Nudging Reality: On James Tate’s “Hell, I Love Everybody”
By Rowland BagnallNovember 10, 2023
Hell, I Love Everybody: The Essential James Tate by James Tate
This poem introduces us to Tate’s parallel reality, an environment of strange and unpredictable events, where the laws of nature bend and break, a world of augmentation, metamorphosis, and sudden disappearances. In Tate’s poetry, things seem natural enough, behaving as we think they should, at least until the entrance of a half-cartoonish figure—bloodied and grinning—or the onset of a supernatural event, a thing “for which nothing could have prepared us,” suggests one poem, “and for which we could not have been less prepared.” “I like starting with a man sitting on a bench with nothing going on,” says Tate in his “Art of Poetry” interview for The Paris Review, “and then […] his whole life changes and gets thrown into some kind of hideous upheaval that he could have never foreseen.” “I like to start with the ordinary,” he continues, “and then nudge it.”
Tate died in 2015, at age 71, leaving behind over 20 volumes of poetry and prose, including Selected Poems (awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1991) and two posthumous collections. The Government Lake: Last Poems was published by Ecco in 2019, ending with an untitled work discovered in Tate’s typewriter. Beginning with a seemingly prophetic line—“I sat at my desk and contemplated all that I had accomplished”—this poem closes with another run-in with an officer of the law. “A policeman stopped me on the street and said / he was sorry. He was looking for someone who looked just like me,” says the speaker: “What are the chances?”
Ecco returns this year with Hell, I Love Everybody, a gathering of 52 poems that offer a valuable introduction to a poet whose work consistently interrogates this question—What are the chances?—forcing us to reconsider our definitions of both normal and unusual, reality and unexpected. “The Jim Tate poem normalizes the bizarre,” writes Terrance Hayes in his introduction, “the dream-songy, the mythic, the absurd, the quotidian, the diurnal, surreal, and occasionally nightmarish feeling of life.” These are poems, as Matthew Zapruder has suggested, that embrace an “absolute willingness to follow the mind wherever it goes.”
Selecting work from across Tate’s six-decade career—including the title poem of his first collection, The Lost Pilot (1967), chosen for the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets when Tate was only 23—the work presented here is brimming with bizzarro encounters and curious characters, often escalating through the gears of an increasingly madcap scenario. In “The Ice Cream Man,” Tate’s speaker responds in the affirmative to every question put during an interview, feigning his credentials at every turn. “And I take it you / are fully acquainted with the latest in rocket launchers and land- / mines?” asks the interviewer. “[Y]ou know, some fathers can get quite irate if you are out / of their kid’s favorite flavor.” “God! This town / is like a fairy tale,” exclaims yet another police officer in “It Happens Like This.” “Everywhere you turn there’s mystery / and wonder.” All the while, Tate maintains a casualness of tone and language—writing “in plain American which cats and dogs can read,” to borrow a line from Marianne Moore—as though the oddity of what we read, the “mystery and wonder,” were really only strange to us.
Commentators frequently reach for the language of dreams to get a handle on Tate’s poetry, accounting for a texture of his work best described, perhaps, by Meghan O’Rourke as “serious absurdism, absurd seriousness.” And yet, there is something undeniably concrete about the world of Tate’s poems; this is a hard, tactile reality, however strangely populated, closer to the semi-surreal, hallucinatory environments of Denis Johnson or George Saunders. More than dreams, Tate’s poems suggest the oddness of a Halloween party or Renaissance Fair, though one we have stumbled on by accident without a costume of our own, confused to find everyone else acting in character, refusing to let up. In Tate’s world, it’s always we, the readers, who are the odd ones out. As he puts it in “Consumed,” “You are the stranger / who gets stranger by the hour.”
One of the great comic poets of the 20th century, Tate is an absurdist in the vein of Buster Keaton or Monty Python—even, more recently, Tim Robinson. His tendency to stroll quite happily to the extremes of a scenario, to lean into the poems’ sharp and unexpected turns, generates a textual environment in which “[j]ust about anything can happen next,” as Charles Simic has noted. “Someone had spread an elaborate rumor about me,” begins Tate’s “The Cowboy,” “that I was / in possession of an extraterrestrial being.” Tate’s speaker spends the first slice of the poem fending off the crowds outside his house. Just as he convinces them, however, that his nonexistent alien has died, “a nearly transparent / fellow with large pink eyes” appears from nowhere in the kitchen. The two hatch an endearing plan to drive to Wyoming or Montana, in search of “a real cowboy,” the one wish of the visitor. Alas, they don’t have time, as the alien announces his impending death, the poem ending on a note of genuinely moving music: “‘But / I was going to take you to meet a real cowboy,’ I said. ‘Let’s / pretend you are my cowboy,’ he said.”
“I love my funny poems, but I’d rather break your heart,” Tate states to The Paris Review, “And if I can do both in the same poem, that’s the best.” While Tate’s comedy can land on moments of emotional or poignant power, the logic of his work is more often inclined towards the strangeness of competing systems. Two poems in this selection share the same title—“The Rules”—revealing Tate’s interest in what happens when two people stick to scripts from different contexts. “And, then, another man came in and pulled out / a gun,” reads one. “‘Give me all your money,’ he said. I said, ‘I’m / sorry, this is a candy store. We don’t do hold ups.’”
There is an undercurrent of violence running through Tate’s work. One woman returns from her book club with “scratches down both cheeks” after a violent disagreement with her fellow readers, “looking badly in need of repair.” Tate’s is an America of punch-ups and explosions, crashes and assassinations. And yet, the poems observe a slapstick, Looney Tunes–style lack of consequences in which the worst fate for a victim is a small halo of tweeting birds, or a face blackened by soot, hairs standing smokily on end. Tate admits belonging to a local gang during his youth; in surprisingly cartoonish detail, he suggests that they would carry sticks of dynamite to use on rival gang members, though (he assures us) “[n]othing ever happened.”
Tate’s work is typically compared to Simic and Mark Strand, fellow practitioners of the absurdist lyric, though he has expressed his admiration for Russell Edson and early John Ashbery. There is something of Bob Dylan’s wackier narrative adventures to Tate’s poetry, too, as in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” from Bringing It All Back Home (1965), complete with its cameo appearance from a member of the police department: “Just then this cop comes down the street / Crazy as a loon / He throws us all in jail / For carryin’ harpoons.”
With their distinctive energy—both carnivalesque and lightly threatening—Tate’s poetry reminds me most of James Ensor’s painting Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 (1888), which hangs in the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The massive canvas shows a noisy, colorful parade of ugly clowns and townspeople, onlookers and chubby children; in the foreground looms a Mardi Gras skeleton wearing a top hat, as if in the wrong painting; further back, a sinister marching band led by a grotesque bandleader, a battalion of corpses. In the middle of the painting, Christ rides on a donkey, waving to the crowds. Though it depicts a celebration, the painting holds a threat of rioting and violence; it seems to know that Christ is being led into the city for a bloody, frenzied crucifixion. Coincidentally, Hell, I Love Everybody takes its title from a short poem called “Goodtime Jesus,” which balances naivety and the promise of violence in the same suggestive way: “Take a little ride on my donkey, I love that donkey,” says Jesus. “Hell, I love everybody.”
Tate was a prolific poet. As such, it might be true that reading too much of Tate’s poetry at once—like eating too much candy—risks compromising its deliciousness. In the words of Dana Gioia, “While Tate’s poetry is never quite monotonous, when read in large portions, the work seems strangely homogeneous.” Nevertheless, the great success of Tate’s writing is to broaden our idea of what is possible in poetry, of what truly belongs there. “If it can be written or thought, it can be filmed,” suggested Stanley Kubrick of the possibilities of cinema. I’m inclined to think something similar of Tate: if it can be thought or imagined, it can be poetry—or, perhaps, already is.
“Truth is stranger than fiction,” writes Mark Twain, “because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” More than anything, Tate’s achievement is to mount a challenge to our own sense of reality, our sense of what is “normal” or expected from the world. “Some people go their whole lives / without ever writing a single poem,” Tate reminds us, but what happens in a poem is no stranger than anything else. After all, these are people “who don’t hesitate / to cut somebody’s heart or skull open,” who play golf, hunt foxes, shoplift, and invest their money, or simply “stroll into a church / as if that were a natural part of life.” “Truth is, you are // free,” writes Tate in “Consumed,” “and what might happen to you / today, nobody knows.”
Rowland Bagnall is a writer and poet based in Oxford, United Kingdom. His debut collection, A Few Interiors, was published by Carcanet Press in 2019; his second book is due in 2024.
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