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Return to the City of White Donkeys


In his fourteenth collection of poetry, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner James Tate continues exploring his own peculiar brand of poetry, transforming our everyday world, a world where women give birth to wolves, wild babies are found in gardens, and Saint Nick visits on a hot July day. Tate's signature style draws on a marvelous variety of voices and characters, all of which sound vaguely familiar, but are each fantastically unique, brilliant, and eccentric.

Yet, as Charles Simic observed in the New York Review of Books, "With all his reliance on chance, Tate has a serious purpose. He's searching for a new way to write a lyric poem." He continues, "To write a poem out of nothing at all is Tate's genius. For him, the poem is something one did not know was there until it was written down. . . . Just about anything can happen next in this kind of poetry and that is its attraction. . . . Tate is not worried about leaving us a little dazed. . . . He succeeds in ways for which there are a few precedents. He makes me think that anti-poetry is the best friend poetry ever had."

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In this delightful collection of parables, Tate, America's own "home-grown surrealist," shows that he can provide evocative commentary on the moods of contemporary American suburbia: "Justine called on Christmas day to say that she/ was thinking of killing herself. I said, `We're/ in the middle of opening presents, Justine.'" Tate proceeds from the world of the ordinary to strange landscapes in which "grocery shopping can be such a mysterious/ business." Many poems attain a certain fairy-tale quality while concentrating on everyday events ("God! This town/ is like a fairy tale. Everywhere you turn there's mystery. And I'm just a child playing cops"). Tate's poetry works best when readers are willing to accept this half-mundane, half-magical world on its own terms. Those who are less cooperative may be irked by Tate's shift from the intense lyricism of his earlier work to the more spare, almost prosaic tone here. That's a little unfair: Tate's new work appears to be deeply rooted in the tradition of parable in poetry, and it takes a great deal of imaginative talent to fill a book with examples of such variety and scope. Likely to bring new audiences to the world of contemporary poetry, this is recommended for all collections.-Ilya Kaminsky, Writer in Residence, Phillips Exeter Acad., Exeter, NH Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Tate's influence on younger American poets (both as writer and mentor) stands near its apex, but this 14th book of his own poems presents the genial master at less than his best. Tate won the Yale Younger Poets prize for his strong, sad, lyrical debut, The Lost Pilot, but earned fame in the 1970s and '80s for bitter humor and homey pomo pastiche, set in a prosey free verse where the linebreaks can seem as arbitrary as the situations in which his speaker finds himself. The poems reflect jaded amusement, hope and occasional despair as the poet makes his way through a dangerous world, "contemplating the/ life of the postmodern buffalo" or "the public aspect of breast exposure," pursuing the resurrection of Eleanor Roosevelt, "holding this really exemplary radish," or watching "masked men with titanium pincers slide/ silently through the blackened halls." With few formal challenges, but with plenty of jokes, the poems can recall the comedian Steven Wright, or the pages McSweeney's. If their sheer quantity can make them seem formulaic, Tate's twisted scenarios provoke and amuse as much as they ever did; though they may tire longtime followers, these poems could find new admirers among people who don't often read poets at all. (Nov.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

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