Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter 1997/1998 (#8)

Shroud Of The Gnome by James Tate

Shroud Of The Gnome

James Tate

Ecco Press ($23)

Kelly Everding

Caution: Shroud of the Gnome may induce temporary aphasia brought on by profound cognitive dissonance. James Tate wrestles with reality, combining the bizarre and the sublime, the ridiculous and the wistful, hesitant despair and bone-crushing absurdity. The unsettling situations which arise achieve a level of profundity beyond the enjoyment derived from their imaginative expanse and wit. Yet however one may try to dissect a poem from this collection, it is liable to lift off and slip away from the examining table. The devious and playful quality of Tate's poetry may resist exegesis, but layers of meaning reside, tucked between "felisberto" and "mergotroid."

Within the cosmology of each poem, Tate guides the reader much as Willie Wonka guided children through the chocolate factory; the poem is a kingdom and dictates must be followed, but you're never quite sure where you'll end up. In "Never Again the Same," a malevolent sunset exacts an irrevocable change upon its viewers. In "Smart," a theory is freed after a long captivity within the speaker's old cage of a mind. And these are among the few poems which are mildly paraphraseable. The poems exude an eloquence which rivals any late nineteenth-century poet--"Spherically wondrous sunbeam / dwelling in the mansion / of the pine of chastity, / today we bought an ice pack / for Mildred's injured foot" ("Per Diem")--yet they are not afraid to sample language from colloquialism, nonsense, or implicative idioms--"and I'll keep a watch out here for the malefactors / all the while ruminating rumbustiously on my new / runic alphabet, mellifluent memorandum whack whack" ("Faulty Diction"). As meanings mound, a multi-metaphor pile-up ensues so that at times we are struck by pure rhythm and sound.

For all the zaniness, a fragile sensibility emerges in these poems. In the fantastic "Dream On," the speaker muses that "Some people go their whole lives / without ever writing a single poem." After enumerating the many banal moments in a life lived without poetry, the language becomes suspended within a moment of reverie:

all day, all night meditation, knot of hope,
kernel of desire, pure ordinariness of life,
seeking, through poetry, a benediction
or a bed to lie down on, to connect, reveal,
explore, to imbue meaning on the day's
      extravagant labor.
And yet it's cruel to expect too much.

From here the poem undergoes a strange metamorphosis: the inability to categorize is likened to a rare bird whose song is unhearable, a dragonfly that flits here and there, and finally becomes a dream. "And the dream has a pain in its heart / the wonders of which are manifold, / or so the story is told." A paradigm of loss pervades these poems, buried in a surrealistic, semantic structure that parallels a dream. Nothing can be explained away. Any story carries within it a perceptual slant, a fairytale quality that turns the stress and sorrow of everyday life on its head and maintains the integrity of language no matter what form it takes.

Tate is utterly unique. Shroud of the Gnome allows us entrance once more into his bewildered home, in which the poet exonerates reason and unreason alike.

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