The Eternal Ones of the Dream: Selected Poems 1990–2010

James Tate. Ecco, $19.99 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-0-06-210186-0
Tate is now in the late period of a long and influential career in poetry. His early style, unfurled in books like The Lost Pilot and Viper Jazz, combined a zany, surreal sense of humor with a sad, middle-American loneliness. It was a guiding light, along with Ashbery’s work from the 1950s–1970s, for a huge chunk of American poetry over the past 40 years. Represented here, however, is Tate’s late style, a subtle reinvention of his own devising, though influenced, it would seem, by the prose poems of Russell Edson. Wily fables, tall tales, in which an unwitting protagonist stumbles into one ridiculous situation after another, are peopled by a rotating cast of humorous foils. In “Long-Term Memory,” a man is feeding pigeons in a park when another man “scrutinized my/ face right up close. ‘There’s a statue of you/ over there,’ he said. ‘You should be dead. What/ did you do to deserve a statue?’ ” Portrayals of the military make as little sense as, say, the military: “After the burial/ we returned to our units/ and assumed our poses./ Our posture was the new posture/ and not the old posture.” A desk drawer is cleaned out to reveal “a paper bag with/ a baloney sandwich in it that must have been three years old. I found/ some notecards with hieroglyphics carefully written on them.” From these odd setups come odder conclusions. It’s hard to say whether this is poetry or prose, funny or sad, important or frivolous. Whatever it is, though, it’s good reading. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 12/19/2011
Release date: 03/01/2012
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