The calmly reflective title of James Tate's 1991 book of poems, Distance from Loved Ones, does not signal the weirdness of the poems collected in this volume. It is hard to think of Tate as anything but weird, so the poems are reassuring in any case. James Tate is someone who hasn't changed very much, from The Lost Pilot to The Shroud of the Gnome, over the course of a baker's dozen of ephemeral opals. Although it is comforting to have all these poems that mollify one's expectations, it is also a little puzzling. How do you do this? And why? Maybe to stay alive to life, or to stay sane, or in a more likely strategy to entertain oneself insanely to stay awake. These poems are entertainment of the highest kind, “awful research” into what is going on, providing “the only keepsake for this day.” And too they are as serious as any cartoon. The poems in this book still enchant and entertain as they ever did, these little discontinuous narratives, jolly stories of despair, deconstruction and deliquescence. That they are little is therefore good, they can then be read. The littlest, “Beaucoup Vets” is the bravest:
“The soldier with a chicken up his ass,
The soldier with a chest full of balloons,
The soldier, the soldier back home
Among the defenseless practitioners
Of dead mall worship. . . “
This is a great and scary poem, and all one can really say is “uh oh.”
About scrutiny and surely about concupiscence, these poems invariably proceed by removal. Removal of the poet and the reader from the scary, the vulnerable and lovely thing by mis-direction, digression, non-sequitur (apposite clause after clause to soften the main clause, the shocking statement). This is, to distance the writer from his own cuteness, fear, anger. As in the most amazing poem “A Little Skull” which is totally ridiculous and absurd story on one hand, but on the other an incredibly ferocious scrutiny of the, a, some religious impulse:
“ Oh well, cookies are for frogs,
and maybe this isn't a skull at all,
but an egg or a bulb of some sort.
Maybe I will glue some sequins on it
And donate it to the local monastery.
And more, the poet laments and continues:
“An expedition into the heart of heresy
where dowdy, abusive hobgoblins lounge
yanking at one another's hair and snapping
newcomers with hot towels. I expect
to be incarcerated there for some time.
All nectar will taste like insecticide.
The poem “Haunted Aquarium” is also one of the best of its kind anywhere, a sonatina of transmutation, transmigration, transference, but not transcendence. Here it is:
“A white pigeon is digging for something in the snow.
As it digs further, it is disappearing.
A young girl finds it in the Spring,
a handkerchief of thin bones,
or a powder-puff she carries in her purse
for the rest of her days. Toward the end,
she gives it to her granddaughter,
who immediately recognizes it as the death
of the grandmother herself,
and flings it out the window.
It takes flight, utterly thankful
to feel like its old self again.
For a few precious moments it flies
in circles, then back in the window.
The grandmother pitches forward, dead.
The granddaughter lugs her toward the window;
She and the pigeon talk long into the night.
At breakfast, the grandmother says nothing.”
I never wanted to like any of these poems, but they made me.