Monday, March 31, 2008

James Tate - The Ghost Soldiers

New books by James Tate are always worth attention. This one, though, seems special. He’s found a resonant center for his flights of narrative: War.

Meanderings within a framework of war seem especially resonant for Tate. In much the way that personal tragedy took Mary Jo Bang’s attention into a sphere that many consider to be her strongest work, Elegy (though I’m also partial to Louise in Love. Luckily, I don’t have to choose.), so too does national tragedy seem to have dragged Tate up into a cultural connectivity that will, I believe, connect with a lot of people (Me, for one!). I fully expect this book to be on the award lists for next year. It’s large. And, well, large: 217 pages.

There’s a criticism of Tate that surfaces now and then, the criticism that his is an imagination on auto-pilot, so real destination or gravity. That criticism might still be leveled at some of the poems in this book, but for me, I find that the flatness of some of the poems still retains a floating paranoia of the contemporary condition that serves the overall structure well. Tate is one of our best investigators of the other side of The Common Man: where the speaker is continually waking into situations that have new rules, and the inevitability that these speakers, these common men, will fold naturally into these situations, even if they don’t know what they are. Comic and terrifying by turns, and then flat and common by turns, The Ghost Soldiers lurches along.

(An aside: OK, call me a reactionary, but I really wish Tate would take the plunge and stop calling these things poems. They’re quite good, don’t get me wrong, but they’re as much short movies as they are poems. Or call them tiny plays. Oh, all right, call them poems if you must, but still. You know?)

The War Next Door

I thought I saw some victims of the last war bandaged and
limping through the forest beside my house. I thought I recognized
some of them, but I wasn’t sure. It was kind of a hazy dream
from which I tried to wake myself, but they were still there,
bloody, some of them on crutches, some lacking limbs. This sad
parade went on for hours. I couldn’t leave the window. Finally,
I opened the door. “Where are you going?” I shouted. “We’re
just trying to escape,” one of them shouted back. “But the war’s
over,” I said. “No it’s not,” one said. All the news reports had
said it had been over for days. I didn’t know who to trust. It’s
best to just ignore them, I told myself. They’ll go away. So I
went into the living room and picked up a magazine. There was a
picture of a dead man. He had just passed my house. And another
dead man I recognized. I ran back in the kitchen and looked out.
A group of them were headed my way. I opened the door. “Why
didn’t you fight with us?” they said. “I didn’t know who the
enemy was, honest, I didn’t,” I said. “That’s a fine answer. I
never did figure it out myself,” one of them said. The others looked
at him as if he were crazy. “The other side was the enemy, obviously,
the ones with the beady eyes,” said another. “They were mean,”
another said, “terrible.” “One was very kind to me, cradled me
in his arms,” said one. “Well, you’re all dead now. A lot of
good that will do you,” I said. “We’re just gaining our strength
back,” one of them said. I shut the door and went back in the
living room. I heard scratches at the window at first, but then
they faded off. I heard a bugle in the distance, then the roar of
a cannon. I still don’t know which side I was on.


At 4/10/2008 12:40 PM, Blogger Andrew Anderson said...

Hi James,
I'm a fellow Tate enthusiast and I agree that it's difficult to call some of these poems. Nevertheless, Tate's willingness to go against the grain of what is considered "standard poetry" has greatly influenced my style. I really have enjoyed this book. Glad to read a fellow blogger's review!

At 5/03/2008 10:19 AM, Blogger Rex Walton said...


Here in Lincoln (this is the clean part .. ) we do walk and chew poetry at the same time, particularly if it's James Tate. I was at the Des Moines Fest a couple of years ago, when James Tate read -- he was suffering form some horrible pain, but read anyway -- a 45 minute tramp into the woods of his offkilter, damp humor/angst was lovely. Ghost Soldiers takes the attitude that infused so many of the poets writing for years behind the Iron Curtain -- to use ludicrous uninhibited darkness to illuminate... and James realizes, that in this world anyway, we all are behind the Curtain, and need to find a way of explaining, and appealing, and commizerating, and celebrating...


At 1/12/2009 2:12 PM, Blogger La Fleur's Blog said...


I've no difficulty pinning Tate's latest as poetry . . . if by poetry we don't mean doom-tomb formalism. Always a one for argument, I'd say Tate gives us something much out of fashion within the academia vs. poetry slam arena: character, personality, dramatic monologue, call it what you will, but the language has conviction, some play, some surprises, some scheme of recognition, that delivers with guts and economy. This isn't Tate's strongest work, but, as is the case with all his published babies, a pleasure to keep company with.



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