Born December 8, 1943, James Tate is the paragon of Sagittarians. To honor the poet we asked Mark Shulgasser, a.k.a. the Blue Zenith, for his star-studded analysis.
James Tate may be aware of sharing his birthdate with the Roman poet Horace. The latter’s immortal carpe diem lyric (Ode XI, Book One) is an emphatic exhortation to renounce low divinatory preoccupations. While instructing the maiden to seize the day rather than dwell on Babylonian lotteries, Horace nevertheless invokes Jupiter, the planetary deity of Sagittarius.
To chastise conventional astrology only to employ a celestial metaphor, is Tate’s strategy in "Consumed" (in The Oblivion Ha-Ha). Tate indicts "magic,” whether “astrology or the tarot," but then himself plays the astrologer, with a threatening vision of a “dark star” passing through you, changing you forever: “You are the stranger / who gets stranger by the hour.”
Tate’s “stranger / who gets stranger by the hour” reminds me that Sagittarian Beethoven's only song-cycle is "An die ferne Geliebte" -- "To the distant beloved."
Arthur C. Clarke seizes astrology's irresistible paradox like this: "I don't believe in astrology; I'm a Sagittarian and we're skeptical."
Tate’s “The Lost Pilot,” an elegy addressing the father he never knew, sounds the fundamental Sagittarian note. The unheard address is an echo of the opening cry of the Duino Elegies by the all-star Sagittarian Rainer Maria Rilke (“Who, if I cried out, would hear me / among the angelic orders?”). Rilke, too, seems to reject astrology in the ninth elegy (“under the stars, what use? the more deeply untellable stars?”) only to offer new constellations in the tenth: “New stars . . . Rider, Staff, . . .Fruit-Garland. . . Then, further, towards the Pole: / Cradle, Path, Burning Book, Doll, Window. “
A profound connection with horses or frequently dogs is not uncommon among Sagittarians. Tate writes that he "once worked with 120 Alaskan Huskies." I think of dog-gone Sadges like William Wegman, Charles Schulz, James Thurber. This interpenetration of the human and the non-human, what could be stranger, is parsed relentlessly by Sagittarian anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss:
“Cattle, like dogs, form part of human society, but as it were, asocially, since they verge on objects. Finally, racehorses, like birds, form a series disjointed from human society, but like cattle, lacking in intrinsic sociability. If, therefore, birds are metaphorical human beings, and dogs, metonymical human beings, cattle may be thought of as metonymical inhuman beings, and racehorses as metaphorical inhuman beings.“
Thank you, Mark, for this stellar discussion.