Esteban Rodríguez is the author of eight poetry collections, most recently Lotería (Texas Review Press, 2023), and the essay collection Before the Earth Devours Us (Split/Lip Press, 2021). He is the interviews editor for the EcoTheo Review, senior book reviews editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and associate poetry editor for AGNI. He lives with his family in south Texas.
Leah Umansky is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently, OF TYRANT, forthcoming with The Word Works in April 2024. She earned her MFA in Poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and has curated and hosted The COUPLET Reading Series in NYC since 2011. Her creative work can be found in such places as The New York Times, The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A Day, USA Today, POETRY, and American Poetry Review. Her new hybrid-memoir, DELICATE MACHINE, is an exploration of womanhood, hope, and heart in the face of grief and a global pandemic. She can be found at www.leahumansky.com or @leah.umansky on IG.
Because we’d been exiled from the middle class, my family had to return to our old house again. The quaint suburban home I had spent my middle school and high school years in had just undergone foreclosure. My stepfather was no longer finding consistent work in construction. He and my mother were on the verge of divorce. And my job prospects, now that I was fresh out of college living with my mother, stepfather, and sister again, amounted to one job offer from a local coffee shop where I spent my afternoons, reading, drawing, sipping the last bit of coffee the shop had brewed for the day. I’m sure they felt sorry for me.
But I didn’t feel sorry for anything that was happening around me. No, I had just bought my first poetry book, Return to the City of White Donkeys, and poem after poem, I discovered an author who had discovered how to render the absurdity of life on the page. Here, the impossible and the possible were interwoven, making any attempt to distinguish between the two useless, and the tension that the speakers or characters experienced wasn’t always resolved by the end of the poem, mimicking what so often happens in our everyday lives. We grow up to expect resolution, and when we don’t find it, we think something might be wrong with the entirety of the world. James Tate didn’t write toward placing everything neatly back in its place; he wrote toward something that resembled truth, however absurd, uncomfortable, and downright silly that truth may have been.
James Tate was an unlikely poet to begin reading as a novice poetry reader, especially the work of his mid to late career. His poems during this phase are riddled with fleshed out characters, dialogue, surreal scenarios, dark and dry humor, and impossible situations even experienced readers may find difficult to navigate their way out of. If you read a poet like Alan Dugan, it might be challenging to distinguish a poem from his last collection (Poems Six) to his first (Poems), since stylistically and thematically, nothing really changes with his work. But with a poet like James Tate, evolution was a part of the process, and as such, if you read enough of him, you knew that your style as a writer and your needs as a reader would need to evolve as well.
I’m glad to say I read enough of him, and I read him at the right time during my life. Wasn’t it unfair that my family had to suffer from the financial burdens that many families were experiencing in 2008? Wasn’t it cruel that I had finished college (a semester early, mind you) and didn’t have a job lined up? Wasn’t there something funny about the way I wandered into that coffee shop looking to figure out the world and was offered an opportunity to serve it lattes and cappuccinos instead? I began to see myself in Tate’s characters, a little like Jesus in “Goodtime Jesus” sipping his coffee and riding his donkey out into the beautiful day, or a little like the speaker in “Go, Youth,” wondering if “I’d missed the boat, / or [if] I’d found the boat, and it was deserted,” or a little like the speaker in “Intruders” who wonders if the wife of the man who wandered into his yard was headed in their direction, unsure if life was seeking revenge or reconciliation. But mostly, and especially after Tate’s passing, I felt the same way the speaker feels toward the alien in “The Cowboy.” The unique creature that I had discovered in Tate had to leave for greener pastures, but I had changed for the better because of our encounter.
A Goat, the Heart, and the World at Large
I knew poets could be funny, but I didn’t know poets could be funny in real life. As an undergrad at SUNY Binghamton, I loved when visiting writers came to campus. When James Tate came, I wasn’t really that familiar with his poetry. To say he was funny was an understatement. I remember wiping tears from my eyes in the crowded lecture hall. I love funny poems—they are hard work, and always there is more than what meets the eye. Now, I know not all of James Tates poems are funny, but the ones that are, are remarkable.
I’m a poet who loves a prose poem, who loves lyricism and repetition. As a reader, I’m always after the heart. I don’t write funny poems, but people say I’m funny. What I love about a James Tate poem is he is always going after the heart.
His poems feel like he’s inviting you into a little world, little palaces of joy and dream and then the uncanny. My favorite poem of his is “It Happens Like This.”
Goats are funny. Yes, and that’s part of the appeal of the poem, but what does it for me is the charm of it all. This is a charming poem. I remember hearing Tate read it, and I remember being moved not only by the absurdity of it but also the tenderness of it—the sense of community—but more importantly its intimacy. It reminds me, as many of his poems do, of those children’s books that teach kids about life and society—Richard Scarry’s Busytown books. I can imagine a world where all of his characters live together.
A goat just appears next to the speaker. He’s the town’s goat. Everyone admires him (even the policeman), everyone wants to pet him, and why wouldn’t they? He’s a beautiful goat, an empathetic goat. He brings the policeman to tears. Also, “touching the goat will change your life!” A goat that will change your life! How? We don’t even know. But don’t you want to know? I do. And not only is he loyal to the speaker, but he really understands him.
I always love the speaker of the poem. I want to be his friend. He’s humble. He never once pretends to take ownership of the goat. He’s honest. He even tells the policeman that it’s the town’s goat. He’s generous. He shares his wealth. You can imagine him shouting, “Touching this goat will change your life…It’s your decision.” He’s also a good person—a good citizen. He follows the rules. He wants to know what the town’s rules are for goats.
The most beautiful part of the poem is the companionship—the goat and the speaker become a “we,” and spend the evening traversing the city looking for a place to spend the night. In this lonely, mysterious world, the speaker finds a companion, a loved one, and together, they find a home. I like to think they find a home. I like to think whatever the reason is that the policeman shouldn’t touch the goat, it is innocent and pure.
I love the humanity of the poem and the world it represents where all the characters are getting ready to turn off their lights at nightfall.
If you would’ve told me, as a very serious undergrad creative writing major, that one of my favorite poems would be a funny poem about a goat and a man, I’d never have believed you. I never think of poems having sequels, but I wish this one did. I’d read a whole book titled The Prince of Peace.