From the James Tate Tribute


I have a lot of memories of James Tate floating around in my head, but one of my fondest is seeing him read several years ago in NYC with Matthew Zapruder. It was years after I graduated from UMass-Amherst, where I had studied with Jim, and I think I was living in NYC at the time, so of course, I went to the reading. Matthew gave a phenomenal reading and then Jim was second and he sat at a little table with a lamp on the stage, as he often did in his later years. What proceeded to happen was probably one of the most important poetry memories of my life, because as the whole reading progressed I burst into more and more insane laughter responding obviously to how funny Jim’s poems were. Now as I think about those twenty or so minutes I feel kind of a chill looking back, struck again at the space of memory, thinking about how deadpan his delivery was, how grotesque and utterly sublime chance experience is, at how lucky I was to be in that room, to have studied with him, to have found poetry, to have been saved. It could have gone so many other ways. But sometimes life gives you a gift. I open that memory sometimes, its hot-pink-and-purple plaid wrapping paper, and I say, thank you, thank you for that. 

Jim read lots of poems that night, but the one I remember most, even now, was “The Ice Cream Man.” In the poem, a man is applying for a job to drive an ice cream truck and the person interviewing him starts asking him more and more ridiculous questions, suggesting that the job of serving children ice cream also requires military training to deal with the very real potential of all of these unexpectedly violent encounters. The poem is obviously a play of the evil elitist policing of Americana, with its suburban construction of “safety,” and the ice cream truck, a seemingly universal delight for innocent children as the first step in creating a corrupt society. It’s that and the way it says it. Rhetorically the poem is so brilliant because as it goes on, getting more and more absurd and you are chuckling along, it becomes harder to tell if the persona is agreeing with his potential new boss just because he needs the job so badly or because he is himself a sadist. The way the poem opens up these possibilities to you seems to be both to get a shock from the reader system, which that night was a group of poetry goers who had come there not to be safe at all, and also, in some odd way, to the poet himself. And this was no more clear than hearing Jim read that night, as I realized in the space of the poem, that even he couldn’t know what his persona’s motivations were, that his persona was wholly its own thing, a livewire of freakish intensity, just there, there for us, like we are always, just sitting and being there. Just there.

Poetry often wants to make itself into something sideways of life, past the language of what living is, an artifact. Yes, it is that, but it’s also the thing in the dream, which you can’t survive from. It’s that bear or ghost or person who is chasing you and you don’t get away. You can’t. Do you want to? That’s the question you always have to ask yourself. Once the bear gets to you, it actually has a dance to show you. Do you wait to watch it, or do you run away? I really can’t tell you what to do. No one can. What is the landscape in which you are truly yourself? In the dream with the bear, you will never exactly know. I will always love James Tate for teaching us that. 

Among Jim’s archives at the Harry Ransom Center—one which didn’t make it into this issue—is a simple photograph of Jim. He’s in a dark suit with a crisp white shirt and a dark tie, and his eyes look dark. Maybe some would call his eyes sad. I instead would like to call them heartfelt, drawn into the deep. I want to ask: Why is he wearing this suit? Is he going someplace important and if so, is he happy he is going there? I want to say, that you can never tell looking into the eyes of someone in a photograph, looked on past their death, what the person felt in that living moment. Maybe all they were thinking about was when they would have their lunch and what they would eat during it. A peaceful lunch is a true joy—don’t knock it now. Perhaps all semblances of the past have a cool indifference. To say that James Tate’s poems are rapt with the very stuff of life is the thing I might say when peering into the past through that photograph. He had a sense of humor—maybe that’s the thing I’d like to say. He was really funny both in his poems and out of them. I think that’s important. We don’t only have laughter, but we do have it, and isn’t that important. We often comment glibly that the ones who have been to the core of the earth make a joke about it. He did. It’s a pretty funny joke, after all. I laughed. We all laughed. But the party is never over, so let’s keep it going. There is dancing and laughter and balloons and pink cake. Everyone is there. And they’ve lit the lanterns on the road, and we can clearly see the way there. We have met the enemy and he is us. Traces of nobility and a low pitch. I can pick the butterflies and pansies you left for Helen from the hedge. At the party, Jim is there and he has left a vase out on the table. Let’s fill it. 

Dorothea Lasky is the author of four books of poetry, most recently ROME (Norton / Liveright, 2014), as well as Thunderbird, Black Life, AWE, all out from Wave Books. She is the co-editor of Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry (McSweeney’s, 2013) and several chapbooks, including Poetry is Not a Project (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010). Currently, she is an Assistant Professor of Poetry at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, co-directs Columbia Artist / Teachers, and lives in New York City.