When James Tate died on July 8, 2015, at the age of seventy-one, he left behind more than twenty collections of poetry and prose, including Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, published right around the time of his death. Most of us assumed that this was his final book. But it turned out there were more poems, which have been assembled into a truly final volume, The Government Lake, to be published by Ecco in July of 2019. One of those poems, “Elvis Has Left the House,” appears in The Paris Review’s Spring 2019 issue.
Over the course of his career, Tate won every imaginable award available to American poets, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. He was revered by poets of virtually every aesthetic persuasion, from stern formalists to wild experimentalists. He had a legion of poor imitators, whom my friends and I called “lost pilots” after the legendary, eponymous poem of Tate’s first book, which won the most prestigious prize for young poets of its time, the 1967 Yale Series of Younger Poets award. When he wrote that book, he was only twenty-two, a kid from a deeply religious Pentecostal family in Kansas City, who somehow found his way to poetry and then to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The legend goes that he just showed up, showed them his poems, and was admitted on the spot by the director of the program, Donald Justice. If that story’s not true, I don’t want to know.
I was never a lost pilot, but I was a student of Jim’s in the nineties at University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he taught from 1971 until his death. As a teacher, Jim was pleasurably, respectfully distant yet astoundingly perceptive. He had great patience. He would wait and wait, for weeks and weeks, in vaguely kind ambivalence until a student finally did something truly magical, at which point he would come alive and praise that moment in the poem so precisely and with such great generosity that we all understood this was bigger than personality or ego. These moments were powerful, and not only the poet but everyone in the class learned something about what it meant to go beyond the ordinary. He somehow managed to avoid the pitfall of making us feel we were writing for him, probably because he so caustically discouraged any poetry that seemed like a bad imitation of his own. After I graduated, we became friendly, in the way two people from different generations can be when they love and have committed their lives to the same thing. He was kind and funny, and I never had any desire to forget that he was a master and I was privileged to be in his presence. He and his wife, the poet Dara Wier, also my teacher and mentor, always treated me with immense kindness. Privately, I considered them my poetry parents, or maybe (given the not-quite-parental age gap) my very cool poetry older brother and sister.
If you are completely unfamiliar with contemporary American poetry, you could do worse than to start with Tate’s two volumes of selected poems, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Selected Poems of 1991, and The Eternal Ones of the Dream: Selected Poems 1990–2010. This would be both edifying and incredibly pleasurable. Tate is a great gateway drug, but unlike a lot of poets one might love in one’s youth, the effect doesn’t wear off. It just gets stronger and weirder.
The middle of Tate’s career was marked by the publication of several great books, beginning with the aforementioned Selected Poems, followed by A Worshipful Company of Fletchers, which won the National Book Award, and the equally remarkable Shroud of the Gnome. The poems in those books were hilarious, clever, scary, and immensely appealing. Poems like “How the Pope Is Chosen” and “Never Again the Same” became instant classics. He was at the peak of his poetic powers, and it would have been natural for him to settle into this mode. But, for whatever reason, he changed his style. In his next five books, Tate settled into a fully narrative mode, somewhere between a short story willing to abandon its plot at any moment and a prose poem. Occasionally there are tighter lyrics, and sometimes long, shaggy-dog stories. There are pets and wild animals (both often gifted with the capacity for human speech), the vagaries of domestic life, humdrum small-town encounters that quickly turn surreal, hamburgers and malteds, baseball games and asteroids and plane crashes and religious revivals and see-through babies. The poems veer and swerve and enchant, crack you up and then sadden you, and so much more.
My personal theory (which I wisely never ran by him since I’m sure he would have denied it, as he did virtually any attempt to schematize his creative imagination) is that he was stripping away any of the accepted signifiers of free-verse poetry—things like line breaks, imagery, metaphor, wild comparisons and leaps, conceptual rhyme, virtuosic sonic play, and so on—to see what was left. He was looking for the pure poetry after all the things that usually tell us we are reading poetry are gone. He had already shown he could write every sort of poem he wanted, and now it was time to look for the core: what makes something a poem and nothing else? In these particular poems, that core is a casual yet headlong, absolute willingness to follow the mind wherever it goes. It’s a freedom that cannot be found even in the best of prose.
The poems in Tate’s final book continue this interrogation. Someone new to his work, or unaccustomed to reading poetry, might find themselves pleasantly surprised by the absence of all the usual things we expect, and perhaps dread, about contemporary American poetry. These poems are completely clear, comically matter-of-fact, and incredibly easy to read, while also rewarding to reread. Some of the poems end with a real chortle. On closer reading, the charm of the poems doesn’t fade, but a subtle sense of dread, a disintegration of the usual conventions of human behavior and relations, begins to disturb.
There’s something relaxed and unobtrusive about Tate’s sentences. They seem like ones anyone could have written, only slightly weirder. The narrators of the poem remind me of Twain’s characters. They also have the bumbling, revealing naivete of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Will Rogers, the innocent American man who keeps discovering he’s not so innocent after all. That may be, at least partially, the source of these poems’ subtle dread: they are, in their own quiet way, an allegory for the self-deluded, so-called normal American life.
Many of the poems begin with a simple yet weirdly compelling first line that sets the scene:
“Sister Bodie walked out of the church.”
“I walked out of the bank just as I realized it was being held up.”
“I visited my friend Rod who was in jail, I didn’t really know what for.”
“The raccoon got up on the roof and wouldn’t come down.”
“Betsy fell out of an airplane one day and floated down into the trees.”
“I sat on the steps for a very long time.”
In every poem, there is a moment when reality shimmers, and the poem moves out of a purely narrative space and into something more like a waking dream. Some of the poems are wrenchingly sad; the sadness sneaks up on you because of the lack of sentimental manipulation that comes before it.
In “Eternity,” for instance, the feathers of wild poultry start to come down through the chimney of the narrator’s house. Note how relaxed the language is, how little it needs to prove itself poetic: “Feathers started drifting down our chimney. / They covered the kitchen after a while. They got in our food. Mildred / complained of a stomachache, and after a few days she laid an egg.”
I laughed out loud when I read that. And then laughed again as the poem continued: “We were / quite astonished and didn’t know what to do. She sat on it for a few days / and then it hatched. It was a cute little chick, and it resembled Mildred / in certain ways.” The mordant hilarity of the line breaks belies the notion that these poems have no form.
Many more chicks are hatched, but by the end of the poem, a fox has gotten into the house and all the chicks have been eaten. Something that was merely funny and sweet becomes full of pathos. And then it is deepened beyond pathos into epistemological mystery:
… Mildred said,
“What are we going to do? There’s nothing for us to do now.” “We’ll go
on as we did before, when there were no chicks,” I said. “But I can’t
imagine that. Without chicks there was nothing,” she said. “Without
chicks we had one another. We loved each other, remember that,” I said.
“It seems like so very long ago,” she said. “To me, it seems like it
was only a few days,” I said. “To the chicks it was an eternity,” she said.
Time is, unsurprisingly, one of the recurring concerns of this volume. “A Pea in a Pod” is about two brothers separated after their parents die in an accident. The narrator grows up in a rich household, his brother in one where his adoptive father beats him until he runs away. The poem ends with a conversation between the two of them:
“Two peas in a pod,” the narrator says. “What?” replies the less fortunate brother, understandably.
“Nothing. I feel we’re all the same, it’s just that the ticking’s
different,” I said. “What’s the ticking?” he said. “That’s the mystery,”
More people die in this book than in Tate’s previous work. There is a willingness to imagine bodily decay, disappearance, and death, without a speck of sentimentality or self-pity. A slightly silly poem about going on vacation for a week to a place where there’s no food anywhere ends:
I walked around in the daylight
when I had the strength. I never did find anything to eat.
I slept when it got dark. But this is the hard part to explain,
I got to like it. The weaker my hunger made me, the more I
thrived. I woke the seventh day and I wanted to hide out
here forever. There was a knock on the door and a man said,
“It’s time to leave.” I said, “No, please let me stay.” “You
can’t break the rules, you must leave,” he said. I raised my
hand up as though to pray, and that’s when it happened. I
slowly disappeared into the darkness of the cabin, never to be
Mundane actions and objects become symbolic, full of mysterious resonance. That has always been the strength of Tate’s work, from his very first book until his last: the ability to reveal the ordinary as strange, funny, dangerous, and full of meaning. In that way, the poems are existentially encouraging. Something interesting is always waiting around a corner. At the end of a poem titled (for most of the poem, obscurely) “The Argonaut,” a man sits down and finds himself in conversation:
I sat down in a garden. A woman came along and sat
down beside me. She said, “Nice day, isn’t it?” I said, “Yes, very,
I like it.” “What do you do for a living?” she said. “I’m an accountant
in the government,” I said. “That must be nice,” she said. “But most
people I know think I’m a Communist,” I said. “That’s a joke, right?”
she said. “To me it is,” I said. “To me, you look more like an
Argonaut,” she said. “What’s an Argonaut?” I said. “It’s somebody
who swims in the deep waters of the ocean in search of treasure,” she
said. “I found a penny in my bathtub once when I was a kid,” I said.
“Then you’re an Argonaut,” she said.
I’m going to say something sacrilegious, at least to the lost pilots of the world: The Government Lake might be the best introduction to James Tate. It is sad and exhilarating to realize that, with these poems, Tate has completely mastered yet another form he invented. I read the poems and thought, This one is a classic, now this one is a classic, and now this one is a classic … until I realized the whole book was. In some ways, this is my favorite of all of his books. It’s funny and sad and troubling and weird and singular. Only someone with a great mind, who had devoted his whole life to poetry, could write so casually, while also conjuring such a quiet, wild, mysterious force, to the very end.
Matthew Zapruder is the author most recently of Why Poetry (Ecco, 2017), and Father’s Day (Copper Canyon, forthcoming in fall 2019). He teaches at Saint Mary’s College of California, and is editor at large at Wave Books.