The Strange Worlds of Dara and James
Guest poets James Tate and Dara Wier arrived early Monday for the forum at The New School and so David Lehman and I sat in an office with them before the event began. We talked about poems that feature apes, and Dara told us how to remove a rooster from a fence. About lemurs, James said, "I still love them, though I no longer dwell on them day and night." James and Dara told us that when they were visiting family in DC last year, they paid for a $300-dollar-a-night room at a posh hotel near the White House but were mysteriously (and no doubt mistakenly) upgraded to the $5000-a-night Vice Presidential Suite. Describing the suite, James sounded like the narrator in one of his poems:
"The paintings were real paintings. The table sat eighteen. You climbed three steps to get in the bed."
The poets, who are married to one another, have published between them twenty-seven books of poetry, and ten minutes before the event began, the room was packed. (David Lehman knows how to pick 'em!)
Dara read first, opening with "Chinese Restaurant on Fire" wherein one person talks nonstop about his life to another person, mentioning, for example, his "apartment complex." Then came "For a Dead Ant Preserved in the Middle of a Clear Straw":
That's the kind of thought this thought was. No words were where this thought went. No logic to improve its consequences. No solace, no brightness, no next thought.
Dara read sections from a long poem about which she said: "It doesn't have a strict plot, but the circumstances matter." Dara's poetry makes use of the first-person singular and plural, and second-person pronouns, and each of these pronouns comes across in the poems as compellingly impersonal, yet mysteriously interior:
To be sure we ask you questions only you have answers for
And though we ask, you remain silent, always true to form
For you, I'm sawing off a blue glass branch I'd been sleeping on
("The Your Patrol")
In James Tate's poems (from his 2008 collection The Ghost Soldiers), there is a first-person narrator with a proper name, for example, Judson or Thaddeus. And there are other characters, too, such as Jacqueline and Dabney:
I don't remember much about that particular
evening. Jacqueline insisted on showing me her
navel. She claimed that if I touched it, it
would bring me good luck. I have no idea if I
touched it. Dabney was bragging about his winning
at the horse track. ("My Cattle Ranch")
A small lamp had been placed on the seminar table giving the scene a living-room glow. A few times the couple leaned together to whisper. But this is no quaint couple. When James came to a line in one of his poems where a woman aims a steak knife at the narrator, saying: "Don't come closer/or I'll kill you, I swear it," Dara burst into laughter. As she did when he read a poem wherein the narrator is attracted to a woman who is in love with a rooster named Waylon:
I kiss Loretta, just a little peck, because
I know she is married to a chicken, and I respect\
that. ("Waylon's Woman")
In his introduction, David had said that in James Tate's poetry there
is "the desperate effort to look normal." Later, after having read six
poems, James looked at David and asked:
"How are we doing?"
"We're doing great," David said.
"No," James said. "I mean really." As though he, in a reversal of that attempt to look normal, now suspected David of, disingenuously, normalizing the situation.
During the question and answer period, David asked James: "Did you have the finished book in mind when you were writing each poem? Because it occurred to me that there's a unifying principle in The Ghost Soldiers —"
"Definitely, David," James said. "That's exactly what I was doing. I'm so glad you saw that. You're the first."
David, laughing so hard he was pink from hairline to collar, said, "Well. Let's move on to Dara. Dara, it occurred to me that there are many unifying elements in the poems in Remnants of Hannah. Now, did you have the book in mind—?
Dara laughed and James said, "Unifying principles—I think that's a really critical thing."
"How about treason?" David asked.
"Yes," James said.
"I mean, will you read for us your poem "Treason"?
"Well, I thought I was going to read it. But now I don't want to."
When the laughter died down, James opened the book and read to us "Treason":
The man that was following me looked like a government
agent, so I turned around and walked up to him and said, "Why
are you following me?" He said, "I'm not following you. I'm
an insurance agent walking to work." "Well, pardon me, my
mistake," I said.
Lastly, David asked James why he had chosen as the epigraph to his collection a line from a Wallace Stevens poem (“Esthetique du Mal”): "The paratroopers fall and as they fall/They mow the lawn." James said, "It says everything." Earlier James had told David that "The Man on the Dump" is his favorite Stevens poem. Now James said: "I love the fact that the poem is so zany and elegant and gorgeous in the way it unweaves itself to its final utterance: "The the."
-- Angela Patrinos