"SOME PEOPLE GO their whole lives/without ever writing a single poem," writes James Tate in his new collection, Shroud of the Gnome. Tate's a man who's gone nearly his whole life writing poems, a writer who, since winning the Yale Younger Poets Prize for his first book in 1966, has seemingly lived in order to write poems. Sure, you could be a brain surgeon, a church-goer, the family dog howling at space junk, but without poetry what's it all for? From where Tate stakes his stand, that life is bankrupt, a misfire, a bust.
With such an absolute bias, Tate exists in a breed apart. He doesn't seem to mind it over there, across the great divide that separates his encampment from the bewildering no-poetry pack. Life might be more manageable, it's true, if sunsets didn't drip opium, if one's twitchy leg would quit kicking over little cow towns--if much of what happens in his 13 books, his Pulitzer Prize-winning Selected Poems, and this new one included, didn't happen. But it all does, on every page, at every turn of the Surrealist lens of Tate's imagination.
What he does best, and by now better than any poet working today, is to infuse the mundane with wicked humor, absurdity, and often, as if by ambush, disturbing clarity. Tate's got a signature knack for making the ridiculous sound normal, like some social-science lecture delivered after a highball marathon (Shroud's opening poem, "Where Babies Come From," begins "Many are from the Maldives,/southwest of India, and must begin collecting shells almost immediately./The larger ones may prefer coconuts."). It's as if, maybe as an infant, Tate got shaken wrong and tilted off-kilter; his imagination went slightly askew and never righted. He writes from that dimension where what happens in his poems resembles episodes in the actual world, but not enough to be mistaken for them. Missionaries knock on the door, drop in for lunch, and turn into apocalyptic zombies. A rubbish pile in a back alley shapeshifts into the shroud of a fugitive gnome "whistling a little-known ballad/about the pitiful, raw etiquette of the underworld." One moment you sit down to read a harmless looking book of poems, and an hour later, your head's stuck to the ceiling.
And by the way, Tate also edited this year's Best American Poetry (Scribner Poetry), the annual anthology of greatest hits picked by a rotating cast of editors; it's another fine way to see Tate's vision playing out in the work of other poets he admires.