Fast-forward to just a couple years ago when I was able to attend his reading at USC. It was clear then that the gods of health had not been kind to Tate. I assumed he had a stroke at some point prior because he had all the telltale signs of neurological injury. This, I suppose, is unremarkable only in that there is no explanation for why some people are the lucky ones and some get the short shrift. On James Tate's behalf, I felt that life was unfair. That hasn't changed. Grace seems to anoint haphazardly.
But if it was unremarkable that I was seeing Tate's body being destroyed by what I would call a too-rapid aging, what was remarkable is that, during that reading, I saw him carefully, with cane, make his way to the lectern, and I heard him push his poems out from a mouth that resisted working. On the one hand, it was difficult, in terms of empathy, to listen; on the other hand, it was profound that each poem hung in the air, fully assembled, as if Tate repeatedly gave up ghosts, which is what, in some respects, poems are. They live and interact with us even as the body has been taken away. I remember feeling, at the time, that he would not be with us for much longer, and that made me sad. Thus, I return again and again to the second half of "The Lost Pilot:"
...All I know
is this: when I see you,
as I have seen you at least
once every year of my life,
spin across the wilds of the sky
like a tiny, African god,
I feel dead. I feel as if I were
the residue of a stranger’s life,
that I should pursue you.
My head cocked toward the sky,
I cannot get off the ground,
and, you, passing over again,
fast, perfect, and unwilling
to tell me that you are doing
well, or that it was mistake
that placed you in that world,
and me in this; or that misfortune
placed these worlds in us.
James Tate's poems manage to temper wonder with wit; moreover, he made the best of accessibility in that the poems are generous to readers even as they're absurd sometimes, and thought-provoking. Some of the greatest moments in the arts are when the most profound mysteries of the human condition are presented in the guise of humor. Tate did this. He will be sorely missed even if his voice still lingers on our bookshelves.