The dialogue tags, rivers and men in James Tate's new collection
Memoir of the Hawk have replaced
the glowworm, lemur and new Chinese fiction of his past
collections. In his previous four books, Tate started to move from what
John Ashbery calls his characteristic, "homespun surrealism" to a
stripped-bare narrative. What does remain of the imaginative situations
Worshipful Company of Fletchers
Distance from Loved Ones is
Tate's unique American voice and poetic logic.
Tate began his narrative transformation with 1990's
Distance from Loved Ones. In
Loved Ones, his poems became
more character-based and relaxed their tonality. Surrealism started to
take a back seat to sequential development, and even though he created
surprising associations in
Loved Ones, Tate's characters
and personalities surfaced as peculiar equals to his odd similes and
Memoir of the Hawk, the majority
of the poems are short, and the titles act like proper names as they
formally introduce the poems with simple fragments ["The Man of the
People," "The Splendid Rainbow"]. But we're kept at a distance. Nothing
too much is revealed in the poems. The name and place of a situation are
flattened into basic descriptions as human voices take over the poems.
They progress categorically in sentences—so much so they resemble prose
poems. Tate is of course familiar with prose poems and their anecdotal
traps, and the new poems depend on quirky illustrations, like his
earlier prose pieces, mostly avoiding these pitfalls.
In their brevity and reportage, the poems in
Memoir of the Hawk also resemble
David Lehman's daily poems—of course all of Tate's occasions are
imagined, whereas Lehman's dailies document everyday activities like
journal entries. Moments in parks, window shopping, and urban societies
are combined with the magic and unpredictability of folktales and mythic
Memoir. Take the poem "The
Lovely Arc of a Meteor in the Night Sky," for example:
At the party there were those sage souls
who swam along the bottom like those huge white
fish who live for hundreds of years but have no
fun. They are nearly blind and need the cold.
William was a stingray guarding his cave. Only
those prepared for mortal battle came close to
him. Closer to the surface the smaller fish
played, swimming in mixed patterns only a god
could decipher. They gossiped and fed and sparred
and consumed, and some no doubt even spawned.
It's a life filled with agitation, thrills,
melodrama and twittery, but too soon it's over.
And nothing's revealed because it was never known.
Other than the poetic logic Tate has depended on throughout his
career, he uses metaphor as a poetic device through which to tell this
tiny narrative. Nevertheless, it's the ending where the poem's power
rests—the ending ricochets from the narrative with a philosophical
gesture. Tate's allegory—a lot of the poems in the book feel like
parables—compares humans to bottom-feeding fish and stingrays, and then,
with the last line, "And nothing's revealed because it was never known,"
Tate unloads one of the themes of the book: the search for unknown
truths. (Although, in this case, not having discovered anything, the
"fish" seem to have lived in vain, even though the smaller ones
ironically swim in beautiful arrangements "only a god could decipher.")
Memoir of the Hawk reads quickly
even if it's over 170-pages long. The short narratives stack up like a
brief history of an arcane community where animal's lives are as
interesting, or inane, as the human's lives. In the poem "A True Story,"
a manipulative dog has an attack of conscience and leaves its gullible,
human mark a note of concern, written in "perfect schoolboy script,"
explaining how it can't take advantage of the man any longer because
it's worried about his "lack of memory."
Although most of the poems are inhabited by real people doing real
things—swimming, driving, dining at a restaurant—what separates the
poems from real circumstances is their logic. Tate's older poems were
more surrealistic because of their imagery. The newer poems have mostly
dropped surreal juxtapositions for narrative reporting and brief spurts
of dialogue—all of which is held together by Tate's imaginative leaps.
There are a few exceptions of course, such as the fantastic "white
doves" that fly from the priest's eyes in "September."
"September" also combines the lives of animals and humans and is the
closest any of the poems come to surrealistic lyricism.
Near September the moose retreat to the
ice-cream shops. A flotilla of hunters sinks
to the bottom of the lake singing, "Pennies from
Heaven." A little girl in green pajamas is
swinging from a maple tree. The maple tree
is blushing but still manages to whisper its
love for her. September is coming, balancing
a thousand-and-one gifts on its head and
shoulders, twittering as if someone were
tickling it. "It's coming," shouts the woodsman.
A priest was prattling on about his disappoint-
ments in love until two white doves flew
out of his eyes and drew a thunderous applause
Considering the collection's length, it's hard to justify every
poem's place in the book. The addition of some poems is as mysterious as
the relation of others to their title—take for example "The Lovely Arc
of a Meteor in the Night Sky" mentioned above, where the connection
between the "fish community" and the astronomical event in the title is
cryptic at best. Several poems are merely anecdotal and basically report
either mundane trivialities or the plainly comic. The poem "Young Man
with a Ham" tells the story of a two-man, suburban battle over a
football-like ham. After "Mr. Wilson" steals the ham from an
unidentified man, the last line reads, "Clearly it's his [Mr. Wilson's]
ham now." This is funny, but is also banal. What does resound in the
poem, as well as in other successful pieces in the collection, is the
speaker. He's an astute voyeur who communicates the absurdities that
surround him. Although, even Tate's wicked imagination can't save a poem
like "Ham," and its addition to the book is basically padding—a minor
occurrence in the previously described, arcane community that inhabits
Memoir of the Hawk. Of
course, the questionable poems are far and between, and the other
hundred-and-something pages of imaginative verse are enough to both
entertain and amaze.