James Tate, . . HarperCollins/Ecco, $23 (175pp) ISBN 978-0-06-621017-9

Patently fictional encounters—with pets and wild animals, aliens, witches and the like—stream from the perspective of a childlike, small-town American speaker steeped in the marvelous (or at least the absurd). It's a familiar mode for Tate's readers, but if anything this 13th collection of page-or-so lyrics is less dense, as if the entirety is designed to be read "in one night," as he suggests in "Duel To The Death." Unfortunately, Tate's characteristic winking obliquities have become immediately transparent ("the old/ vice versa principle working overtime/ to keep us interested, or at least/ confused"), making the poems' themes and social dynamics nearly indistinguishable, and their resolutions, whether happy or sad, often premature and unconvincing. Tate's poetry may still be driven by the psychic violence of alienation, but the work is much more comfortable with this alienation than ever, often settling for thin indictments of faux-repressive social mores: "A mishap on the set today. Julie was/ to kiss Don on the lips, but she missed and/ fell on her face....And the time she set the stage curtains on/ fire when lighting her cigarette, that was/ theatre. The play will go on, but Don must/ go. I'm tired of his complaints." At his best, though, Tate's neo-Beckettian vision of the poet as a stoical, solitary tramp, persistent in his folly, who avoids the workaday world like the plague, suggests still-disruptive potentials of the absurd. (On sale: June 5)

Forecast: Tate was recently named to the board of chancellors of the Academy of American poets, and his Worshipful Company of Fletchers (1994) won the National Book Award. Tate's type-casting as "easier Ashbery" is not likely to change with this volume, and most fans won't mind.