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.