Sunday, October 4, 2009

Literature: James Tate's "The Ghost Soldiers"

I've never read poetry as terrifying as James Tate's The Ghost Soldiers. I didn't realize that until about page 200. Yes, there's a book of poetry-- new poetry, not any sort of anthology-- that's well over 200 pages long. Perhaps it has something to do with the format: each poem is more like a rambling paragraph of short, simple-clause sentences. Tate's one of those Pultizer Prize-winning poets who's got some chaired position at some college, but unlike many old poets, he's consistently reinventing himself. Maybe that's not exactly right; he just keeps getting weirder and weirder. He's written books that made less sense-- Worshipful Company of Fletchers is hard to get through-- but he's never written anything that messed with your mind so much.

Look at the cover of the book up there. Trees, teddy bears, boxers, silhouetted hares, guns. Going through the book, I can't find any of these objects appearing in the poetry (except guns... there are definitely guns), but the flavor of the cover is true to the content. The poetry is relentlessly anecdotal, suspiciously easy to read, and it does not add up to anything. Poem after poem about spies, mysterious strangers, secret wars, and-- more than any of these-- a shifting male narrator with a thousand names, united only by his inability to come to turns with the bizarre nature of the world around him. Tate's aesthetic becomes something irreverent, hilarious, page-turning, and simply fun.

But it's also disturbing. If you're looking for answers to any of it, you won't find one. Once, I read one of the poems to my friend Nathan, who insisted that there was a moral to it. Then I read him another, and another, and he started to agree that Tate was deliberately confounding the reader. But so gracefully and hilariously. Sometimes, because of the intrigue-obsessed content and the "anti-poetry" style, I was reminded of bad sci-fi movies: unimportant things last too long, and the important things are sloppily presented. This is like a bad sci-fi movie directed by a master filmmaker.

So why is that terrifying? Maybe it's because when I read poetry, I find comfort in knowing that someone else is trying to find answers, and is making a weak, beautiful attempt at offering a few suggestions on how to live. Tate seems intent on making the search harder. It's awesome.


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