The Lost Pilot

by James Tate

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The Poem

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“The Lost Pilot” is a poem in free verse, its forty-eight lines divided into sixteen stanzas, each of which is three lines in length. The title, along with the dedication to the poet’s father (emphasizing the fact that the father died at the extremely young age of twenty-two), establishes a mood of loss both violent and tragic. The loss of a pilot suggests the loss of direction and control. The loss of a pilot/father foreshadows the great personal grief and bewilderment with which the poet will struggle throughout the length of the poem.

Appropriately, the poem is written in the first person, which allows great immediacy of emotion and brings the reader close to the intense and complex relationship of the poet to his lost father. The complexity of grief is at the very heart of the elegiac tradition in poetry, a tradition which seeks to reconcile the living to the reality of death. It is fitting, then, that this poem is addressed directly to the lost father, as only he can know the answers to those questions generated by his son’s feelings and bewilderment.

The poem begins with a startling declaration: “Your face did not rot/ like the others.” The sudden and shocking physical nature of this statement re-creates for the reader the emotional tenor of the pilot’s death and the son’s bereavement. It also characterizes the desperate tone of the elegy as the son seeks some consolation, however unlikely or grotesque. As the pilot died young and, presumably, in flames, his body did not suffer the deterioration either of age or of interment, fates which people in general and, as the poem goes on to explain, the lost pilot’s surviving crewmen in particular, must eventually confront. Surely, this is a meager consolation, but then the unique circumstances of the poet’s loss are bitterly deprived of ordinary comfort.

The poem continues as the poet gives voice to the injustice of his father’s death, comparing the wrong he suffered to the sufferings of Job. Yet it is his own bereft situation to which the poet must somehow become reconciled, so in the body of the poem, he gives specific voice to his own doubts, hopes, and despair. He tries to talk his father down, out of the sky from which he never returned, hoping to receive from him the information and guidance every son desires from his father. In his desperation, he even bargains with the lost pilot, promising to keep their proposed reunion a secret from his father’s widow and surviving crewmen. He receives no word in reply. In the closing stanzas, the poet is left alone with his grief, feeling that his eternally young, romantic father is somehow more alive in his mysteriousness than is he himself in his all-too-real bereavement. In the end, he accepts the silence of his misfortune only because he has no other choice.

Forms and Devices

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The major encompassing form of “The Lost Pilot” is James Tate’s unique version of the traditional elegy. It is this form which the poem fulfills through its general tones (anger and grief), its rhetorical methods (sorrowful exclamation and the interrogation of the lost pilot and of the facts of death itself), and final resignation. Ironically, it is the relationship of this poem to its elegiac forebears—works such as John Milton’s “Lycidas” and Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”—that must substitute for the more intimate yet now impossible relationship between the poet and his father.

Presiding over the entire elegy is the metaphor of the lost pilot himself; it...

(This entire section contains 492 words.)

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is into this metaphor that the poet’s father has disappeared, never having had the time or life to be anything but a metaphor to his son. His lostness has many significant qualities which contribute to his mysteriousness: Being lost, he can only be presumed dead, thus leaving his son in a state of perpetual uncertainty; being lost, he represents a continual challenge to his son to find him, as Telemachus was challenged to find his father Odysseus in Homer’sOdyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.); being a lost pilot, he represents an eternal contradiction as someone who is responsible for leading others and yet is lost himself. Toward the end of the poem, this metaphor finds its final shape in that of “a tiny, African god” forever orbiting the earth, eternally inscrutable, exotic, and out of reach.

The imagery of the poem serves to emphasize the distinctions between the mystery of the father’s fate and the grim reality of the fates of those who survived him. His copilot’s face has turned to “corn-/ mush,” a bland and featureless foodstuff, while the lost pilot’s is gemlike, having grown “dark,/ and hard like ebony.” His blinded gunner’s face is disfigured by “blistered eyes,” while the lost pilot’s face retains the smoothness of “an original page.” Such contrasting images make the status of the living seem much poorer than the status of the lost.

While “The Lost Pilot” adheres to no formal pattern of rhyme or meter beyond its being divided into stanzas of equal length, it does make striking, if irregular, use of various musical devices. The proliferation of imperfect rhymes (such as “rot” with “co-pilot” and “life” with “sky”) throughout the poem underscores the imperfect connections between the lost father and his son, connections the son is ultimately powerless to improve, much less to perfect. Finally, the fact that the end-stopped lines in the poem (such as “He was more wronged than Job.”) are so overwhelmingly outnumbered by enjambed lines (that is, lines in which the thought runs over into the lines that immediately follow them) seems to maintain a continuous sense of imbalance, urgency, and precariousness, all of which are appropriate to the poet’s emotional and psychological situation.