Shroud of the Gnome
The Ecco Press, $23
by Max Winter
Happiness, for James Tate, is either unattainable or too easily attained
to be worth it. Each poem in Shroud of the Gnome is a dialogue between
a speaker and a world in which acquring happiness is the ultimate accomplishment.
Tate's speakers would like to argue that other activities-gardening, chasing
gnomes, writing poetry-are just as worthwhile as religious, political, or
academic pursuits. These poems make convincing arguments even when they extend
themselves impossibly far to do so.
Readers will always feel firmly located, at least, when reading Tate's poetry.
"Days of Pie and Coffee," for instance, begins "on a county
lane." "And That's the Good News" introduces a figure whose
presence itself implies a location: "The man in the pharmacy yesterday
/ read the warning on the labels / on box after box of pills." Tate uses
these solid locations as bases for surrealism or not-too-lofty abstraction.
Because his sense of placement is strong, his poems never become unbelievable-he
proves that readers can suspend disbelief indefinitely if concessions are
made to a need for earthly or cosmic grounding.
Tate's poems often involve a set of switch-ups; he introduces a new situation
or rule for understanding him with each line or sentence. As a result, readers
come to rest in places half real and half surreal. In "Lafcadio,"
an all-too-brief character portrait, Tate begins by describing human qualities-"He
was never mean to me. / I never once heard him speak ill of another."
Later, however, he calls Lafcadio's punctuality "a virtue I dearly love
in a dog." In "A Road Open at Both Ends," which begins with
the question, "What would a mute be doing in a phone booth / at this
hour, I asked myself," the central figure might either be an actual mute
in an actual phone booth or a character in a silent film, viewed by the speaker
in articulate, imaginative disbelief. What we are to think can't be determined;
such is the joy of this book. Tate peoples his poems, as well, with characters
whose origins can't be determined. A Mr. Junco whose suit, worn on a particular
day, "has washed all my cares away." Anna Swan, a giantess with
a nursing instinct. A pathological liar named Kiki. A "skewbald"
stallion named Peter Bell. Like figures in a Raymond Chandler novel, these
characters arise and disappear without introductions or too much explanation.
In so doing, they eventually come to reflect a modernist conception of selfhood:
fleeting, unmoored, yet entertaining when allowed to speak.
In questioning the stability of his social and political environment, Tate
writes an irascible poetry of intellectual self-examination. In "Shut
Up and Eat Your Toad," Tate speaks of the "disorganization to which
I currently belong" as though it might be his town, his city, his country,
not just a club for transcendentally lost individuals. And later, he asks,
"What kind of disorganization is this? / Baron of the Holy Grail?"
Surely he jests, but the jest functions like a verbal Dick Van Dyke pratfall,
too obvious to be anything but intentional. He envisions the motion of existence
as a persistent search for something that does not quite exist, and a search
in which he repeatedly loses his way. Ironically, the loss of the path is
more enlightening than the path itself-or so he leads us to believe. The title
poem narrates the adventures of a multifarious speaker who follows a gnome
across a barren cityscape and finally finds his friend's grey apparel lost
in an alleyway, tattered and neglected. The gnome embodies Tate's faith that
such beings could exist-and, by extension, that imaginative readers and writers,
with effort, would be able to create them. The speaker chases the gnome persistently
after being puzzled that "none of our modern inventions / surprise or
interest him, even a little." The pursuit is whimsical, but also desperate
and futile; our final glimpse of the gnome is actually of the gnome's absence-which
is only too true to the quotidian of existence, isn't it?
There is also a certain amount of social critique couched in much of Tate's
wit and revelry-because its apperception depends upon readers' concern, those
out for a good time might miss it. He declares, in "Dream On":
Some people go their whole lives
The Ginsbergian openness and plainness of Tate's protest is perhaps humorous,
but he suggests, here and elsewhere, that poetry's anchorhold in American social
existence is diminishing. "Restless Leg Syndrome," which chronicles
the adventures of a flying leg amidst what one might assume to be a collection
of toys, ends with a swift kick to a model of the White House, as though the
American symbol of statehood were just another plastic icon, left to be kicked
out of the poem, thus severing all ties between verse and American culture.
without ever writing a single poem.
Extraordinary people who don't hesitate
to cut somebody's heart or skull open.
They go to baseball games with the greatest of ease
and play a few rounds of golf as if it were nothing.
[ . . . ]
They contribute to political campaigns
that have absolutely no poetry in them
and promise none for the future.
Tate's linguistic play, however, shows that his lexicographic imagination
functions despite all ambient discord. In a brief, marriage-ending dialogue
called "At the Days End Motel," one half of an imaginary argument
says to the other, "Hey listen schmendrick, at least I'm not an inept
nonentity." Tate begins "My Felisberto" by proclaiming, "My
felisberto is handsomer than your mergotroid." These two opposing terms
come to represent a crucial dichotomy: Dionysians vs. Apollonians, Epicureans
vs. Stoics, fans of the verbal fun of "felisberto" vs. appreciators
of the extraterrestrial and yet strangely functional sound of "mergotroid."
While Tate's rarified diction provides auditory pleasure and descriptive precision,
it also shows the pleasure he takes in unearthing words like "schmendrick"
and "ocelot" and valorizing them in his poems. Tate makes us laugh,
but through a humor derived from astronomical swerves outside of "normal"
verbal constructions. We laugh from both disbelief and relief; his language
is not a shroud of wool thrown over our eyes.
Tate's diction, particularly in Worshipful Company of Fletchers and
in this volume, has also become more conversational than that of earlier books-he
has adopted many of the patterns of speech into his poems to make his imaginative
leaps more palatable. He uses the sloppiness of everyday speech, also, as
a means to casually poke at the boundaries of poetic discourse. Sometimes
he seems to transpose the language games of poetry onto the language games
of conversation, creating a separate language altogether: almost encoded,
but with a requisite richness that communicates consistently. This variousness
shows most in smaller gestures. In "The Figure in the Carpet," he
Oh, you talk a good game, Binky. I can see
We laugh, but we can also distinguish between a return to the womb and a homecoming.
"In His Hut Sat Baba Yaga, Hag-Faced and With a Leg of Clay" jerks
into motion with a witty ice-breaker: "What if a finger-sized peasant /
makes off with a magic steed, eh?"
that you have a nervous system shaped like Florida.
A lot of good that will do you when it's time
to trace your steps back into the egg.
Did I say egg? I meant dog.
Tate manifests the texture of the spoken world through the channeling of
numerous self-confident voices. Every now and then, he might affect a more
down-to-earth tone, as at the beginning of "Same As You," where
he admits, "I put my pants on one day at a time." He pokes fun at
the voice of dependability but brings it into his poetry front and center,
nevertheless; in the beginning of "The Definition of Gardening,"
he writes, "Jim just loves to garden, yes he does." At other times
he might wax academic, almost Ashberian. The first poem of the book, "Where
Babies Come From," begins with certitude: "Many are from the Maldives,
/ southwest of India, and must begin / collecting shells almost immediately."
Tate's ability to wear different headgear is a signal of his humanity and
his awareness of others' humanity.
In assuming so many unexpected roles, Tate also demonstrates the ability
of the creative mind to devise infinitely various dramatizations of its development.
In "Same as You," he announces, "Thus I was led into paths
I had not known." This mock-Biblical exposure of poetic method is another
willful self-betrayal: the jokes have broken off, a surprise in a book which
changes vantage points and settings constantly and unpredictably without many
pauses sufficient to evoke commentary. He continually balances the gleefully
sarcastic fun of his poems with an encroaching sense of the spiritual responsibility
of individuals in a skewed universe. "Nonstop," perhaps the most
openly morbid poem in the book, begins with an auspicious statement: "It
seemed as if the enormous journey / was finally approaching its conclusion."
On the train with the anxious speaker are a nun with "cowboy pride,"
a "know-nothing boy" with no hair, and a conductor who disappears
inside a lavatory; out the window, the narrator sees "a heap of abstract
geometrical symbols," and little else-Eliotic, Dadaistic, inexplicably
true to human experience. Tate conducts readers, in turn, on a nonstop journey
through his book, through language; the destination is uncertain, but the
journey is worth the price of admission.