The absurdly imaginative and surrealist poet James Tate finished living yesterday at the age of 71. Tate, one of my favorite poets, stocked his poems with fantastic concrete imagery and amusing phrasing. He built strange worlds in his poems, but the genesis of his strangeness was generally rooted in everyday reality, except for instance, when characters like aliens ambled delightfully into his work (see his poem “The Cowboy“).
Tate’s poems are tiny stories, full of characters, conflict, and heavy doses of dialogue that draw you in so quickly you forget you’re reading a poem. His poems often end abruptly, leaving the dust of a whirlwind in your head and a strangeness settling all about you. Reading his poems is like feeling uncomfortable and unnerved in your own home. You want to simultaneously escape and remain. This is the sort of opposition that has and will continue to distinguish Tate’s work–humor and tragedy, light and darkness, imagination and reality–all blended together in what one publisher called “surprising pleasures”.
While it’s difficult to select only one Tate poem, I enjoy “The Memories of Fish” because it demonstrates a wonderful blend of tragedy and comedy so often evident in his poems. I also enjoy the poem’s enjambment and hidden technical aspects, such as its use of sonic elements (alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, etc.). They’re subtle; they don’t jolt you out of the poem, yet they’re still doing a great deal of work to pace the poem and its reader.
The Memories of Fish
Stanley took a day off from the office
and spent the whole day talking to fish in
his aquarium. To the little catfish scuttling
along the bottom he said, “Vacuum that scum,
boy. Suck it up. That’s your job.” The skinny
pencil fish swam by and he said, “Scribble,
scribble, scribble. Write me a novel, needle-
nose.” The angel executed a particularly
masterful left turn and Stanley said, “You’re
no angel, but you sure can drive.” Then he broke
for lunch and made himself a tuna fish sandwich,
the irony of which did not escape him. Oh no,
he wallowed in it, savoring every bite. Then
he returned to his chair in front of the aquarium.
A swarm of tiny neons amused him. “What do you
think this is, Times Square!” he shouted. And
so it went long into the night. The next morning
Stanley was horribly embarrassed by his behavior
and he apologized to the fish several times,
but they never really forgave him. He had mocked
their very fishiness, and for this there can be
– from Return to the City of White Donkeys by James Tate, published by Ecco Press, 2005.