Worshipful Company of Fletchers
The universe in James Tate’s poetry is in constant parallel circular motion beside and around itself, and his latest collection of poems, Worshipful Company of Fletchers, makes no exception to such existential philandering. Neither is it a mere rerun of this aesthetic agenda. Poems with titles such as “Autosuggestion: USS North Carolina” imply that it is reasonable to assume, as some students reading his poetry often do, that he is writing about writing, and not about whatever he says he is writing about. Indeed one could assume it would not be too farfetched to move beyond the tautology of language and claim that the intention of language has gotten away from itself altogether, and he as speaker is chronicling or merely declaring his misadventures with it. One might stamp this book “expanded, slightly more forgiving and contemplative version” of the usual brilliant zaniness and surprise that has marked the tone and craft of his poetry all along.
For example, how many people would expect the speaker in a poem to declare a warning that, “It’s the same old story, but I don’t remember it,” or “it could have turned out differently, and it did”? Why split himself into two characters, “James the More,” who thinks the phrase “ ‘He is being nibbled to death by ducks’ shines with such style, such poise and reserve,” and “James the Lesser” who replies “It is time we had our teeth examined by a dentist”? Recognizing the character of the chronically baffled speaker who seems lucid and persistent only on the point of his own craziness or confusion is an important entry into the sensibility of these poems, which often makes them, as Richard Tillinghast said of Selected Poems (1991), “very, very funny on the page.” Yet Tillinghast separates Tate’s brand of humor from what he calls a trend of “using surrealistic technique for comic effect,” popular twenty years ago, by also claiming “he has created a voice and a kind of poem that no one else could have written.” Dudley Fitts wrote in the foreword to Tate’s first book, The Lost Pilot, which won him the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1967, that the poems were “utterly new” and “sound[ed] to [him] like nothing he had ever read.” More than twenty-five years later, such remarks prove to be more than a loss for words. In this latest collection, one still gets the definite sense that with each poem there is a critical chess move made into unexpected territory of the imagination. For Tate, the faculty of invention seems to be more compelling than other reaches of the human mind or spirit. He invents himself, and language, and in so doing forces a new reaction from us as readers with each turn of image and line he makes. In 1970, he wrote “Truth is, you are/ free, and what might happen to you/ today, nobody knows. And your/ personality may undergo a radical transformation in the next half/ hour. So it goes.” According to such an index, truth with a capital “T” comes in the form of being taken completely by surprise. While the claims made in his new collection may be less sweeping and not as eager to be ahead of themselves, they are no less surprising—the candid elegance of invention is still polished and displayed.
The first poem in the collection, “Go, Youth,” could be earmarked as a more lyrical and elegiac treatment of its subject than much of Tate’s earlier work attempts, and signals a trend in the book that is memorable in its beautiful wistfulness, demon- strated periodically throughout the book in such poems as “The Wrong Way Home” and “Summer, Maine Coast.” In “Go, Youth,” the speaker says he has been walking around in “a dreamstate . . . causing a problem with the traffic.” Just as one begins to settle in for the usual verbal repartee of being told that he “missed the boat” or “found the boat and it was deserted,” he sees “a child’s shoe glisten[ing]” in the middle of the road. Surprised again, the reader is told, “Some/ mysteries are better left alone. Others are dreary, distasteful,/ and can disarrange a shadow into a thing of unspeakable beauty.” The reader is then left with a question and an image of a child that resurfaces, newly crafted, near the end of the book in the title poem, which also surprises with elegiac grace and elegance. It seems when reading the book from beginning to end that Tate has chosen to frame it with poems that qualify the power of his usual, manic speaker gripped in the fever of invention, by suggesting there is a quiet and mysterious wisdom outside of that, which is not usually spoken because it does not need to be.
Most of the poems in the book spiral into the whimsical vortex of a universe trying to step through its own looking-glass, and the results are at once an elegant and outrageous romp with narrative. Although humor is intrinsic to the vision of such poems as “Like A Scarf,” “A Gloworm, A Lemur, and Some Women,” “Abandoned Conceptions,” and “An Eland in Retirement,” they also indicate a parallel, equally important agenda. The creation of a “daft” speaker to tell such ridiculously outrageous stories also creates an excuse, a need, a whim, or a determined predisposition to hammer on the opacity of language through the very mutterings of his own, “pixilated” voice. “The Great Root System” is a good example of this convergence of agendas, since the speaker in this poem is obviously and deliberately outlining his own thought process so that it overtakes whatever story was about to be told and becomes the story, only to “fly in all directions” again at the end. The poem begins with an absurd equivalence: “When the birds talk, I answer./ When they are hungry, I need feed.” Then we are told “The story ends here, it goes/ nowhere. It’s just too early/ in the morning to think anything through.” The speaker then switches into obvious metaphors, such as “my motor’s running, but I’m almost out of gas,” and just when a reader might dare to...
(The entire section is 2457 words.)