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Viper Jazz

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

In this sixth major collection of poems, James Tate fulfills the promise of his earlier work to become to the contemporary poem what Donald Barthelme is to short fiction: the master of the conversationally miraculous non sequitur. Throughout his work, Tate’s amazingly consistent persona has shocked us with its untimeliness, delighted us with its wit, surprised us with its unexpectedness. We know that to adhere to the tenet of unpredictability largely for its own sake is to fall into the trap through the back door, to become predictable. This had become a problem in some of Tate’s earlier books (especially The Oblivion Ha-Ha and Absences) where many of the pieces give off the air of being slapped together from as many ephemeral trains of thought as could be maintained in one sitting. Tate had abandoned the finished, linear polish of his excellent first book, The Lost Pilot, in order to write a more ambitious and, as is often the case, a more failure-prone type of poem which, in the light of Viper Jazz, can now be viewed as necessarily transitional. The longer of these “middle” poems border on being nearly unreadable as their lack of tension both in their content and in their physical appearance, plus a lack of object-relationships which can invite scrutiny, reduce the works to pretentious, discursive disjointedness.

Viper Jazz is the product of the honed method, the intermarriage of the first artifacts and the middle meanderings to produce poems which are more legitimately imaginative than surrealistic, and which seem to have been reworked to the point beyond which they could not be any more spontaneous. If their lengths appear standardized, it is due to the greater demands an artificer has made upon his material, forcing the winding content into a tensely submissive posture where, conversely, the same content has much greater room within which to exert itself. Not one poem in this collection has grown out of control; this is a noteworthy accomplishment for any poet and a major one for Tate. The prosily discursive body is attenuated—at moments where the process of roving, ironic attentions has not simply petered out, leaving a word glut in its trail, but rather at points of sharp, unnerving closure. The persona emerges as a misanthropic reveler, far more bitter and now more adept than in the earlier poems, where irony is mostly served by the literal awareness of clichés, a device that tires as the clichés mount up. Now Tate plays upon more sophisticated methods, all of which use the background pastiche of the poem as an alien springboard against which actual things and feelings come into contradistinction.

In “The Television Was Reminded of the Story,” for example, the speaker uses for his setting a “town of stove-pipe hats,” as good a description as any for the nondescript nature of the place and its events. The poem ends with these lines:

A sign said YIELDand a woman ran through the streetsactually crying.

The reader responds with shock at this portrayal of the woman’s tears of fear, depression, or despair; the image of the running woman is enlarged out of the real world by its incongruous introduction into a world of a different sort, one that is deceptively presented as a mundane, uninteresting place. Actual emotion is both exalted and demeaned, anything but weighed for its own value, as in another poem, “Hooked on a Star,” which begins:

I like everything about youthough you are just a piece of plastic.I know that and it doesn’t influence me.I still love you.

These humorous but chilling lines show us the familiar speech of the verbs “to like” and “to love,” suddenly so strange, so out of context. Often, poems that hinge on the same key words or devices are paired on facing or consecutive pages, so that “A Voyage from Stockholm,” with its last line “and in the distance the distance,” is echoed in the ending of the next poem “The Hairy Cup of Coffee:” “he deliberately pinpricked/my pinprick.” Repetition...

(The entire section is 1,675 words.)