The Operating System

4th Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 21 :: Brian Mihok on James Tate

[Photo: Curt Richter]

                                                                                                                                                         [Photos: Curt Richter]

I read some poems from James Tate in 2006. My reaction after just about every one was to look up from the page and spin my head around like an idiot to anything and everyone around me. Who knows where I was but let’s say I was in a room with other people and some furniture. There were also some windows and it was a later summer day so the sun was out and coming through the windows as it does in September, making everything yellow and orange.

I didn’t know what to say because somehow the poems had sucked all the language out of me. All I was left with was my body and my eyes that suddenly had ADHD. I was desperate to find someone to understand this paralysis. Maybe not even the paralysis itself, but that these poems were responsible for something like this.

The problem was the people in the room were going about their lives. They had a lot to do. It was a new school year after all and there was teaching and editing and writing and administrating in the air. There were lunches to be cobbled together and worksheets to be printed. I was one of the new buffoons playing catch up and sitting on the couch like this meant next to nothing for most of the people there.
I read this poem:

The New Ergonomics

The new ergonomics were delivered
just before lunchtime
so we ignored them.
Without revealing the particulars
let me just say that
lunch was most satisfying.
Jack and Roberta went with
the corned beef for a change.
Jack believes in alien abduction
and Roberta does not,
although she has had
several lost weekends lately
and one or two unexplained scars
on her buttocks. I thought
I recognized someone
from my childhood
at a table across the room,
the same teeth, the same hair,
but when he stood-up,
I wasn’t sure, Squid with a red tie?
Impossible. I finished
my quiche lorraine
and returned my thoughts
to Jack’s new jag:
“Well, I guess anything’s
possible. People disappear
all the time, and most of them
have no explanation
when and if they return.
Look at Tony’s daughter
and she’s never been the same.”
Jack was looking as if
he’d bet on the right horse now.
“And these new ergonomics,
who really designed them?
Does anybody know?
Do they tell us anything?
A name, an address? Hell no.”
Squid was paying his bill
in a standard-issue blue blazer.
He looked across the room at me
several times. He looked tired,
like he wanted to sleep for a long time
in a barn somewhere, in Kansas.
I wanted to sleep there, too.

I watched a woman take out carton of what looked like milk out of a mini fridge and pour it over something in a plastic bowl. She didn’t pour like it was cereal. She splashed it like adding some seasoning to a mixture. Who could blame her though? She was at work. But I wanted to tell her something important only I was still dumbfounded so I tried not to look at her.

Honestly it was a good thing I didn’t have the following poem there to read because I probably would have died. I read this for the first time some weeks later, having recovered and been able to speak just fine. Well, as fine as is my ability in this life.

Lewis and Clark Overheard in Conversation

then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs

I played more catch up and then waited for his new book like it was an album from a favorite band. Return to the City of White Donkeys had come out a year before and I read it at work in a bookstore. We were not supposed to read at work because we were to be scanning for shoplifters at all times. My boss also liked to lament that all his business school friends were rich now because they did not open bookstores like he did. The new book I had been waiting for was The Ghost Soldiers and a dear friend gave it to me for my birthday.

I was also on an intramural basketball team during that time called The Oblivion Ha-Ha’s, after Tate’s second book published in 1970. We were not the worst team but it so happens we were not also good. We missed the playoffs by one game which ultimately was like missing it by many.
Do you know James Tate’s poems? Did anyone out there have their wind stolen right from their windpipes after reading him the first time? Did everyone around you look like the ghosts of summer past? Could you not speak to them?

I think about these poems all the time. Here are some of my requisites that are difficult to pass by [links below]:

The Lost Pilot

How the Pope is Chosen

Fuck the Astronauts

Waylon’s Woman

I shouldn’t do much in an attempt to convince you of anything. Who wants to be struck dumb, after all. But I have to think of James Tate’s poems as an event horizon. There was a stretch of space and time before reaching the poems, and there was, and is, the stretch after them.  The two stretches are split because if you were able to review my time here from some distance you would see the two are different densities with different tones. That’s what we’re after, isn’t it? Points of no return. Let’s never go home again, you’re saying. We couldn’t get back there if we wanted to anyway. We’re getting farther from it everyday and these poems are a bullet train in the most helpful direction.

What I’m saying is I agree with you.

Brian Mihok‘s work has appeared online or in print in Everyday Genius, Hobart, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Fast Company, and elsewhere. His novel The Quantum Manual of Style was released in 2013 by Aqueous Books. He edits matchbook, a literary journal, and is associate editor at sunnyoutside press. He also makes videos. Brian will tell us more stories about his history with Tate (and hopefully more about The Oblivian Ha-Ha’s, best name ever) LIVE one week from today, at The West in Williamsburg for GROUP HUG! at Mental Marginalia. Join us!

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