Gillian Conoley is a poet, editor, and translator. Her new collection is Notes from the Passenger with Nightboat Books (2023). The author of ten collections of poetry, Conoley received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, and was awarded the Jerome J. Shestack Poetry Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a Fund for Poetry Award. Conoley’s translations of three books by Henri Michaux, Thousand Times Broken, appearing in English for the first time, is with City Lights. Conoley has taught at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the University of Denver, Vermont College, Tulane University, and Sonoma State University. A long-time resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, founder and editor of VOLT magazine, Conoley has collaborated with installation artist Jenny Holzer, composer Jamie Leigh Sampson, and Butoh dancer Judith Kajuwara.
No One Needed to Know
There’s a story I heard about the artist Joseph Cornell that I always loved: that he once led a children-only tour of one of his shows, and revealed, apparently, amazing and candid stuff about his work to them. And then, as the story goes, gathered them all together to explain to them that what he told them about his art was just for them, and not to share it with the grown ups, who wouldn’t understand. I don’t remember who told me this; it’s not in Simic’s Dimestore Alchemy, the book about Cornell. It has the feeling about it of ALMOST being true, maybe being a little too good to be true. Though it turns out, there was a show of his work curated just for children at the Cooper Union in 1972. There are photographs of it online; they show Cornell bent down to speak directly to the children; in one, a little girl makes the face one makes when someone reveals something serious and strange and wonderful.
In another tale that sounds ALMOST too good to be true, but this one without any corroborating dates attached, I got to experience something similar with James Tate. He was speaking to some students at the New School in Manhattan. When? I have no idea. The late 1990s perhaps. Probably. Why? Why was he upstairs, in a large and sterile classroom, and why was I there, and who else was there? I assume Matthew Zapruder and Joshua Beckman were with me, because we were always together at that time, especially when James Tate was involved. We wanted to be wherever he was, listening to whatever he had to say. Ironically, he often wasn’t that forthcoming in these situations. At another event at the New School, at the big auditorium, in front of hundreds of people, he was interviewed by David Lehman, who tried asking him serious questions about his work, to which Tate would slowly answer only “sure” or “nope.”
But this night, he was speaking to students, to undergraduates as I remember, because I remember having the distinct feeling that this was a Joseph Cornell moment. We—me, Zapruder, Beckman, whoever it was—weren’t supposed to be there. We had slipped in the door and slouched in the very back. He wasn’t talking to us. He was talking to, essentially, children, to young people. There were no teachers there, no moderators or interviewers, and he spoke remarkably candidly about stuff I had never heard him speak about before. I knew this was something special, and my ears grew and grew to receive it as my body shrunk to almost nothing so he wouldn’t see that I was there, and get self-conscious.
He talked about his childhood. He told them a story about a summer job he had, when he was a shepherd. He spoke about being out all day, about the dog or dogs who really did all the work. It was magical to hear these stories and to hear him open up about his poems, to even explain where some of them came from, these amazing poems about which he was famously closed-lipped.
I wish I remembered more. I was lucky enough to spend more time with Jim but he was never as open about his poetry as he had been at that “children’s exhibition” I’d witnessed.
When I was looking through Hell, I Love Everybody recently, I noticed something strange. There are an awful lot of shepherds in this book. Shepherds and dogs.
I liked being a dog. I worked for a poor farmer
Guarding and herding his sheep.
That’s from “The Promotion.” In “Worshipful Company of Fletchers,” he says
I wish I could say to you
“You’d make a fine shepherd”
But you wouldn’t.
In the poem “Loyalty” he says
This is the hardest part:
When I came back to life
I was a good family dog.
That was his way, his oblique way. To tell a story about one thing, which was probably about something else, but who cares? He was saying different things to different people in the same poem. Was “Rapture” really only about waiting for blue deer to appear and not also or maybe instead about desire and belief and the intoxications of the imagination? No one needed to know.
James Tate and the Town
In the summer of 1980, three months before I was to attend graduate school with the poet I had journeyed so far to study with, James Tate, I moved to Amherst, Massachusetts. I came early to get out of Texas. I was escaping. I knew I would never go back, though I held no deep resentment toward the small town I grew up in, nor the state. Certainly not my family. It was just over. Amherst was my ticket out. Also my commitment to the art of poetry.
Upon arriving it occurred to me that I could be completely anonymous. I could write poems and get my bearings. I told myself I would not tell anyone my name for three months.
Amherst was a small town, so in that way, and only in that way, it was familiar. I lived three blocks down from Emily Dickinson on Main Street. I could walk everywhere.
The problem, which wasn’t a problem, just a reality, was that I saw James Tate everywhere.
He looked exactly like the photograph on the cover of Hell, I Love Everybody: a soul patch, rakish hair barely touching his shoulders, a receding hairline. He had the posture of a question mark.
I saw James Tate mostly on the two cross-streets that compose Amherst’s commerce: Pleasant Street and Main. I saw him at the record store, at the bank, at a Beckett play, at all the bookstores, but mostly while just meandering up and down those two streets. He was always alone.
James Tate was of the town. He was out in it on the regular. He was not one to hide in the white clapboard houses with high windows of Puritan New England, where so many of Amherst’s residents seemed to be.
The problem was that after a while I had to avoid him. Cross the street and duck into a store when I saw him coming, because eventually, in 2-3 weeks, school was starting. He of course did not and would not recognize me—I was no one, but what if something happened? I did not want to appear the stalker. Oh, it’s her. The one who followed me all over town all summer, and now I have to read her poems. Anyone who has grown up or lived for a time in a small town knows how to make these disappearing moves instinctively, almost invisibly. Privacy is prized.
I was not a spy, but here’s what I saw: James Tate thumbing slowly, contemplatively through the albums at the record store (this could go on for hours. One just had to leave and come back another time).
When I went to the town bank to set up my account, James Tate was at the bank. The bank was like some kind of nave. In the gloss and hush of marble floors, in the scent of oft-handed money, in the semi-sacred, church-like smell many old banks have, when I closed my pocketbook and turned to go, I saw James Tate, his back toward me, on the other side of the teller’s lobby.
He was in a fury. Gesticulating wildly, both hands in the air, hair swaying, his voice raised though one could not make out a word. He was letting his teller have it. James Tate was righteously mad. There had been a betrayal, a mistake. He was going after senseless bureaucracy and would continue to do so until they got it right. I left by the front door, and wished him well, for I, too, despised banks. Everyone in any town despises banks.
At the Beckett play, James Tate was in the center row, with empty seats beside him, the happiest member of the audience. It was a tiny, black box theatre, seated maybe 30. He was having a great time. He looked around with glee from time to time, as if to engage with the other audience members, and laughed and smiled. The play was “Krapp’s Last Tape.”
I never told Jim about any of this. Nor did I tell anyone else until now, not for any particular reason other than wanting to protect Jim’s privacy and to not appear any sort of character I could be perceived as: the aforementioned stalker, the nosy neighbor, the too-curious pesk, the town wanderer.
Jim was a private man. He was one of the most charming, erudite, cosmopolitan, warm, kind, comically/tragically gifted humans of immense magnetism I have ever known, but when you were his student, you knew where you stood. But when Jim let you in, he let you in whole hog.
In this period of his life, early 80s-ish, Jim would have been in his mid-30s. When Jim entered the room it was suddenly like you were in the best independent film imaginable. Jim was the hip, hapless, effortless star, everyone else his co-star. Everyone got to be in the movie. No one was an outsider. Eventually, Jim would leave, exhausted, and you wouldn’t see him for days.
But the reason I am telling you all this now, before we get off the phone, for by now, you, too, may have become a resident of this town, a keeper of the flame, a protector of privacy gone rogue, and that’s quite a recorder you’ve got, and it’s probably not telling the truth, is that all the people in Jim’s poems, and the reason you know them, recognize them, love them, forgive them, and are them, is because Jim lived in and partook of and knew a town like the back of his hand, from 1971-2014, 43 years in Amherst alone, and then Kansas City before that, where he was a child, a teenager in a gang, another kind of roamer in the streets.
The trajectory his work made from the lyric and lyric/narrative to the more prosaic narrative in his later books makes such perfect sense for a poetry so peopled with characters. From Tyler, Miss Cho, Aunt Edna, Gabrielle, and Barnaby of The Lost Pilot to Oliver, Beth, Josephina, Ham, Samovar, Earl, Jody, Mitzy, Transparent Child, and Visiting Doctor of The Government Lake, well, you get the point. Jim said early on he knew he didn’t want to write about his life. Instead he wrote about us all, about being human.
At one point some forgotten critic called James Tate a misanthrope. Such a misread. Hasty. Lazy. He was a humanist, and the best kind, a skeptical humanist who understood our need for protection, for disguise and privacy, for both solitude and collectivity. Our need to sometimes wander alone or to gather. Our complicated, endless capacity for harm and beauty. I’d like to close this with one of Jim’s poems from The Lost Pilot.
In herds you slither about
the town: these are comfortable
moments for your mangled
gathering. How proudly you wear
your mange. It is the prime
mover of your awkward step.
Even the streetlights shy away
from the love you have for those
less recognizably human
than yourself. When alone, you
keep the corners of the world;
and, when at last relaxed there,
your pink, scarred paws explore
your broken parts. No one
to ask you now what beauty means
to you, just how much of it
you have to offer others.