Jim just loves to garden, yes he does.
He likes nothing better than to put on
his little overalls and his straw hat.
He says, ‘Let’s go get those tools, Jim.’
But then doubt begins to set in.
He says, ‘What is a garden, anyway?’
And thoughts about a ‘modernistic’ garden
begin to trouble him, eat away at his resolve.
He stands in the driveway a long time.
‘Horticulture is a groping in the dark
into the obscure and unfamiliar,
kneeling before a disinterested secret,
slapping it, punching it like a Chinese puzzle,
birdbrained, babbling gibberish, dig and
destroy, pull out and apply salt,
hoe and spray, before it spreads, burn roots,
where not desired, with gloved hands, poisonous,
the self-sacrifice of it, the self-love,
into the interior, thunderclap, excruciating,
through the nose, the earsplitting necrology
of it, the withering, shriveling,
the handy hose holder and Persian insect powder
and smut fungi, the enemies of the iris,
wireworms are worse than their parents,
there is no way out, flowers as big as heads,
pock-marked, disfigured, blinking insolently
at me, the me who so loves to garden
because it prevents the heaving of the ground
and the untimely death of porch furniture,
and dark, murky days in a large city
and the dream home under a permanent storm
is also a factor to keep in mind.’
– James Tate
The disorganization to which I currently belong
has skipped several meetings in a row
which is a pattern I find almost fatally attractive.
Down at headquarters there’s a secretary
and a janitor who I shall call Suzie
and boy can she ever shoot straight.
She’ll shoot you straight in the eye if you ask her to.
I mow the grass every other Saturday
and that’s the day she polishes the trivets
whether they need it or not, I don’t know
if there is a name for this kind of behavior,
hers or mine, but somebody once said something or another.
That’s why I joined up in the first place,
so somebody could teach me a few useful phrases,
such as, “Good afternoon, my dear anal-retentive Doctor,”
and “My, that is a lovely dictionary you have on, Mrs. Smith.”
Still, I hardly feel like functioning even on a brute
or loutish level. My plants think I’m one of them,
and they don’t look so good themselves, or so
I tell them. I like to give them at least several
reasons to be annoyed with me, it’s how they exercise
their skinny spectrum of emotions. Because.
That and cribbage. Often when I return from the club
late at night, weary-laden, weary-winged, washed out,
I can actually hear the nematodes working, sucking
the juices from the living cells of my narcissus.
I have mentioned this to Suzie on several occasions.
Each time she has backed away from me, panic-stricken
when really I was just making a stab at conversation.
It is not my intention to alarm anyone, but dear Lord
if I find a dead man in the road and his eyes
are crawling with maggots, I refuse to say
have a nice day Suzie just because she’s desperate
and her life is a runaway carriage rushing toward a cliff
now can I? Would you let her get away with that kind of crap?
Who are you anyway? And what kind of disorganization is this?
Baron of the Holy Grail? Well it’s about time you got here.
I was worried, I was starting to fret.
– James Tate
All night a door floated down the river.
It tried to remember little incidents of pleasure
from its former life, like the time the lovers
leaned against it kissing for hours
and whispering those famous words.
Later, there were harsh words and a shoe
was thrown and the door was slammed.
Comings and goings by the thousands,
the early mornings and late nights, years, years.
O they’ve got big plans, they’ll make a bundle.
The door was an island that swayed in its sleep.
The moon turned the doorknob just slightly,
burned its fingers and ran,
and still the door said nothing and slept.
At least that’s what they like to say,
the little fishes and so on.
Far away, a bell rang, and then a shot was fired.
– James Tate
Napoleon’s hat is an obvious choice I guess to list as a famous
hat, but that’s not the hat I have in mind. That was his hat for
show. I am thinking of his private bathing cap, which in all hon-
esty wasn’t much different than the one any jerk might buy at a
corner drugstore now, except for two minor eccentricities. The
first one isn’t even funny: Simply it was a white rubber bathing
cap, but too small. Napoleon led such a hectic life ever since his
childhood, even farther back than that, that he never had a
chance to buy a new bathing cap and still as a grown-up–well,
he didn’t really grow that much, but his head did: He was a pin-
head at birth, and he used, until his death really, the same little
tiny bathing cap that he was born in, and this meant that later it
was very painful to him and gave him many headaches, as if he
needed more. So, he had to vaseline his skull like crazy to even
get the thing on. The second eccentricity was that it was a tricorn
bathing cap. Scholars like to make a lot out of this, and it would
be easy to do. My theory is simple-minded to be sure: that be-
neath his public head there was another head and it was a pyra-
mid or something.
– James Tate
Speaking of sunsets,
last night’s was shocking.
I mean, sunsets aren’t supposed to frighten you, are they?
Well, this one was terrifying.
People were screaming in the streets.
Sure, it was beautiful, but far too beautiful.
It wasn’t natural.
One climax followed another and then another
until your knees went weak
and you couldn’t breathe.
The colors were definitely not of this world,
peaches dripping opium,
pandemonium of tangerines,
inferno of irises,
all swirling and churning, swabbing,
like it was playing with us,
like we were nothing,
as if our whole lives were a preparation for this,
this for which nothing could have prepared us
and for which we could not have been less prepared.
The mockery of it all stung us bitterly.
And when it was finally over
we whimpered and cried and howled.
And then the streetlights came on as always
and we looked into one another’s eyes?
ancient caves with still pools
and those little transparent fish
who have never seen even one ray of light.
And the calm that returned to us
was not even our own.
– James Tate
They ask me if I’ve ever thought about the end of
the world, and I say, “Come in, come in, let me
give you some lunch, for God’s sake.” After a few
bites it’s the afterlife they want to talk about.
“Ouch,” I say, “did you see that grape leaf
skeletonizer?” Then they’re talking about
redemption and the chosen few sitting right by
His side. “Doing what?” I ask. “Just sitting?” I
am surrounded by burned up zombies. “Let’s
have some lemon chiffon pie I bought yesterday
at the 3 Dog Bakery.” But they want to talk about
my soul. I’m getting drowsy and see butterflies
everywhere. “Would you gentlemen like to take a
nap, I know I would.” They stand and back away
from me, out the door, walking toward my
neighbors, a black cloud over their heads and
they see nothing without end.
– James Tate
I take the long walk up the staircase to my secret room.
Today’s big news: they found Amelia Earhart’s shoe, size 9.
1992: Charlie Christian is bebopping at Minton’s in 1941.
Today, the Presidential primaries have failed us once again.
We’ll look for our excitement elsewhere, in the last snow
that is falling, in tomorrow’s Gospel Concert in Springfield.
It’s a good day to be a cat and just sleep.
Or to read the Confessions of Saint Augustine.
Jesus called the sons of Zebedee the Sons of Thunder.
In my secret room, plans are hatched: we’ll explore the Smoky Mountains.
Then we’ll walk along a beach: Hallelujah!
(A letter was just delivered by Overnight Express–
it contained nothing of importance, I slept through it.)
(I guess I’m trying to be “above the fray.”)
The Russians, I know, have developed a language called “Lincos”
designed for communicating with the inhabitants of other worlds.
That’s been a waste of time, not even a postcard.
But then again, there are tree-climbing fish, called anabases.
They climb the trees out of stupidity, or so it is said.
Who am I to judge? I want to break out of here.
A bee is not strong in geometry: it cannot tell
a square from a triangle or a circle.
The locker room of my skull is full of panting egrets.
I’m saying that strictly for effect.
In time I will heal, I know this, or I believe this.
The contents and furnishings of my secret room will be labeled
and organized so thoroughly it will be a little frightening.
What I thought was infinite will turn out to be just a couple
of odds and ends, a tiny miscellany, miniature stuff, fragments
of novelties, of no great moment. But it will also be enough,
maybe even more than enough, to suggest an immense ritual and tradition.
And this makes me very happy.
– James Tate