Speakers in James Tate's poems are and are not like those we know: a man's meditation on gardening renders him witless; another man traps theories and then lets them loose in a city park; a nun confides that "it was her / cowboy pride that got her through"; a gnome's friend inhabits a world where "a great eschatological ferment is at work. "Shroud of the Gnome" is a bravura performance in Tate's signature style: playful, wicked, deliriously sober, charming, and dazzling. Here, once again, one of America's most masterful poets celebrates the inexplicable in his own strange tongue.
It kicked the scrimshaw collection,...and so on. The tone is conversational, yet the originality of the ideas, the mad scramble of images and the underlying purpose take these poems out of the realm of amusing doggerel entirely. In "Never Again the Same" Tate imbues a sunset with terror:
yes it did. It kicked the ocelot,
which was rude and uncalled for,
and yes hurtful. It kicked
the guacamole right out of its bowl,
which made for a grubby
and potentially dangerous workplace.
I was out testing the new speed bump
when it kicked the Viscountess,
which she probably deserved...
peaches dripping opium,We've all seen a sunset before, but Tate makes the experience wholly new.
pandemonium of tangerines,
inferno of irises,
and the wonder of discovery:
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.
Beneath Tate's playfulness, there's a serious mind at work. This man believes that poetry is essential to a well-rounded life. In "Dream On" he marvels that "Some people go their whole lives without ever writing a single poem," and after enumerating the many ills a society without poetry suffers--everything from delinquent children to a dog that "howls all night, lonely and starving for more poetry in his life"--he describes the blessings of poetry, the "pure ordinariness of life seeking, through poetry, a benediction...." There may be many people in this world who have never written a poem; fortunately, James Tate is not one of them.