Friday, July 10, 2015

My Felisberto Is Handsomer Than Your Mergotroid: RIP James Tate


God knows we've never thought of you
as insufficiently frou-frou.
I actually said that this morning
to my coffee, and the word recherché
was not far away, scowling at me.
I had a stranglehold on a straw man,
the son of a bitch was dying fast,
and then I let go and floated for a while.
Time passed like a butterfly in the room.
Suddenly I was in a bathtub, sinking.
And then I was on a couch for a long,
long time, and the butterfly landed
on me and held me in its scissors grip.
Page upon page of blank transcript.
A room inched sideways only slightly.
A nuthatch clung to the windowscreen.
Moments of great clarity inhabited me,
I was their anthill and they were my ants.
And they too must sleep, according to
a lot of prophets. And they will be
nameless, yes, and faceless, yes.
The prophets will boss them around
and insult their mothers, and the little ants
of clarity will just work harder and harder,
for they are blind and dedicated
and stupid, stupid, stupid.
This was revealed to me around 2:24 P.M., 9/27/95


Eight more poems below the fold. More poems, some links, some words (or not) tomorrow. 

There are no links. He was a poet. If he was a drunken quarterback celebrated for brazen cheating for the Oakland Raiders in the 1970s the New York Times would have a lavish obit in the can awaiting his death. There will be a few links, eventually, maybe. UPDATE: I stand corrected, here's one. Here, some words: this is how I judge how poets and novelists rate with me: if you hand me one stanza, one paragraph, unattributed, and I know after six words who the poet or novelist is, kaboom.

Still, eight more poems added below the fold.

Click the James Tate tag for many more besides those included in this post.


My felisberto is handsomer than your mergotroid,
although, admittedly, your mergotroid may be the wiser of the two.
Whereas your mergotroid never winces or quails,
my felisberto is a titan of inconsistencies.
For a night of wit and danger and temptation
my felisberto would be the obvious choice.
However, at dawn or dusk when serenity is desired
your mergotroid cannot be ignored.
Merely to sit near it in the garden
and watch the fabrications of the world swirl by,
the deep-sea’s bathymetry wash your eyes,
not to mention the little fawns of the forest
and their flip-floppy gymnastics, ah, for this
and so much more your mergotroid is infinitely preferable.
But there is a place for darkness and obscurity
without which life can sometimes seem too much,
too frivolous and too profound simultaneously,
and that is when my felisberto is needed,
is longed for and loved, and then the sun can rise again.
The bee and the hummingbird drink of the world,
and your mergotroid elaborates the silent concert
that is always and always about to begin.



The ghost said nothing that added to our knowledge
of the current situation at Ash Manor, only, as he parted,
“Your flesh would make delicious veal chops
for hungry wolves.” Then he called us his “disciples.”

Like the slow emigration of the mad, in the half-silence,
I blew upon the lock of the door and it opened.
I blew upon the candle, which lit itself. It was not
a dream—it was a puzzle. In my mouth there was a bowl

of beef stew, but I could not eat it. I felt hungry,
but it was not really hunger, only a feeling of hunger.
Though, fortunately, observations on bees living in the tropics
have thrown a little light on the question: as if I had

bitten my throat with my own teeth. Nevertheless the waves
of the primeval Ocean of Tantalassa were swashing over
pet seals, Tex and Tulip. A Cult was immediately formed
whose solemn purpose it was to design new uniforms for the servants.

Here was a sad emotion, belonging exclusively to the sphere
of civilized man. Photographs were taken of a trumpet
in the air; a rebuke, it nested there long after sunset,
in darkness. My eyes moistened, my great burning eyes.

The dwarfs on my side were like myself, only much shorter
and black. The dwarfs on the other side were real dwarfs,
who were really six feet tall like myself, or even eight feet tall,
but they looked as if they were no bigger than a child.
I have a little dog and they want to take him away from me.

Machines are being installed in my head.



All night a door floated down the river.
It tried to remember little incidents of pleasure
from its former life, like the time the lovers
leaned against it kissing for hours
and whispering those famous words.
Later, there were harsh words and a shoe
was thrown and the door was slammed.
Comings and goings by the thousands,
the early mornings and late nights, years, years.
O they've got big plans, they'll make a bundle.
The door was an island that swayed in its sleep.
The moon turned the doorknob just slightly,
burned its fingers and ran,
and still the door said nothing and slept.
At least that's what they like to say,
the little fishes and so on.
Far away, a bell rang, and then a shot was fired.



The blue booby lives
on the bare rocks
of Galápagos
and fears nothing.
It is a simple life:
they live on fish,
and there are few predators.   
Also, the males do not   
make fools of themselves   
chasing after the young   
ladies. Rather,
they gather the blue
objects of the world
and construct from them

a nest—an occasional   
Gaulois package,
a string of beads,
a piece of cloth from   
a sailor’s suit. This   
replaces the need for   
dazzling plumage;   
in fact, in the past   
fifty million years
the male has grown
considerably duller,   
nor can he sing well.   
The female, though,

asks little of him—
the blue satisfies her   
completely, has   
a magical effect
on her. When she returns
from her day of
gossip and shopping,
she sees he has found her   
a new shred of blue foil:   
for this she rewards him   
with her dark body,
the stars turn slowly
in the blue foil beside them   
like the eyes of a mild savior.



My beloved little billiard balls,
my polite mongrels, edible patriotic plums,   
you owe your beauty to your mother, who   
resembled a cyclindrical corned beef   
with all the trimmings, may God rest   
her forsaken soul, for it is all of us   
she forsook; and I shall never forget
her sputtering embers, and then the little mound.
Yes, my little rum runners, she had defective   
tear ducts and could weep only iced tea.   
She had petticoats beneath her eyelids.   
And in her last years she found ball bearings   
in her beehive puddings, she swore allegiance   
to Abyssinia. What should I have done?   
I played the piano and scrambled eggs.   
I had to navigate carefully around her brain’s   
avalanche lest even a decent finale be forfeited.
And her beauty still evermore. You see,
as she was dying, I led each of you to her side,
one by one she scorched you with her radiance.
And she is ever with us in our acetylene leisure.
But you are beautiful, and I, a slave to a heap of cinders.



All the sexually active people in Westport
look so clean and certain, I wonder
if they’re dead. Their lives are tennis
without end, the avocado-green Mercedes
waiting calm as you please. Perhaps it is
my brain that is unplugged, and these
shadow-people don’t know how to drink
martinis anymore. They are suddenly and
mysteriously not in the least interested
in fornicating with strangers. Well,
there are a lot of unanswered questions
here, and certainly no dinner invitations
where a fella could probe Buffy‘s inner-
mush, a really complicated adventure,
in a 1930ish train station, outlandish
bouquets, a poisonous insect found
burrowing its way through the walls
of the special restaurant and into one
of her perfect nostrils—she was reading
Meetings with Remarkable Men, needing
succor, dreaming of a village near Bosnia,
when a clattering of carts broke her thoughts—
“Those billy goats and piglets, they are
all so ephemeral ...” But now, in Westport
Connecticut, a boy, a young man really,
looking as if he had just come through
a carwash, and dressed for the kind of success
that made her girlfriends froth and lather,
can be overheard speaking to no one
in particular: “That Paris Review crowd,
I couldn’t tell if they were bright
or just overbred.” Whereupon Buffy swings
into action, pinning him to the floor:
“I will unglue your very being from this
planet, if ever ...” He could appreciate
her sincerity, not to mention her spiffy togs.
Didymus the Blind has put three dollars
on Total Departure, and I am tired of pumping
my own gas. I’m Lewis your aluminum man,
and we are whirling in a spangled frenzy toward
a riddle and a doom—here’s looking up

your old address.



I was chasing this blue butterfly down
the road when a car came by and clipped me.   
It was nothing serious, but it angered me and
I turned around and cursed the driver who didn't
even slow down to see if I was hurt. Then I
returned my attention to the butterfly which   
was nowhere to be seen. One of the Doubleday   
girls came running up the street with her toy
poodle toward me. I stopped her and asked,
"Have you seen a blue butterfly around here?"
"It's down near that birch tree near Grandpa's,"
she said. "Thanks," I said, and walked briskly
toward the tree. It was fluttering from flower
to flower in Mr. Doubleday's extensive garden,   
a celestial blueness to soothe the weary heart.   
I didn't know what I was doing there. I certain-
ly didn't want to capture it. It was like
something I had known in another life, even if
it was only in a dream, I wanted to confirm it.   
I was a blind beggar on the streets of Cordoba
when I first saw it, and now, again it was here.




Eventually we must combine nightmares
an angel smoking a cigarette on the steps
of the last national bank, said to me.
I put her out with my thumb. I don’t need that
cheap talk I’ve got my own problems.
It was sad, exciting, and horrible.
It was exciting, horrible, and sad.
It was horrible, sad, and exciting.
It was inviting, mad, and deplorable.
It was adorable, glad, and enticing.
Eventually we must smoke a thumb
cheap talk I’ve got my own angel
on the steps of the problems the bank
said to me I don’t need that.
I will take this one window
with its sooty maps and scratches
so that my dreams will remember
one another and so that my eyes will not
become blinded by the new world.


The flames don’t dance or slither.
They have painted the room green.
Beautiful and naked, the wives
are sleeping before the fire.
Now it is out. The men have
returned to the shacks,
slaved creatures from the forest
floor across their white
stationwagons. That just about
does it, says the other,
dumping her bucket
over her head. Well, I guess
we got everything, says one,
feeling around in the mud,
as if for a child.
Now they remember they want
that mud, who can’t remember
what they got up for.
They parcel it out: when
they are drunk enough
they go into town with
a bucket of mud, saying
we can slice it up into
windmills like a bloated cow.
Later, they paint the insides
of the shack black,
and sit sucking eggs all night,
they want something real, useful,
but there isn’t anything.


I will engineer the sunrise
they have disassembled our shadows
our echoes are erased from the walls
your nipples are the skeletons of olives
your nipples are an oriental delight
your nipples blow away like cigarette papers
your nipples are the mouths of mutes
so I am not here any longer
skein of lightning
memory’s dark ink in your last smile
where the stars have swallowed their train schedule
where the stars have drowned in their dark petticoats
like a sock of hamburger
receiving the lightning
into his clitoris
red on red the prisoner
confesses his waltz
through the corkscrew lightning
nevermind the lightning
in your teeth let’s waltz
I am the hashish pinball machine

that rapes a piano.



I got a call from the White House, from the
president himself, asking me if I would do him a personal
favor. I like the president, so I said, “Sure, Mr.
President, anything you like.” He said, “Just act
like nothing’s going on. Act normal. That would
mean the world to me. Can you do that, Leon?" "Why
sure, Mr. President, you've got it. Normal, that's
how I'm going to act. I won't let on, even if I'm
tortured," I said, immediately regretting that "tortured"
bit. He thanked me several times and hung up. I was
dying to tell someone that the president himself called
me, but I knew I couldn't. The sudden pressure to
act normal was killing me. And what was going on
anyway. I didn't know anything was going on. I
saw the president on TV yesterday. He was shaking
hands with a farmer. What if it wasn't really a
farmer? I needed to buy some milk, but suddenly
I was afraid to go out. I checked what I had on.
I looked "normal" to me, but maybe I looked more
like I was trying to be normal. That's pretty
suspicious. I opened the door and looked around.
What was going on? There was a car parked in front
of my car that I had never seen before, a car that
was trying to look normal, but I wasn't fooled.
If you need milk, you have to get milk, otherwise
people will think something's going on. I got into
my car and sped down the road. I could feel
those little radar guns popping behind every tree and bush,
but, apparently, they were under orders not to stop
me. I ran into Kirsten at the store. "Hey, what's
going on, Leon?" she said. She had a very nice smile.
I hated to lie to her. "Nothing's going on. Just
getting milk for my cat," I said. "I didn't know
you had a cat," she said. "I meant to say coffee.
You're right. I don't have a cat. Sometimes I
refer to my coffee as my cat. It's just a private
joke. Sorry," I said. "Are you all right?" she
asked. "Nothing's going on, Kirsten. I promise
you. Everything is normal. The president shook
hands with a farmer, a real farmer. Is that such
a big deal?" I said. "I saw that," she said, "and
that man was definitely not a farmer." "Yeah, I
know," I said, feeling better.



O sleepy city of reeling wheelchairs
where a mouse can commit suicide if he can

concentrate long enough
on the history book of rodents
in this underground town

of electrical wheelchairs!
The girl who is always pregnant and bruised
like a pear

rides her many-stickered bicycle
backward up the staircase
of the abandoned trolleybarn.

Yesterday was warm. Today a butterfly froze
in midair; and was plucked like a grape
by a child who swore he could take care

of it. O confident city where
the seeds of poppies pass for carfare,

where the ordinary hornets in a human’s heart
may slumber and snore, where bifocals bulge

in an orange garage of daydreams,
we wait in our loose attics for a new season

as if for an ice-cream truck.
An Indian pony crosses the plains

whispering Sanskrit prayers to a crater of fleas.
Honeysuckle says: I thought I could swim.

The Mayor is urinating on the wrong side
of the street! A dandelion sends off sparks:
beware your hair is locked!

Beware the trumpet wants a glass of water!
Beware a velvet tabernacle!

Beware the Warden of Light has married
an old piece of string!



I like to see doctors cough.
What kind of human being
would grab all your money
just when you're down?
I'm not saying they enjoy this:
"Sorry, Mr. Rodriguez, that's it,
no hope! You might as well
hand over your wallet." Hell no,
they'd rather be playing golf
and swapping jokes about our feet.

Some of them smoke marijuana
and are alcoholics, and their moral
turpitude is famous: who gets to see
most sex organs in the world? Not
poets. With the hours they keep
they need drugs more than anyone.
Germ city, there's no hope
looking down those fire-engine throats.
They're bound to get sick themselves
sometime; and I happen to be there
myself in a high fever
taking my plastic medicine seriously
with the doctors, who are dying. 



Nothing remained: Nothing, the wanton name
That nightly I rehearsed till led away
To a dark sleep, or sleep that held one dream.

In this a huge contagious absence lay,
More space than space, over the cloud and slime,
Defined but by the encroachments of its sway.

Stripped to indifference at the turns of time,
Whose end I knew, I woke without desire,
And welcomed zero as a paradigm.

But now it breaks—images burst with fire
Into the quiet sphere where I have bided,
Showing the landscape holding yet entire:

The power that I envisaged, that presided
Ultimate in its abstract devastations,
Is merely change, the atoms it divided

Complete, in ignorance, new combinations.
Only an infinite finitude I see
In those peculiar lovely variations.

It is despair that nothing cannot be
Flares in the mind and leaves a smoky mark
Of dread.
               Look upward. Neither firm nor free,

Purposeless matter hovers in the dark.



Any poodle under ten inches high is a toy.
Almost always a toy is an imitation
of something grown-ups use.
Popes with unclipped hair are called corded popes.
If a Pope's hair is allowed to grow unchecked,
it becomes extremely long and twists
into long strands that look like ropes.
When it is shorter it is tightly curled.
Popes are very intelligent.
There are three different sizes.
The largest are called standard Popes.
The medium-sized ones are called miniature Popes.
I could go on like this, I could say:
"He is a squarely built Pope, neat,
well-proportioned, with an alert stance
and an expression of bright curiosity,"
but I won't. After a poodle dies
all the cardinals flock to the nearest 7-Eleven.
They drink Slurpies until one of them throws up
and then he's the new Pope.
He is then fully armed and rides through the wilderness alone,
day and night in all kinds of weather.
The new Pope chooses the name he will use as Pope,
like "Wild Bill" or "Buffalo Bill."
He wears red shoes with a cross embroidered on the front.
Most Popes are called "Babe" because
growing up to become a Pope is a lot of fun.
All the time their bodies are becoming bigger and stranger,
but sometimes things happen to make them unhappy.
They have to go to the bathroom by themselves,
and they spend almost all of their time sleeping.
Parents seem to be incapable of helping their little popes grow up.
Fathers tell them over and over again not to lean out of windows,
but the sky is full of them.
It looks as if they are just taking it easy,
but they are learning something else.
What, we don't know, because we are not like them.
We can't even dress like them.
We are like red bugs or mites compared to them.
We think we are having a good time cutting cartoons out of the paper,
but really we are eating crumbs out of their hands.
We are tiny germs that cannot be seen under microscopes.
When a Pope is ready to come into the world,
we try to sing a song, but the words do not fit the music too well.
Some of the full-bodied popes are a million times bigger than us.
They open their mouths at regular intervals.
They are continually grinding up pieces of the cross
and spitting them out. Black flies cling to their lips.
Once they are elected they are given a bowl of cream
and a puppy clip. Eyebrows are a protection
when the Pope must plunge through dense underbrush
in search of a sheep.



Although the depiction of living forms
was not explicitly forbidden, the only good news
about famines was that the station was empty.
It was about 2 A.M. The truck drove away.
A tropical insect that lives in enormous cities
stroked my hair awkwardly, organizing everyone's
schedule. She drove me back to my hotel
in a misty and allusive style, while the old
schools continued the process of devolution.
Part of the roof was loose and flapped noisily
in the wind, who needed work like that?
Poor brethren, do you have any good prose yet?
The New Chinese fiction is getting better,
I suspect, people walking and thinking and fussing,
with a nest to fly out of, with a less intimate footing.
Are we responsible for their playtimes?
Keep up your music, my dears; there were a lot of people
like that, with strange eyes, green fields and orchards.
The little house they sat in produced simple people,
cars full of blood, all they needed was a hat,
extramusical sounds, purging the emotions.
Expect no mercy, I said, from the sickbay.
And try to imagine Howard Hughes piloting the plane
that flew Cary Grant and Barbara Hutton off
toward their marriage in 1950. Well, don't bother.
The New Chinese fiction shouldn't concern itself
with anything other than a stolen turnip
and a coldness in the heart, and a lit window,
a young man on a horse appearing and then disappearing.

Dear Mr. President,
     I saw someone coming in the distance, but couldn't make out who it was. The closer they got the more blurred the face became. Until finally I saw it was just a whirlwind of leaves. It was only me on a football field walking toward the street with my handbag thrown over my shoulder with this big funnel of leaves coming toward me like a man. Then it passed me and went up the street. And then it disappeared. I walked on, toward the bank where I had some business to do. A man appeared out of an alley and stopped me and said, "Did you see that man made out of leaves go by?" "I did, could have fooled me," I said. "Hey, do you suppose you could lend me a dollar for a cup of coffee?" "No, I can't. I'm on my way to the bank," I said. I left him there and went on my way. Pretty soon a little boy crossed my path. He stopped me in my path and said, "I know who you are. You're the Man-of-Leaves. You just took your coat off. You can't fool me." "You're a pretty smart fellow, but you're wrong this time," I said, and went on my way. When I got to the bank I went in and waited to see an officer. When I saw one was free I went in. In the chair behind the desk sat a pile of leaves. It said, "Can I help you?" I stumbled at first, but managed to say, "I'm looking for a small loan, a thousand dollars for, say, twelve months." "Of course. Would you like a 4 1/2% or a 5 1/2% loan?" it said. "I'd like the 4 1/2% if you don't mind," I said. "Very good choice," it said. It made out the paper and handed them to me. "Have a nice day," it said. "It's windy out there," I said. "You're telling me," it said, smoothing himself with satisfaction.

 Have a great four years.

                         Yours sincerely,

                         James Tate


  1. one of these poems mentions the book Meetings with Remarkable Men - i've read it

    one of these poems mentions popes choosing their papal name - i am a pope of the people's catholic church founded by pope maurice, and i chose the name devananda

    the paris review blog has the opportunity to publish the following, if the moderator agrees:

    I wrote Tate in April (unfortunately, he never replied) with a piece I’d written about “metanoia – accepted and avoided” in some of his poems. The final sentences, on “Shroud of the Gnome”:

    Tate’s poem is a reworking of the ancient Gnostic tale “the hymn of the robe of glory” or ‘the hymn of the pearl’—see A summary and exegesis of this story from a Mormon perspective can be seen at The shroud reminds us of the Shroud of Turin, of course, but also of the “robe of honor” or “garment of light” in the Hymn of the Pearl—the rightful garb of the hero, which he follows on his way back to his heavenly home.

    Tate’s narrator calls himself “a hungry little Gnostic in need of a sandwich”, a much-used pickup line that doesn’t work on an unresponsive (“deaf, dumb, and blind”) nurse at a lunch counter. Although he identifies himself as a “Gnostic”, his actions and sentiments show that he is still functioning in a non-Gnostic mode. He still hungers for earthly things (the sandwich, sex with the woman) and remains trapped “here”—depicted as an alleyway with unsavory aspects, the “underworld” sung about in the “little known ballad” the shroud whistles as the narrator watches it fly upward.

    What is this “little known ballad” the shroud whistles? It if is so little known, we may not know it either, of course—but I imagine it could be “Wind of Change” by the Scorpions, which starts with whistling. The song, the most viewed song by a German group on Youtube, is the opposite of “little known”—but the human brotherhood it speaks of is often yearned for, but seldom found in ordinary life.

    i omitted the youtube link to the scorpions song, since i worried that the paris review blog moderator might consider it bad form

  2. the paris review blog moderator has blocked my comment there - may the creative forces of the universe have mercy on their soul, if any

  3. When another Mensch leaves us, there's a goddamned hole in the universe, and all the things they were adding to the world just *stop*. People will build careers debating about the relative values of this or that thing of theirs (blah blah buh buh buh) -- but we won't see or hear any *new* things arising out of them and into the world. Ever.

    Here's one thing; no idea why I like this one so much:

    Jesus got up one day a little later than usual. He had been dreaming so deep there was nothing left in his head. What was it? A nightmare, dead bodies walking all around him, eyes rolled back, skin falling off. But he wasn't afraid of that. It was a beautiful day. How 'bout some coffee? Don't mind if I do. Take a little ride on my donkey, I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody.

    1. rev. daniel smith, of the first church in cambridge, ma (congregational, ucc) preached on this poem, "goodtime jesus", on feb. 26, 2012 - recently i read his sermon, liked it, wrote him with my thoughts on metanoia - accepted and avoided - in some surrealistic poems of james tate, and received a cordial reply from him, in which he wrote, in part,

      "Thanks for sharing these other poems of his. Whimsical, sometimes fun, yet deeply provocative stuff! I appreciated your notes as well."

      smith's sermon

      tate's poems and my comments on them appear in the comments sections of

      and see also