Review of James Tate's Memoir of the Hawk

Review of James Tate’s Memoir of the Hawk
One is easily impressed by James Tate’s credentials. After all, he has been the celebrated oddball/bad boy of American poetry for a whole generation now. He was one of the Yale Younger Poets, whose subsequent National Book Award and Pulizer Prize establish his claim to recognition and serious consideration. It is clear that his poetic garment is all of golden cloth, its cut modish, its stitching intricate.
Tate’s thirteenth book, Memoir of the Hawk, however, painfully shows threadbare patches where the technique has been most worn, maybe even some bedraggled frogwork where the vision has been brushed too often.
But first the obvious virtues: Tate remains a masterful artisan of language. His verse is tightly measured, his rhythms pleasant, intricate, full of grace notes, sometimes even beautiful, as this fragment from “Geese at Night” shows:

. . . But
thanks to the harvest moon I can see them, just barely.
The V formation shifts to a checkmark, the checkmark
crumbles, and so on, always changing and reforming.

The pentametric line here typically serves as a base for Tate’s virtuoso trills and flourishes. The result is that we hear a contemporary American voice, graceful, direct, and believable.
Furthermore, the essentially narrative poems in this book are always traditionally sequenced, with conventional syntax and sharp visual detail. We know exactly where we are, usually the time of day, sometimes the weather, always the speaker’s physical point of view.
The trouble is, the world so carefully drawn for us in these poems is not any world we recognize. James Tate is, we all know, a surrealist, the poster boy for American surrealism in poetry. He is our proud answer to those decadent Europeans, Magritte and Kafka. He proves that we can be significantly meaningless, too. Surrealist painters and writers of the last century wanted to root out our settled patterns of perception and thereby build a New Order of reality.
The surrealism exemplified here might further be described as draughtsmanship wedded to incongruity. In these poems we find all sorts of wonders: animals that speak or write in “perfect schoolboy script,” books that move about the house, aliens and druids in the neighborhood, a war veteran who brings home a souvenir elephant. Surrealism, I guess, works by presenting us with the logic of our dreams, where the wildest of improbabilities come across as perfectly natural. In “Vale of the White Horse” the speaker tells “where I first met my bride”:

. . .She blinked her eyes as if coming out of a trance. “I was looking for
the white horse,” she said. I drove her to
a hospital where the doctor diagnosed her as
being my bride. “There is no doubt about it,
she is your bride.” We kissed, and thus the Trans-
Canadian Highway was born.

Or this witches’ brew of incongruities from “Scattered Reflections”:

And only myself to blame – love,
booze, stupidity, mix ’em up
and you find yourself babbling
to God in Arabic about a demonic cat
living in your head next to the
fiery urinal. . . .

(reviewer’s note: I have never found myself doing anything of the sort. Nor have I ever experienced anything remotely like a fiery urinal.)
Incongruity is James Tate’s trick, a trick he uses incessantly, almost mechanically, and, in the end, almost tediously. In one fourteen-line poem, “September,” among other events, moose go to ice-cream shops, a maple tree declares its love for a little girl in green pajamas, and two white doves fly out of a priest’s eyes. “Madonna of the Chair” reports about a businesswoman and jai alai player who

. . . after the birth of
her son she wanted to stay home and play
with her wild goat. Her husband worried
that she might like the goat better than
him, so he gave her a chair.

At the extreme, the poet indulges in words games like spoonerisms:

. . . “Chuck you, Farley” she
says, “and your whole famn damily. . . .

or a portmanteau word,

“Mind your own business,” she

presumably an amalgam of “screamed” and “squeaked”.
All this can be stimulating, even exciting, but like Zydeco music or polkas, only for a while. And sometimes, though rarely, the incongruity becomes incoherence, as in “Blanc Is Noir,” in which the speaker admits at the outset that he is “not quite oriented” (Yes, I know the argument that only incoherence can express confusion):

then preening in the mirror, game theory,
gaping, galvanized, galvanic skin response,
don’t forget to breathe — . . .

Not often do these poems connect with us rather than merely tittilate us. The poet observes, but never convinces us that he feels. And there is far too little excitement of good metaphor, with the notable exception of a moment when a scarlet tanager shoots by, “a smudge of lipstick in a great hurry.”
Most of the time, the poems seem to be just putting us on, like the parody on Oscar Wilde’s comedies that has a character saying, “I abhor yellow flowers. They’re so green.” At one point we read what might be a confession from a baffled poet:

. . . I felt
stupid, like I was a big fake. My own words
swarmed around in my brain like a cloud of
pesky gnats. I wanted to spray them with
some kind of lethal repellent. . . .

It’s too bad. Tate’s first book in 1967, The Lost Pilot, created dazzling, dizzying worlds that in spite of their strangeness connected to real feelings and humane designs. The title poem of that book, an elegy for the poet’s father killed in war, still holds up as one of the best poems of its period:

. . . All I know
is this: when I see you,
as I have seen you at least
once every year of my life,
spin across the wilds of the sky
like a tiny, African god,
I feel dead. I feel as if I were
the residue of a stranger’s life,
that I should pursue you. . . .

James Tate is only sixty. Let’s hope there is still a lot more poetry left in him.
© 2002 by Conrad Geller for Curled Up With a Good Book

1 thought on “Review of James Tate's Memoir of the Hawk

  1. Thanks for lending this book to me for a couple years, Travis (if you read this comment). I just bought my own copy last week. I agree with Conrad Geller for the most part about what he says above, but I do like how “Memoir of the Hawk” kind of spirals out of control- it definitely freaked me out. When my grandma bought me “Worshipful Company of Fletchers” for my fourteenth birthday, I was pretty floored, too. I do like his “Ghost Soldiers” book- that’s the newest one, came out a couple years ago. Can’t wait for a new one to come out. Does anyone know if there has been any talk about it?

Leave a Reply