More James Tate

There are so many characters in James Tate’s Memoir of the Hawk that it’s easy to lose track of them. I suspect it would be hard to find much consensus by various readers on favorite poems, because how you feel about a poem is so dependent on your own life experiences.

For instance, the two poems I’m discussing here probably appeal to me because I spent so much of my life teaching. The first one could almost serve as a personal biography:


A hermit is said to be living on the far
side of the lake, but no one has ever seen him.
They say he lives in a cave a little ways up
the mountain. They say he used to be a school-
teacher of some kind, and then one day he had
had enough. He’s not a holy man or anything
like that, he just got tired of people’s ways.
They call him Invisible Tom, though in truth
no one knows his name. He’s just their last,
best hope, but I don’t think he exists. These
same people, one minute they’re digging furiously
in a corner of their backyard, the next minute
they’re flat on their backs watching a television
program on marital impotence. I tell you, you
can’t believe a word they say. And yet I’ve
seen the sunlight glint on a bronze flagon from
over there and I’ve wondered what that life would

Invisible Loren. I kind of like the sound of that. While it’s not exactly true that I’m living a hermetic life, I’m sure it might appear that way to many people as I spend much more time walking with Skye in the woods than I do with other people. We won’t even mention how much time I spend alone in my study reading and plunking away on my computer keyboard.

The following poem probably suggests why Invisible Tom finally got “tired of people’s ways and fled to his cave in the mountain:”


“Would you like to have your head examined?”
I said to Kinky, who was holding his head. “Oh yes,”
he said, “I would like to know what’s wrong with
me.” Gloom was his life, despair was his only food.
I opened up his head. My God, it was dark in there,
and full of cobwebs with dead flies in them. “There
are no lights in here,” I said. “It looks like you
have had no visitors in years. And there’s not a
trace of an idea, just a rat gnawing on its tail
hoping to become a saint in some counterfeit hell.”
“I love that rat,” Kinky said. “He’s the last of
my monsters, old skin and bones.”

There’s nothing more frightening to a teacher than sitting down with a student trying to discover a good writing topic only to realize that there’s probably not an idea in his head worth writing about, just some old, irrational fears he’s inherited from his parents. Too often when I read “letters to the editor” in the local newspaper, I’m forced to wonder if there aren’t a lot more people like this than I ever imagined while I was teaching.

Tate is a sharp observer of human behavior, and at the very least it’s difficult not to be amused by many of the poems in his book. I must admit, though, that I often found myself put off by the way Tate has chosen to present his prose poems. It seems to me to be somewhat disingenuous to break lines at a particular length to give the impression of poetic lines, when the breaks turn out to be nearly arbitrary. I prefer my prose poems justified, not broken to give the appearance of poetic lines.

James Tate’s Memoir of the Hawk

James Tate’s Memoir of the Hawk is certainly an entertaining read. Tate seems like the kind of poet that tells us a lot about the nature of humans, though perhaps not quite as much about human nature. He’s been described as a
and, while I don’t think I would have described him as a surrealist before reading the article, it is easy to find surrealistic elements in many of his poems such as:


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.

Many of Tate’s poems are sardonic, light, and generally amusing, all the time seemingly dead-on descriptions of certain kinds of human behavior. This poem is certainly an amusing analysis of the party scene if you don’t dig too deeply, though there’s little in it that I am likely to remember longer than an hour or two.

Other poems, though, hit much harder, forcing us to see deeper psychological truths:


Never once in all those years did Jack
visit his mother in the madhouse. After he
was a grown man and his mother was still confined
there was nothing to stop him from visiting her,
but he did not. It left a black hole in him
that nothing could fill. He traveled, he drank
too much, he loved, he painted and wrote, but
he would not visit his poor, insane mother.
When he was at last notified of her death, he
didn’t shed a tear. He began to shake and shudder
and was soon carried off by wild beasts.

There’s certainly nothing funny about this poem, but it has a frightening logic that rings true, reminding us that those things we try the hardest to avoid can leave huge holes in our psyche. Perhaps it strikes me so strongly because my mother refused to visit her grandmother in the nursing home when she was suffering advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, a disease that finally struck my mother in the last stages of her life. It’s also a reminder that no matter how hard we try to deny the reality of some things they will have an effect on us. In fact, trying to avoid a problem rather than confronting it directly may be the worst possible strategy.

In a poem like “From the Morning Twilight to The Gloaming” Tate sounds an awful lot like Mark Twain, offering the same kind of biting insights into our religious beliefs.


In church last Sunday the minister shocked
the whole congregation by telling us that we were
all lazy and selfish and venal and that we were
all hypocrites and didn’t give a damn about the
poor. He was shaking he was so mad. He said
we didn’t deserve the Lord’s love and forgive-
ness. He said we could rot in hell for all he
cared. That’s when I threw my hymnal at him.
Many of the women were sobbing rather loudly,
but I could see plenty of the men had had more
than their full and were ready to do something
about it. A bloodthirsty lynch mob was forming
in the aisles. I know these men, they’re good
citizens, good fathers and husbands, who take
their religion seriously, but if you mess with
them they’ll kill you. The minister, seeing
the fire in their eyes, broke out laughing and
assured the congregation that he’d just been
kidding them, having a little fun with us.
A little nervous laughter started to build and
it broke loose into a collective roar that
couldn’t be stopped. We all agreed later that
it was the best sermon he had ever given and
we loved him more than ever.

The poem is strongly reminiscent of the scene where Huck Finn attends a church service where the feuding Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons seemingly embrace a sermon about brotherly love yet proceed to kill nearly everyone involved in the feud in the next few days. The disconnect between what we say we believe and what we truly believe is so profound that at times it’s hard not to reject these beliefs as total hypocrisy. Of course, there’s an additional irony in realizing just how little effect this scene in Huck Finn has had Twain’s readers.

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