It resonates deeply and lingers long after I have read it.

  2. Giselle says:

    I first read this poem when I was a teenager in a collection of great american poetry. My mother was very ill for many years but was an incredibly charismatic presence in all our lives. Something about the poem, even in all its differences of circumstance made me think, ‘this is how it will feel to loose her’. And though it was not till many years later. That is very much how it felt and, often, still feels.
    What I still find exceptional about great poems is their ability to *uniquely* express the universal aspects of human experience.

  3. Richard says:

    I love this poem. My father was a engineering chief in a squardon of Marine Corps fighters in the South Pacifc in WWII. He raised me from nearly as great a distance as James Tate’s dad seems to have raised him.

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