By STUART KRIMKO
David Lehman, praising Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry in Newsweek on the occasion of the publication of her Collected Poems, wrote that she “accomplished a magical illumination of the ordinary, forcing us to examine our surroundings with the freshness of a friendly alien.”
I was reminded of this apt summary towards the end of James Tate’s reading at the 2010 Key West Literary Seminar, when a friendly alien in fact appeared in a poem:
Someone had spread an elaborate rumor about me, that I was
in possession of an extraterrestrial being, and I thought I knew who
it was. It was Roger Lawson. Roger was a practical joker of the worst sort…
So begins “The Cowboy,” from Tate’s most recent volume The Ghost Soldiers. The narrator goes on disbelieving in the alien for about half the poem, until he reports:
…I nearly dropped the groceries. There was a nearly transparent
fellow with large pink eyes standing about three feet tall.
Tate’s humor in this poem, and in the other three he read from The Ghost Soldiers at the 2010 Seminar’s Friday morning session, is the primary thing I suspect most Seminar attendees came away with. I say so because almost every sentence Tate read was greeted with a huge roar of laughter, as if the poems in their public manifestation were a series of one-liners. Tate did not seem to shy away from this. He even stifled a few chuckles himself as he made his way through his carefully inflected delivery.
The laughter seemed an appropriate response as Tate developed the absurd situations, the menacing Middle American surrealism, of each poem. But as the poems went on they revealed their emotional cores, which seemed to me to be anything but funny. In “The Cowboy,” for instance, just when the narrator has agreed to collaborate with the alien and help fulfill his wish “to meet a real cowboy,” he finds the creature “dancing on the kitchen table, a sort of ballet / but very sad.” The alien has heard from his father: “‘I just / received word. I’m going to die tonight. It’s really a joyous / occasion, and I hope you’ll help me celebrate by watching The Magnificent Seven…’” The situation only becomes more poignant, and by the end of the poem it borders on heartbreaking:
…I felt an unbearable sadness come over me. “Why must
you die?” I said. “Father decides these things. It is probably
my reward for coming here safely and meeting you,” he said. “But
I was going to take you to meet a real cowboy,” I said. “Let’s
pretend you are my cowboy,” he said.
Granted, the premise is a comic one, and one can argue that the emotional punch of the finale is only increased by the yuks generated by the lines that lead up to it. But I found myself feeling a little like a friendly alien myself as the laughs cascaded throughout the San Carlos Institute’s auditorium, a friendly curmudgeon of an alien who would have trouble explaining why the people in the theater were laughing so loudly and for so long at the sad words of the man on stage.
“The Cowboy” alludes to a veritable catalogue of contradictions and impossible human longings. The narrator thinks he is the butt of a practical joke, only to find that the news is true, he is in possession of an alien; to his surprise, he falls in love with the little fellow and is despondent to learn of his impending death. The alien, for his part, has only been able to learn about cowboys, whom he loves, by watching films about them; even as his human custodian offers to accompany him on a journey to meet real cowboys, he learns that he has little time to live and therefore prefers to continue as before, watching movies about cowboys. Finally, the narrator realizes how involved he has become in helping the alien visit cowboys, to which the alien graciously responds, “Let’s pretend you are my cowboy.”
This narrative is like a portrait of the hopes and hardships of parenthood as seen in a funhouse mirror. At poem’s end the caregiver has become the disappointed child, and the child (alien) finds himself relying on the power of imagination to comfort his parent (narrator). Taking a step back, even one of the poem’s basic conceits- the use of an alien as a child-like figure in a narrative with evident filial resonances- seems fraught with a sadness borne of our (and the poet is decidedly included among our number here) inability to adequately confront the basic facts of the human condition.
Perhaps, then, it is fitting that our first impulse is to laugh. But the sound of laughter, in this case, is what we hear when we nervously realize that we have been in some way neglecting those people who mean the most to us. It’s one thing to read a poem like “The Cowboy” in the privacy of home, but another to hear it read by the author in the presence of a few hundred other souls. Laughter becomes the audience’s emotional armor. But the feeling of loss engendered by “The Cowboy,” is the kind of feeling that is easy to laugh at when we are seated in an auditorium. When we find ourselves alone in a room with such sentiments, however, they appear to us in a less entertaining light. This leads us to meditate upon the difference between the public and private experiences of poetry, and of literature in general.
Perhaps it is not their content alone that makes Tate’s poems come across as vehicles for hilarity when they are read aloud. His music, or lack thereof, allows for a sentence-by-sentence appraisal of what is being said, and the negative spaces between his sentences, especially when encountered in Tate’s rather deadpan delivery, want to be filled with something. It is natural that an audience is moved first of all to fill the negative space with laughter. This is what we tend to do with uncomfortable silences. More charitably, one could argue that this is also the laughter of surprise: even if we know Tate’s poems well, we are conditioned toward reverence when we enter the lecture hall. To feel that reverence broken provides comic release.
It might have been something about being in Key West, but reading and thinking about the poems Tate read at the Seminar this year, I found myself returning to a favorite Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Crusoe in England.” It had never occurred to me to consider Bishop one of Tate’s forbears. Bishop, after all, is renowned for her sharp observational fidelity to the real world, which she sees with “the freshness of a friendly alien”; Tate, on the other hand, actually writes about aliens. Both poets, though, are remarkably subtle when it comes to the implied pauses between their sentences. Here’s Bishop, as Robinson Crusoe in England, thinking about his man Friday years after their rescue:
Just when I thought I couldn’t stand it
another minute longer, Friday came.
(Accounts of that have everything all wrong.)
Friday was nice.
Friday was nice, and we were friends.
If only he had been a woman!
I wanted to propagate my kind,
and so did he, I think, poor boy.
He’d pet the baby goats sometimes,
and race with them, or carry one around.
—Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body.
There is much longing, for so many kinds of affection, packed into the space between those two final sentences. Bishop makes sure to mark the space with an em dash, a device she uses to begin a sentence at only one other moment in the poem, right before the final two lines: “—And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measels / seventeen years ago come March.”
Reading about Bishop’s Crusoe and Friday, it’s hard not to think of the relationship between Tate’s narrator and the little alien in “The Cowboy,” and their poignant last exchange: “‘But / I was going to take you to meet a real cowboy,’ I said. ‘Let’s / pretend you are my cowboy,’ he said.” Bishop’s and Tate’s narrators want something of their new friends that they cannot, in the end, provide. If a major difference between the two poems is that we are not even tempted to laugh out loud while reading Bishop’s, that does not prevent us from responding with equal emotional force to the longing that both of them hide in their silences.