By Michael Andor Brodeur
When James Tate passed away at age 71 in July, his devoted readers didn’t just lose a remarkable poet, but a masterful storyteller — even if his stories weren’t always quite stories.
The second half of Tate’s nearly 50-year career (which launched auspiciously with “The Lost Pilot” in 1967, earning him the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize), found him increasingly fond of tidy dialogues with untidy conclusions — people colliding with people in the wild of daily life, comparing notes, trading questions, and finding little consensus on anything. Sometimes these poems feel like rambling yarns spun by a folksier cousin of Kafka — or perhaps Beckett if he lived in Becket — but over time they have become signature Tate.
And the 108 poems of “Dome of the Hidden Pavilion,” Tate’s 17th volume, assembled just before his death, continue to twist his seemingly simple narrative arcs into surrealist loop-de-loops. If anything has changed this time around, it’s the long shadows his passing casts upon the poems — their darkness seems a touch darker, their uncertainties a shade deeper, and the people who inhabit them (an endless procession of Cynthias and Darlenes, Bruces and Chets, Brendas and Maureens ), are easier than ever to mistake for ourselves, nondescript but for our existential quirks.
Describing his writing process to poet Charles Simic in a 2006 Paris Review interview, Tate said “I take a step, I see what the new implications are, I take another step, I see what the next implications are — and I just proceed like that.”
If that’s a useful insight into how these poems are written, it’s even more so as a guide toward how to read them. Tate’s tales stymie paraphrase, rolling downhill, gaining wild momentum, skewing off on erratic paths, and eventually slowing to a finish at a point you could never have foreseen from the top. But along the way, as one line unpredictably (yet naturally) rolls into the next, their restless searching feels familiar, their lost denizens downright neighborly, and their gruesome coldness unnervingly close.
A man drops dead and is thrown from a trolley of impatient passengers in “The End of the Line”; an elderly mother grows massive and feral before her daughter and son-in-law release her into the woods in “A Largely Questioning Article Offering Few Answers”; the body of a bludgeoned grandmother stuffed into a laundry bag inexplicably transforms into clumps of feathers in “The Grandmother” — and it’s all delivered with a smile (and not a smirk, mind you).
Even as the first third of “Dome” trudges through the wreckage and carnage of an unspecified war, Tate’s take on absurdity balances the grave with the goofball, without diminishing either, as when a man in his 60s is drafted in “The Cows”: “I watched him walk down the driveway. He was an easy target./ He was slow and he limped. He had worked hard all his life./ It would be so easy for me to take him out now.”
Or when a man in “The Guards” questions an armed guard as to why he’s been stationed on his street: “‘To protect you from the enemy,’ he said./ ‘Who’s the enemy?’ I said. ‘This I have not been informed/ about,’ he said. ‘Well, I hope you get him,’ I said. ‘Yes,/ sir’ he said.”
It’s as though Tate must sneak up on skittish truths, approaching them sideways so as not to startle them. And while his uniquely oddball approach to tale-telling is traceable all the way back to poems like 1970’s “Deaf Girl Playing,” in “Dome” it feels freshly refined, the solemn notes outlasting the silly ones, even in a world where common sense is a dream and “[s]ome things don’t deserve to be contemplated.”
“I love my funny poems, but I’d rather break your heart,” Tate told Simic toward the end of their Paris Review conversation. “And if I can do both in the same poem, that’s the best.” By these standards, “Dome” is Tate at his restless, relentless best — leaving many questions unanswered, and no answer unquestioned.