Shroud of the Gnome
James Tate. Ecco Press, $23 (72pp) ISBN 978-0-88001-561-5
The master of our idioms takes us on another dizzy, dangerous careen through absurd and disintegrating Americana, with his speakers looking on bemusedly as their folk narratives spin out of control. Tate, in this 12th collection, continues to draw on small-town kitsch, haywire nature documentaries and ""a giantess by the name of Anna Swan"" to fuel his often hilarious antistories. The joke has not tired. Framing his poems in off-kilter homespun locales--campgrounds, military outposts, diners, suburban gardens--he plays surreal interior monologues off a backdrop of distinctly American nostalgia, employing a pitch-perfect deadpan drawl: ""It was, as I recall, a day of prodigious beauty./ April 21, 1932--clouds,/ like the inside of your head explained./ Bluebirds, too numerous to mention./ The clover calling you by name."" In their skittering slapstick anxiety, the poems chart the irrational and entropic overwhelming our desperately tidy lives: from above--in a sunset of such apocalyptic beauty that its viewers ""whimpered and cried and howled""--from below, as in the creeping horticultural malevolences of ""The Definition of Gardening,"" and from the language-making mind itself, as simply bringing up an ""ocelot"" or a ""viscountess"" skewers logic in leaps of disorienting association. Transforming everyday terror into sublime burlesque, Tate does his brilliant part to bolster ""the dream home under a permanent storm"" against the batterings of chaos and chance. (Nov.) FYI: Tate won the The Yale Series of Younger Poets award in 1967 at 24, a Pulitzer Prize for 1992's Selected Poems, and a 1994 National Book Award for his most recent previous collection, The Worshipful Company of Fletchers.
Reviewed on: 11/03/1997