Jesus got up one day a little later than usual. He had been dreaming so deep there was nothing left in his head. What was it? A nightmare, dead bodies walking all around him, eyes rolled back, skin falling off. But he wasn't afraid of that. It was a beautiful day. How 'bout some coffee? Don't mind if I do. Take a little ride on my donkey, I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody.
- James Tate
I’m sitting on a train from Los Angeles reading James Tate’s 1991 Selected Poems and feeling particularly nostalgic for his writing. The “Sightseer’s Lounge” in the train is lively and filled with light. Kids are coloring in outlines of ponies and racecars, families are playing card games, and strangers are meeting strangers and becoming friends. There is life in this train, people being people in the most objectively pleasant and appealing way. There is love, laughter, boredom, irritation and exhaustion. There are all of the qualities that make people distinct.
James Tate died this summer, and sitting in this little spot on the Amtrak reading his poetry reminded me of the way that this kind of raw human life can be injected into poetry. When you read Tate’s books of poetry you feel like you’ve met a million people. You may not know every person like you would a family member, but you get a glimpse into the individual reality of every character, each distorted and mystified by the particular personality of that person. It could be the empty but genuine man who talks into a pig’s ear sewn to his couch, or the person carrying an armful of lilacs humming a psalm to the god of snails. The characters have life, and that life is individualized through the otherworldly and beautiful representation of the human and his or her perception.
With this comes an element of tragedy, comedy and love that truly feels genuine. The images conjured and people described may seem crazy or even random, but the meticulousness and heart with which these people, places and things interact with one another creates a kind of landscape that can only exist in the poetic relationship between Tate and the reader. This is not a stagnant look into each life either. The person grows and changes through abstract arrangements of events and setting. In an Interview with The Paris Review, Tate said the following about his creative process:
I like starting on a bench with a man sitting on a bench with nothing going on, and then a woman walks by and his whole life changes gets thrown into some kind of hideous upheaval that he could have never foreseen or dreamed of walking into. I like to start with the ordinary, and then nudge it, and then think, ‘What happens next, what happens next?’ And it gets out of control, until in the end he is practically a person he never dreamed of being.
This kind of evolution of the human persona altered first by the state of the poet’s imagination and further by second hand imagination of the reader, who reads the poems in his or her own way, allows for a million different personalities to inhabit single characters. It’s an abstraction of human growth and personality that allows the reader to connect with every emotional and imaginative space that is created throughout the writing process, all the while making sure that the pure life and reality of the person is not lost in the absurdity.
James Tate died this summer, and it makes me sad to think that he won’t be writing any more poems like this. But the liveliness in his poetry seems similar to the liveliness of the scene on this train here in the desert. He inhabited the space, the emotional and imaginative or, taken together, the human, that changes within the individual person, whether that person is a subject of perception, the observer, or just a figment of someone’s imagination. Not forgetting that these parts are as much the same as they are different.