The Books of My Numberless Dreams

This is Poetry? Oh…?

Posted on: February 13, 2007

I could not finish the James Tate interview. You would think that my act of excerpting it here was an implied endorsement and usually it is, it was, at the time. Later in the conversation when Charles Simic (interviewer) finally got Tate discussing how he works, how he writes, what it was like in some depth I became momentarily excited and wished I had posted that bit instead. The problem is that such moments are few and far between. I know more about Tate’s childhood and his professional advancements than I know about his art. Perhaps the last two or so pages pack a wallop of information but I’m not going to wade through more info about his various step-fathers and red-headed aunties to find out. Ptooey. Simic’s gushing introduction and their admitted friendship should have warned me.

Four of Tate’s poems followed the interview. They stopped me cold. I don’t know what they are? but they only vaguely resemble poems and don’t read like poems at all, unless I’m missing something. The content is intriguing and I appreciate the point made in the interview on how Tate starts out with something mundane and, as he writes, he follows whatever mental trajectory organically forms from it. It is something of marvel. If this were a collection of absurd short short stories (flash fiction? I dunno) I could get behind it but…poetry? Of course this begs the question, “Then what is your definition of poetry?” to which I have no clear answer, leaving me high and dry. Something more fragmentary, more distinctively rhythmic, more…I don’t know, something not like prose!

No doubt I’ve revealed my pathetically outdated aesthetic and committed some form of blasphemy. Tate refuses any identification with particular poetry movements but Simic did bring up the “Surrealists”. Do they all write prose masquerading as something else? More seriously could a fan of Tate tell me what I’m missing? He’s been interview by The Paris Review and he won the Yale Young Poet something or other and a Pulitzer. More importantly Donald Justice read Tate’s earlier poetry and, on the spot, accepted him into a university programme. (Donald Justice is a god.) Clearly I’m missing something and I’d like to know what it is.

Panda-fever (excerpt)

I’ve heard a great deal about the new mall, but I haven’t
actually been there. It is full of palm trees and fountains. It
even has a waterfall. And there’s a bamboo forest with real pandas
in it. There are wandering musicians who stroll among the shoppers
playing the most seductive music. And the restaurants serve every
kind of delicacy from around the world. The shops abound with the
most alluring clothes and jewelry. The new mall certainly has
people talking, but then again I don’t know anyone who’s actually
been to it. It’s been reported that people have gone there and
never been seen again. I don’t know if that’s to be believed.
Others have gone there and returned home blind and mute. I guess you
could say it has a powerful effect on people. I just haven’t had
the time to go there and see for myself. Chester dropped by the
other day and I asked him if he’d been to the new mall. “What mall?”
he said. “There isn’t any new mall. That’s just a high-class whore-
house.” “You mean they’re running girls out there?” I said. “This
isn’t that kind of whorehouse. This one’s running pandas. People
can’t get enough of them. Panda-fever’s breaking out all over town,”
he said. “I think I’m allergic to pandas,” I said. “Everyone is.
They just don’t know it, and they end up blind and shaking with a
high fever. They ought to run those criminals out of town and burn
that place to the ground,” he said.

The opening interview with Nikola Kavaja a former assassin was a home-run, no question about it. (Again I’m impressed by the consistent quality of the first selections in each issue.) Old fogies may remember him as the hijacker of the American Airlines fight 293 in June 1979. He was also an WWII prisoner, a Communist soldier and a CIA hit-man now unable to return to his family in the United States. He is a brash, proud and guarded man who feels the loss of his family but shows no regret for his actions which all stemmed from his vehement anti-Communist principles. It’s definitely an interview I’d recommend. (Back issues of The Paris Reviews are available. Go to the sidebar for a link to the Summer 2006 issue and access to others if you care to wander.)

The fiction, “A Game of Cards”, was very good as well. Rose Tremain writes about the intertwined lives of two Swiss men, exploring how love and selfishness are often wedded together and how that affects their identities.

Let me tell you the story of my friend, Anton Zwiebel.

You will soon realize that any story about Anton Zwiebel is also a story about me, Gustav Perle. In fact, I can’t imagine how I could set down any account of Anton Zwiebel’s life that didn’t include me. I am at the heart of Anton Zwiebel’s life and he is at the heart of mine.

The “Document” piece is scans of Woody Guthrie’s drawings and watercolours, often accompanied with some poetry scribbled or typed right on it. I’m excited about it because any marriage between poetry and visual art really, really gets me going. I’ll take a picture or two of the scans and put them up in the next day or so.

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