James Tate’s new book of poems, Return to the City of White Donkeys, from which he read at Adam’s Hall in Cambridge on Friday, November 12th, can be summed up with a line from one of the poems he read called “It Happened Like This.” The line is spoken by a police officer and reads, “God! This town is like a fairy tale. Everywhere you turn there’s mystery and wonder.”
Tate’s poems offer image after absurd image in the most calm, serene tone—a couple looking for someone to sell them a pterodactyl wing, a man who finds a statue of himself in the park, and a man who is followed by the town goat, to name a few—and we accept it all even as we laugh. He kept the full room laughing throughout the reading, while at the same time giving an air of significance. In one poem, a woman gives birth to a wolf-child, and a man is questioned as to whether he could be the father. It comes out that in this world, everybody is part wolf. Maybe I only find this significant having just read Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, but I feel that while laughing at himself, James Tate is speaking about our lonesome, wild other nature.
But the fantastical down-the-rabbit-hole feel of the poems was not the most remarkable aspect of the reading, nor were the heavy implications. A natural rhythm and flow are only to be expected of a National Book Award winner; the natural tone of such surreal scenes was what caught me off guard. The most noteworthy aspect of the reading I did not realize until afterwards, when I exchanged a few brief words with Tate. The words of that conversation aren’t important, but I realized after he issued them that his speaking voice and his reading voice are the same. What this means is that not only are Tate’s tone and rhythm natural, but his very voice doesn’t reflect the insanity of the world he’s created in this book. The effect was very powerful, and the very next night I went out to buy the book.