Arisa White is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Colby College. She is the author of Who’s Your Daddy, co-editor of Home Is Where You Queer Your Heart, and co-author of Biddy Mason Speaks Up, the second book in the Fighting for Justice Series for young readers. She is a Cave Canem fellow and serves on the Community Advisory Board for Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. Currently, in development with composer Jessica Jones, Arisa is working on Post Pardon: The Opera. arisawhite.com
Christopher Brean Murray’s book, Black Observatory (Milkweed Editions, 2023), was chosen by Dana Levin as the winner of the 2022 Jake Adam York Prize. He served as online poetry editor of Gulf Coast, and his poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Copper Nickel, Quarterly West and other journals. He lives in Houston.
Put This in Your Sow Hat!
I’m a fan of James Tate’s lyrical, lineated line that holds some sweet wisdoms. The wit and surprise that we often get a chock full of in Tate’s prose poems still remains. What I see more clearly is the truth that comes from the trust in observation. The way the narrator holds the self honestly in what is being observed.
I’m thinking of the absurdity in Tate’s poems, the improbable. The unlikelihood of a thing that makes you recognize that the lie is just as much a truth, but it depends on point of view. So much must be true for the lie to be plausible, passable, to the reader.
It’s that state of mind that Tate’s poems welcome you to occupy. Each word read is a consent to keep reading, to going along. His poems make visible how our existence, as humans, is always scored with the social design of our interstices, is a collusion.
Here is my inner dialogue as I read Tate’s poems:
Please, that’s ridiculous.
You’re fucking kidding me.
This is some white-man bullshit.
Hold on—I see you, Jim!
Okay, okay. . .
And there is something that will strike you as you wrestle out of your illiteracies to the various ways we read and write this world into being and meaning.
Tate teaches you to turn. To turn into your sage. Your joker and jester. Turn into the fool. Turn the imagination. To the mundane. To the occult. To the absurd and let it live rightly so the beautiful emergent thing can be freed from your subjectivity.
Maybe this is a privilege. A privilege that needs to be the providence of every poet: relishing in what appears to be nothing because you don’t need to labor under constant acts of survival. An ease, a “freedom from” the social responsibility and reactivity of state-sanctioned death. This is the “whiteness” that releases you from socio-political tensions, and instead, you have a hand at crafting your tension, experimenting with what emerges when you don’t need to grapple with, fundamentally, your belonging. To this language, to this discipline, to your own self. Tate’s poems are saying, I belong to myself. And these poems are shaping the self into something less predictable and less understandable, forging a legibility and literacy that requires different tools for apprehension.
We are often asked to consider the “So what?!” of a piece of writing. To take on an interrogative relationship to the text. It is a stance that implies there is something the reader must receive—that the poet must be contributing something of importance to be taken away. And maybe in Tate’s poems it’s not that serious—because it’s not about the “So what?!” It’s about the Sow Hat!
It’s how the poem fashions you, makes a statement, instead of a question, out of you. It’s the new, odd addition to the wardrobe. It’s how you dress the mind—how you seed and disperse the imagination.
The Sow Hat moves you out of your familiar epistemological frameworks—who’s going to forget that dapper poet in a sow hat reconfiguring the I/eye with their own daring humanity? Most importantly, it’s how you make things happen in the poem, claiming everything as your own, while stepping back to read what you sow.
“I’d rather break your heart”: James Tate’s Serious Intent
In 1990, Jorie Graham said of James Tate, “No one else seems to be living as deeply as this man—or seeing as clearly.” Clear-sightedness and depth are not qualities most readers associate with Tate. Rather, he’s often perceived as a humorous poet, a surrealist, or, as John Ash called him, “an anarchic clown.” To be fair, Tate did name his second book The Oblivion Ha-Ha, and that book contains a poem called “The Wheelchair Butterfly,” which ends, “Beware the Warden of Light has married / an old piece of string!” Still, to reduce him to a “comic poet” or “surrealist” is, I think, to underestimate him. Tate said of his work, “There is nothing better than [to move the reader deeply]. I love my funny poems, but I’d rather break your heart. And if I can do both in the same poem, that’s the best.”
Tate’s first book, The Lost Pilot, was awarded the Yale Younger Poets prize. He was surprised by the acclaim but responded by becoming a wilder, more exuberant poet. The books that followed were less well-behaved. Reading his 1971 collection, Hints to Pilgrims, is like entering the laboratory of a linguistic alchemist. It’s full of the products of strange experiments, some of which did not—it seems—yield the desired results. And yet, the best poems are dazzling and could have been written by no one else. The poem “I Take Back All My Kisses” begins with these lines:
They got me because if a forest has no end I’ll go naked
They got me because my mother stood at the edge of a runway for seven years
with her head in her hands
They got me because an empty street is going on without us
They got me because when I drink wine I drink an ocean and when I drink from a
river I drink a stranger’s childhood
As Tate took more risks, he did not abandon serious poetic aims. Selected Poems, which appeared in 1991, contains funny poems and surreal poems, yet most of the poems explore significant facets of the human condition. “Neighbors” consists largely of a litany of questions about the couple next door: “Will they have children? Will they have more children? / Exactly what is their position on dogs? Large or small?” As the questions mount, the stakes are raised:
Is his endless working about the yard
and puttering with rain gutters really just a pretext
for avoiding the problems inside the house? Do they still
have sex? Do they satisfy one another?
“Neighbors” reminds us of the questions politeness prohibits, reacquainting us with the strangeness of the quotidian. The poem speaks of “our helplessly solitary lives” and ends by exclaiming, “It’s just all so damned difficult!” The poem boldly navigates dark emotional territory, and humor does not dilute the proceedings.
Distance from Loved Ones is perhaps the collection in which Tate managed the most intense and sustained investigation of the depths Graham mentions. The title poem tells the story of a woman named Zita who is told that cancer has “run rampant / throughout her shoulder and arm and elsewhere.” “Radiation / followed,” the speaker says, “And, now…Zita just sits in her beauty parlor, / bald, crying and crying.” It’s hard to tell whether the image is comic or tragic. The speaker has apparently heard this story from his mother. “Mother,” he asks, “who is Zita?” She replies: “I am Zita…and you, my son, who should have known / me best, thought I was nothing but your mother.” The reader may be tempted to label the poem “surreal,” yet it is strange and unnerving precisely because of how real the situation is. Even the scene in the beauty parlor is utterly plausible.
James Tate was not a comic or surrealist poet. He was a poet. And, for me, a crucially important one.