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MICHAEL BROOKS CRYER - WINTER 2001 FEATURE  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE

Stanley Kunitz
The Poet and The Poem: Stanley Kunitz: An interview and reading with poetry legend, Stanley Kunitz. Grace Cavalieri hosts this one-hour audio program.

Rochelle Ratner
Two New Yorks: Rochelle Ratner reflects on the aftermath of the New York City terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001

Gibbons Ruark
The Day a Poem Comes Home: A day in the life of Gibbons Ruark

Michael Brooks Cryer
A book review of James Tate's latest: Memoir of the Hawk

John Kinsella
Further Evidence: the latest chapter of John Kinsella's exclusive autobiographical series

Michael Brooks Cryer

Michael Brooks Cryer received his MFA from the University of Arizona in May of 1999. Since then he has worked as a freelance writer and is a contributing editor to the poetry e-zine pith. His poems have appeared in Brown Dog Review, South Ash Press, EVO, and pith. He currently lives in Los Angeles.
Michael Brooks Cryer - Book Review

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Memoir of the Hawk
by James Tate

Hardcover, 175 pages
Ecco Press

Our Price: $17.95
Buy this book and support TCR


The dialogue tags, rivers and men in James Tate's new collection Memoir of the Hawk have replaced the glowworm, lemur and new Chinese fiction of his past collections. In his previous four books, Tate started to move from what John Ashbery calls his characteristic, "homespun surrealism" to a stripped-bare narrative. What does remain of the imaginative situations in Worshipful Company of Fletchers and Distance from Loved Ones is Tate's unique American voice and poetic logic.

Tate began his narrative transformation with 1990's Distance from Loved Ones. In Loved Ones, his poems became more character-based and relaxed their tonality. Surrealism started to take a back seat to sequential development, and even though he created surprising associations in Loved Ones, Tate's characters and personalities surfaced as peculiar equals to his odd similes and metaphors.

In Memoir of the Hawk, the majority of the poems are short, and the titles act like proper names as they formally introduce the poems with simple fragments ["The Man of the People," "The Splendid Rainbow"]. But we're kept at a distance. Nothing too much is revealed in the poems. The name and place of a situation are flattened into basic descriptions as human voices take over the poems. They progress categorically in sentences—so much so they resemble prose poems. Tate is of course familiar with prose poems and their anecdotal traps, and the new poems depend on quirky illustrations, like his earlier prose pieces, mostly avoiding these pitfalls.

In their brevity and reportage, the poems in Memoir of the Hawk also resemble David Lehman's daily poems—of course all of Tate's occasions are imagined, whereas Lehman's dailies document everyday activities like journal entries. Moments in parks, window shopping, and urban societies are combined with the magic and unpredictability of folktales and mythic fables in Memoir. Take the poem "The Lovely Arc of a Meteor in the Night Sky," for example:

At the party there were those sage souls
who swam along the bottom like those huge white
fish who live for hundreds of years but have no
fun. They are nearly blind and need the cold.
William was a stingray guarding his cave. Only
those prepared for mortal battle came close to
him. Closer to the surface the smaller fish
played, swimming in mixed patterns only a god
could decipher. They gossiped and fed and sparred
and consumed, and some no doubt even spawned.
It's a life filled with agitation, thrills,
melodrama and twittery, but too soon it's over.
And nothing's revealed because it was never known.

Other than the poetic logic Tate has depended on throughout his career, he uses metaphor as a poetic device through which to tell this tiny narrative. Nevertheless, it's the ending where the poem's power rests—the ending ricochets from the narrative with a philosophical gesture. Tate's allegory—a lot of the poems in the book feel like parables—compares humans to bottom-feeding fish and stingrays, and then, with the last line, "And nothing's revealed because it was never known," Tate unloads one of the themes of the book: the search for unknown truths. (Although, in this case, not having discovered anything, the "fish" seem to have lived in vain, even though the smaller ones ironically swim in beautiful arrangements "only a god could decipher.")

Memoir of the Hawk reads quickly even if it's over 170-pages long. The short narratives stack up like a brief history of an arcane community where animal's lives are as interesting, or inane, as the human's lives. In the poem "A True Story," a manipulative dog has an attack of conscience and leaves its gullible, human mark a note of concern, written in "perfect schoolboy script," explaining how it can't take advantage of the man any longer because it's worried about his "lack of memory."

Although most of the poems are inhabited by real people doing real things—swimming, driving, dining at a restaurant—what separates the poems from real circumstances is their logic. Tate's older poems were more surrealistic because of their imagery. The newer poems have mostly dropped surreal juxtapositions for narrative reporting and brief spurts of dialogue—all of which is held together by Tate's imaginative leaps. There are a few exceptions of course, such as the fantastic "white doves" that fly from the priest's eyes in "September." "September" also combines the lives of animals and humans and is the closest any of the poems come to surrealistic lyricism.

Near September the moose retreat to the
ice-cream shops. A flotilla of hunters sinks
to the bottom of the lake singing, "Pennies from
Heaven." A little girl in green pajamas is
swinging from a maple tree. The maple tree
is blushing but still manages to whisper its
love for her. September is coming, balancing
a thousand-and-one gifts on its head and
shoulders, twittering as if someone were
tickling it. "It's coming," shouts the woodsman.
A priest was prattling on about his disappoint-
ments in love until two white doves flew
out of his eyes and drew a thunderous applause
from everyone.

Considering the collection's length, it's hard to justify every poem's place in the book. The addition of some poems is as mysterious as the relation of others to their title—take for example "The Lovely Arc of a Meteor in the Night Sky" mentioned above, where the connection between the "fish community" and the astronomical event in the title is cryptic at best. Several poems are merely anecdotal and basically report either mundane trivialities or the plainly comic. The poem "Young Man with a Ham" tells the story of a two-man, suburban battle over a football-like ham. After "Mr. Wilson" steals the ham from an unidentified man, the last line reads, "Clearly it's his [Mr. Wilson's] ham now." This is funny, but is also banal. What does resound in the poem, as well as in other successful pieces in the collection, is the speaker. He's an astute voyeur who communicates the absurdities that surround him. Although, even Tate's wicked imagination can't save a poem like "Ham," and its addition to the book is basically padding—a minor occurrence in the previously described, arcane community that inhabits Memoir of the Hawk. Of course, the questionable poems are far and between, and the other hundred-and-something pages of imaginative verse are enough to both entertain and amaze.

 
 

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