The Ghost Soldiers by James Tate
Is there an American poet more unique and incapable of characterization than James Tate? He began with ghostly lyrics like “This is a dark street/ Where only an angel lives/ I’ve never seen anything like it,” and moved through less formal, personal structures to the skewered first-person prose poems of the last few books. The narrative itself -- squirrelly as it always is -- is the driving force in these pieces. Not only is the narrator unreliable, but he sometimes seems to have, say, no molecular structure. As Charles Simic says of these vignettes: “A poem out of nothing… is Tate’s genius… just about anything can happen next in this kind of poetry and that is its attraction.” In Ghost Soldiers, Tate’s newest and largest group, he may have finally moved the form up onto the high, open ground of greatness.
Part of what Tate does on this ground, and hence his singularity, is to solo-face and plant by himself the Surrealist flag in American verse. (Others have preceded and followed, but, as we shall see, brought their own treatments to the “waking dreamscape.”) From 1916 to the period between the wars, Surrealism moved from the plastic arts into literature with a vengeance. From Breton’s Paris to Latin America’s Vallejo (and even in stodgy England), poetry especially embraced Surrealism’s unsettling objects, human grotesques, and menacing features of nature. Not so in America. Man Ray was from Brooklyn, but no Man Ray -- nothing at all like him -- showed up in the New World’s poetic landscape.
Maybe this was because America had its own kind of Modernism and was already overloaded with experimentation. There was Eliot’s “senses of meaning” as opposed to meaning itself; Faulkner’s ornate but dreamless associational segues; Pound’s montages of divergent histories and languages; and Stevens’ atmospherics of pure, sometimes senseless sound (or sense from pure sound). Who needed a Tristan Tzara or a Mayakovsky in America’s homespun, already bustling hothouse?
After World War II, and in the midst of the academics like Lowell, Berryman and Bishop, I count three Surrealists tiptoeing out onto the domestic stage. The Canadian Mark Strand and Serbian-born Charles Simic threw up a host of Surrealist props, but all buffed them with a polished sheen, the odd and unsettling ambered over with formalist shellacks. (In fact, Tate’s first collection, The Lost Pilot, awarded the 1965 Yale Younger Poets Prize when he was still at the Iowa Writers Workshop [!], fits squarely into this "formalist Surrealism.")
But then Tate, who wasn’t just American but was from the heart of the heart of the country -- Kansas City -- let loose with a whole new stage full of squeaky, squawking, cacophonous horns, just like the ones he heard for nights on end as a high school student in the KC bars. Charlie Parker and Bix Bierderbecke showed him how improvisation in prose poetry could be structured like a sax chorus -- note clusters multiplying from one another in uncertain directions, the form and the form alone becoming the body, the vestment of composition.
This method stood Tate in good stead through the '70s and '80s in collections like The Oblivion Ha-Ha and Riven Doggeries. A narrator, often no more than a solipsistic, self-contained eye, would sit abashed as creatures, concepts, and flea market thing-a-ma-jigs floated like Thanksgiving parade balloons into his field of attention. They were burlesque comic “types;” compressions of high mimetic and low-brow phrases (“Frivolous Blind Death Child”); characters who were usually collectors of abuse and subsequent resentments; and pure ciphers -- animal-vegetable-mineral mixtures who talked back, took a few steps, then turned into something else.
In subsequent collections (Worshipful Collection of Fletchers) these “small movies” (as one critic called them) became monochromatic and repetitive. Narrators and observations seemed much too interchangeable. If you’d read one poem you hadn’t read them all, but you could skip the next three or four. This doesn’t make for energized poetry, even cutting some slack to prose poetry.
And as with some Surrealism and all highly stylized, “clever” forms, these pieces drew far too much attention to their outward features, leading to suspicions there was little below the dazzling surface water. Like Borges’s Ficciones, Tate’s “dreams of a robot dancing bee,” however lovely, however delicate, seemed highly cerebral and gamey, emotionally vacant, empty-hearted. The interplay between observer and observed was that of two constructs, reciprocal machines. It was hard for themes to develop in such poetry: yearning, searching and finding were substituted by laughter at such endeavors. This hyper-irony was summed up in one of his brilliant, heartless lines I used as an epigraph for a book of my own: “Of course it’s a tragic story; that’s why it’s so funny.”
Not so with Ghost Soldiers. And Simic, however observant, is wrong if using the foregoing “out of nothing/anti-poetry” quote to describe this new collection. For all the undirected meanderings, for all the chattering, squiggly spins of the radio dial, rich and topical themes emerge out of these hundred-plus pieces. Two arise in particular abundance. First, the relation of parents to children. Second is what could be seen as at least one of this bond’s destroyers: wars and their aftermath. In "Father’s Day," the narrator watches the ladder of bonding opportunities -- hard work, but graspable with determination -- slip finally out of his hands forever:
My daughter has lived overseas for a number of years now. She married into royalty, and they won’t let her communicate with any of her family or friends. She lives on birdseed and a few sips of water. She dreams of me constantly. Her husband, the Prince, whips her when he catches her dreaming. Fierce guard dogs won’t let her out of their sight. I hired a detective, but he was killed while trying to rescue her. I have written hundreds of letters to the State department. They have written back saying they are aware of the situation. I never saw her dance. I was always away at some convention. I never saw her sing. I was always working late. I called her my Princess, to make up for my shortcomings, but she never forgave me. Birdseed was her middle name.
The war poems are the masterpieces here. Too widely spaced to be a "cycle," they throb and beam their tropes of senseless loss off one another. Parades of the dead march by like figures in a Bosch canvas, leaving the speaker to pass through their chilly wakes and putrid, standing air. Dialogues are filled with ambiguities of security and protection, what counts as a “mission” and how it would be “accomplished.” From "Special Operations":
There were some bald men in a field pushing a huge ball, but the ball wasn’t moving… A woman walked by and stopped beside me. “What are those men doing down there?” she said. “It’s a warrior thing,” I said. “They’re working out some technical problems. They’re protecting us from evil, but the plan is still in the stages of development.” “Does that big ball represent evil?” she said. “It’s either evil or good. They’re still trying to work that one out,” I said. “Some men live on such an exalted plane, it’s a wonder anything ever gets done, “ she said. “I meant that as a compliment of course."
It doesn’t get any more Pure Tate than this. The herd ends up following whatever the half-assed philosopher kings say they are doing; if anything remains to be understood, it is all outside of the little peoples’ ken, as only the wise men can judge their own actions. The freedom-fearing woman, like a serf out of Chekhov (“What is it about us that fears liberty?”), catches and checks her own incipient skepticism brilliantly, sadly: “I meant that as a compliment, of course.” They are stick people but their language -- fleetingly glimpsed -- gives them the fullness of crushed spirits, Nietschean sheep, Republican wives.
Samuel Johnson (or was it Eliot?) criticized Chaucer for lacking a “high seriousness,” and Tate has been a magnet for similar charges. But while keeping all of his zaniness and verve, Tate has really written in Ghost Soldiers a book of subtle, softly echoing anti-war poetry. “Sure it’s a tragic story; that’s why it’s so funny.” But still it is tragic, first and foremost. The farces of the world don’t make the world a farce; it still cries out to be made better.
The Ghost Soldiers by James Tate