“Still the day looked bright to me.” — James Tate’s Kanizsa Triangle



James Tate’s final volume of poems has generated several reviews, including one in the New Yorker magazine by Dan Chiasson, who concludes his remarks by using Tate’s “The Walk Home” to indulge in fanciful sentimentality: “Tate’s walk home, filled with elms, maples, and a near-death experience as ‘a car swerved to miss me,’ would likely have taken him right past Emily Dickinson’s house; I read the poem as a sly tribute.”

But why settle for a citation that one can only potentially categorize as oblique, when a direct tribute is ready to take the witness stand? Did Tate not appropriate a line of poetry by Dickinson for the title of one of his books? Wouldn’t sticking to the facts be a more useful tribute to a poet one supposedly admires, while informing readers of pertinent literary conjunctions? At the same time, a thoughtful commentary on “The Walk Home” would also bear down on Tate’s poignant image of the aftermath of a final visit to a physician, “Still the day looked bright to me.” Implicitly, the opposite is true: the shadow side is glowing, too. In this particular piece, Tate seems to be playing (as he often did) with a verbal version of a Kanizsa Triangle, in which one’s identity is revealed through a self-portrait activated by illusion. As much as he claims to admire him, Chiasson falls far short of appreciating the skill with which Tate plays with presence and absence.

I confess I am in no rush to buy a copy of Tate’s final volume, but I do wish to reaffirm the comments I previously made about his work.


Although he was steadily prolific throughout his life, it is his early work that will continue to astonish readers. His first book, The Lost Pilot, has a handful of enduring poems, but on the whole is uneven. Given that he was in his very early 20s when he wrote these poems, it is hardly surprising that not every poem has gone through enough drafts. The next two widely available full-length collections, however, The Oblivion Ha-Ha and Absences, remain among the handful of books that are essential reading in their entirety. It’s not that Absences is perfect; that’s not the point of his poetics. His poems want to wake us up from our waking consciousness, that level of daily negotiation that leaves us frustrated with its explanations of reality. The “ordinary horseshit” of ideology gets washed away when we turn to his best poems and gives ourselves to his prancing logic.

In some ways, I believe that if Tate had been gifted with a more devious intellect, he might well have had the following career. Having reached the limits of his early affinities, in 1974 he renounces all his early work and devotes himself to the nascent Language movement. I wonder what would have happened, if that alternative life had somehow come to pass? Would the Language writers have truly welcomed him? I doubt it. There’s an edge of transgressive clowning — in the most sincere sense of the word — that would cause his work to remain suspect in their company. A paradox involving a vortex of welcome and farewell spins through Tate’s work with the grace of friendly solitude, and he refused to consider any other path. Tate was never in any danger of succumbing to the temptation of any poetics but his own quirkiness. As the years have gone by, and his poems missed more often than not, I began to wish that he would give himself a respite that would allow one final gush of utter brilliance. It never happened, but many of us are very grateful that he kept on trying. Without that compulsion, after all, we would not have the gift of his early poems. In the end, his work will always linger at the edges of the avant-garde while refusing easy assimilation into conventional schools, and the best of his work will continue to be a constant rediscovery of an imagination heading off towards unexpected destinations of poignantly startling reverie. Carol Ellis’s recent collection of poems cites one of my favorite images from his poems: “a dark star passes through you on your way home from the grocery.” His best poems are the darkest of stars, and once you have read them, you will never again be the same.

I’m going to eat a dish of blueberries in his memory tonight.

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