We are well into a Golden Age of contemporary poetry, and perhaps no one represents this creative power in America more than the poet James Tate. His new collection of poems, The Ghost Soldiers, is the perfect way to shore up your daily courage -- and deepen your paranoia -- about our governments, our communities, our lives.
Composed of 94 prose poems, the collection begins with "Treason" about a guy who believes he is being followed by a government agent and wraps up over 200 pages later with "The War Next Door," with another man trying to ignore the bandaged warriors limping through the forest around his house. In between you have poems about the restorative powers of weasel urine, the misunderstandings of a couple over the brushing of hair, 75 Native Americans appearing on a suburban lawn who need "reeducating," and plenty of poems dealing with suspicion, disappearances, plots and counterplots, including one that ends with its characters chanting, "Glory be to Plan B."
These poems are ideal for our waiting rooms, for riding on the bus, to read to a lover in bed. Read "Heather's Men" to a stranger on the street and then go out and plot something together. "Duct Tape Celebration" ought to be tacked up on the bulletin board of every corner hardware store. Begin your next business meeting by reading "The Deep Blue Sea." In Tate's poems -- as in our own world -- friends are strangers and strangers are friends and anyone can be both intimidating and intimate, often within moments of each other. The familiar and the foreign merge; time and place warp suddenly, wildly, and yet in ways that fit and fulfill the logic of these absurd times. You can scarcely believe the facts as accounted in the poem "Abducted," but the emotional residue is true and lasting. Portals for change and revelation stand all around us. Or, as one of his characters observes, "Nothing is what it seems."
The critic Michael Woods once said that great writers take an idea and follow it out to its fullest consequence, and Tate follows such an ideal in nearly every one of these poems. Here, try a taste of his effort from "The Lost Tribe":
A red Frisbee sailed overhead and we all knelt down and prayed. What we were praying for I don't know. In fact, I didn't even know what I was doing with this group of lunatics. They were constantly looking for signs. I didn't really believe in that kind of thing. But when they kneeled to pray, I did too, only I didn't pray. "What do you think that flock of pigeons means?" one of them said to me. "It means we have strayed from God's embrace," I said. "Tragic, isn't it?" he said. "Indeed," I said. We walked on through a field of clover. There was an old tractor covered with rust. One woman stumbled and fell. "Leave her. She will be a hindrance to us," the leader said. Two deer saw us and started to run. "O holy days, the end is near," my companion said. We all fell down and started to pray. "I don't think the end is near," someone said. "Of course the end is near," someone else said. "Two deer running away, that's the sign, isn't it?" "Two deer running away means something wonderful is about to happen," I said...
And so wanders the tribe. Perhaps no poem is more haunting than the title poem and its narrator as he is drives away from the Memorial Day parade lamenting how all the soldiers from his hometown die on the battlefield: "They call them the Ghost Soldiers, much beloved even by their enemies, and I guess that's why I went to the parade, just to feel them march past, that little rush of cold air." The book is loaded with characters who are common and quirky and heroic, the lost and the lookers resigned and fighting to the very end. The particular lunacy of the Bush administration and the general absurdity of life intersects with an amazing creative power here.
Not all is dour, and if you are familiar with this Pulitzer Prize winner's poetry, you will know many of his poems are hilarious, better than nitrous funny. Try "What I Learned from the Elves" or "Raking Day" or "The Mask" and see if doesn't get your belly jiggling.
I read poetry for good story, good wisdom, good observation and good insight, and these poems have all the goods. The world is wild and mysterious and opportunistic and tragic and wonderful, and while a few of these poems wander a little too far astray, James Tate still captures so much of this beautiful madness.