The Lost Pilot

by James Tate

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Themes and Meanings

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“The Lost Pilot” is a poem about bereavement and the many improvisations that the heart performs as it seeks a way to hope and to live again after a shattering loss. The poet confronts a literal and figurative void as he mourns the disappearance of a father he never knew. Denied, by the unique and violent circumstances of his pilot-father’s wartime death (1944 was the most terrible year of World War II), the consolations of a conventional funeral ritual, he is also denied the consolations of fond memory, as he has virtually no memories of his father at all. (The poet was less than one year old when his father was lost.) Without memories, the poet is forced to the abstract extreme of grief, an extreme at which his actions become the most vivid imaginable representations of the uncertainties and anxieties of human grief. One wonders in what ways every individual is an orphan. To what extent is every human being diminished by the universal and individual reality of death? The bargaining into which the poet enters with his orbiting father could be seen as emblematic of the ways in which all religions and philosophies seek to question and to cajole the unknown. Because his father cannot step down from the sky, the poet can only continue to state his case to the silence. In this, the poet suggests to the reader that everyone must find means to accept limitations to their individual lives and happiness which, though inevitable, are not necessarily endurable.

Losing a father means losing a point of origin, and Tate demonstrates how life can be suspended (“I feel dead”) by a failure to devise a means to root one’s life in personal and historical origins. Society can offer funeral rituals and time-worn platitudes to the bereft, but loss is finally a very personal, singular experience. An individual gifted with any sort of imagination is eventually compelled to use that imagination to express his or her own grief in all its singular intensity, and by so doing to root himself, if not in the irrevocably lost point of origin, at least in the total reality of his actual circumstances.

While the speaker of “The Lost Pilot” appears to conclude on a resignation to despair, the poem may not be entirely a hymn to hopelessness. The very fact that the poem is made at all and made so well, so intensely, represents a kind of victory. Grief has not destroyed the poet. Rather, it has made him eloquent and led him to a profound, if painful, self-knowledge and to the making of an urgent gesture of community with other living human beings.

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