The Ghost Soldiers: Poems
by James Tate
Reviewed by Julie Babcock
Wallace Stevens established three rules for poetry in "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction." The first rule, going against creative writing mantras around the country, was that it must be abstract; the second, that it must change; and the third, that it must give pleasure. In these rules, Stevens was attempting to establish a way to transform our often harsh reality through imagination.
James Tate's latest book of poetry, The Ghost Soldiers, fights through the seemingly banal American terrain with a similar goal in mind. It begins with an epigraph from Stevens' "Esthetique Du Mal" -- "The paratroopers fall and as they fall/ They mow the lawn" -- and then takes the reader through 217 pages of a precisely lined prose poetry, one in which characters continually put themselves on the front lines of transmogrifying battles. These characters are not heroic, though, but achingly bumbling.
As the title suggests, The Ghost Soldiers follows specters rather than people, and when soldiers do appear they are never present as flesh and blood. In "The Old Soldiers," they appear as collectible toys, "expensive antique/ specimens I had saved since childhood" (145). In the title poem, one of Tate's more direct and haunting pieces, they are figured as a cold breeze that blows past after a "rather modest" Memorial Day parade. A parade watcher explains that "the parade's so small because everyone from/ this town is always killed. They're just not fit to fight. I don't/ know why that is. It must be something in the water" (146).
Tate's characters are seldom sure of anything, including whether there actually is a war going on, what war it might be, and on which side they are fighting. Often, they are not even sure if they are human. Tate's love for populating his poems with wild animals is alive and well in this collection. Here, the rabbit takes center stage, though not the Peter Cottontail kind -- rather, they resemble David Lynch's rabbits in Inland Empire, the ones that are clearly, terrifyingly, people in bunny suits. In "Human in Shape," the speaker is mortified to realize he has been mistaken as a rabbit by some maniacal captain in India who orders him to hop. In "Jan's Scary Novel," the speaker's world collapses into what he imagines is Jan's book (though he hasn't read a word of it). When he reads in the newspaper that three men in bunny costumes have been arrested, he learns that the three men are actually characters in Jan's novel. Incredulous, he asks Jan if her novel is all about bunnies. "Bad bunnies," Jan specifies, "very bad bunnies" (57).
Some of the poems in this hefty collection do not transcend the quirkiness for which Tate is sometimes criticized, but such risks are a part of his aesthetic. He clearly writes his poems from the beginning and goes where the journey takes him; sometimes he finds otter eggs at the end and sometimes not. But after a poem that is not able to lift off the ground, there will be one that launches out of the stratosphere. These are not standard epiphany poems in which a speaker muses at the edge of a river and in the last line has a beautiful understanding about reality -- for Tate, there is no reality except in our perceptions. In "The Horsemen," for example, the speaker sees a horseman in the distance and attempts to pursue him:
Of course, it's natural to get your hopes up in a situation
like that. Who wouldn't? I mean, you're standing there in the
middle of nowhere and you see a horseman coming your way, you're
going to expect him to stop and chat with you and you're going
to learn some interesting facts and maybe he'll tell you a poignant
tale involving a woman and child, something you could never have
made up yourself, and at the end of it you're crying and blowing
your nose like an idiot, but you feel good to be so fully alive. (50)
The "of course" that precedes the speaker's imagined encounter with the horseman establishes a self-explanatory tone. The poem also changes here from first to second person, indicating that what follows is universal. Yet inside this veneer paradoxes abound: the hope that the horseman will tell some "poignant tale" that "you could never have/ made up yourself" is mitigated by the fact that it is the speaker who has already concocted it, as well as the very "you" of the poem.
To further complicate matters, when the horseman comes back through later in the poem and is prompted by the speaker to say his wife and child were murdered, the speaker doesn't believe it and the horseman admits he lied because he thought it was what the speaker wanted. The speaker says, "It was once, but I've moved on./ Do you know any funny stories?" The horseman does not. "Still," the speaker amiably concludes, "nice horse" (51). This last line supplies the reader with the laugh that the speaker requested from the horseman, neatly shifting the responsibility of supply from horseman to poet—who, like the unwitting speaker, is undoubtedly one of the "horsemen" of the title.
Despite such shifting ground, The Ghost Soldiers is not hollow meta-poetry; rather, it is poetry that is listening to America struggle for meaning in the ceaseless information flow, and it is taking that struggle seriously. The Tate of "The Lost Pilot" fame is here, only now he is the father rather than the son. And he is gliding over America's surreal wartime landscape where all the soldiers, both living and dead, are stationed elsewhere. These poems document that lack, and in the hands of most poets, this would only be a book of despair. But somehow Tate manages to keep his readers and himself disoriented enough to withstand. Elves rearrange furniture. A boy hums a song about a cow. From within this mysterious disorientation the reader receives the necessary pleasure of which Wallace Stevens spoke.
Julie Babcock is a contributor to Rain Taxi.