—for Dan Chiasson

The other day I started to read James Tate’s posthumous The Governor’s Lake, subtitled The Lost Poems. I liked the book very much. The poems are very nice, they are all in prose, and they meander along, like some forgotten, lost footpath in the Berkshires, which makes the subtitle all the more poignant, and good on the editors for choosing it. The poems tend to launch with clarity and purpose, then drift, before coming to in a fog, far from the blazes of conventional logic or narrative satisfaction. Sorry if it seems I’m overly self-conscious of my prose. A madcap style is the vehicle for implying other, graver things. Iridescent, cretaceous, oyster, cerise, chamois, and more, all of these at once–all words used by Dickinson, in her prime. The jewels are all there; but the real treasure isn’t any precious stone, far from it, no. Yes, styles are like trade routes; they fall out of favor, eventually vanish into the sands. But he never cared, and why should he? He rode his loping camel with patient grace and had a flowing headdress to taunt and beat all standard drones. I was reminded, while reading (for what could be more natural than to remember such an occasion?), of the time back in the early 90s, when I visited James Tate in the Berkshires, close to Camp Beckett, where I had worked as a teen. It was really great to meet him, as I had always been a fan of The Lost Pilot, which I read when I was at Camp Beckett, actually, and which, again, makes the subtitle all the more poignant–good on the editors for choosing it, as I’d said. It was very nice to meet Dara Wier, too. She is a terrific poet who was James’s wife, and because she got her grad degree from lowly Bowling Green State, just like I did, though about a decade earlier than me, it made the encounter extra special. She was very nice, very smart and pleasant, and pointed out this or that species of the many-colored bird-burst at the seven or so feeders they had in the vast and shaded yard: orioles, yellow warblers, goldfinches, purple finches, indigo buntings, spotted towhees, black headed grosbeaks, rose breasted grosbeaks, American redstarts, and the first and only scarlet tanager I have ever seen in my life. What kind of bird seed do you use? I said. The kind that was only made in the lost town of Governor, she said. Where’s Governor, I said, I’ve never heard of it. It’s over that hill, over there, straight north, said Dara, and it’s been sitting on the bottom of a lake, since the spring of 1897. We got the bags of seed from the last resident-survivor of the town, seven years ago, who happened to be the son of the owner of the town’s famous bird seed factory, said James. We inherited about seven-hundred sacks of perfectly exquisite bird seed, said Dara, it keeps forever. The town is sitting on the bottom of a lake? I said. Yep, that is correct, said Dara. It’s rumored there are unknown daguerreotypes of Dickinson down there, said James, including two of her sitting on the lap of her Master, locked in glass, owned by an early collector, the town mortician. And scuba divers say that most everything is still perfectly intact, all the old-style business signs on Main Street, and the old houses with their fences and Victorian porches, the school house with its steeple and bell, and the statues of Emerson and Fireside poets frowning in the park of swaying grass beds, he said, pausing from toking on his joint. He looked off over the bluish, smoky hills to the west, with his goat-patch beard and roguish mien. Do you want some grass, he said. No thanks, I said, but thank you for asking, it makes me hallucinate, I’m already seeing an impossible number of songbirds from second hand smoke. Ha ha ha ha ha, Dara and he both laughed for what seemed like seven minutes, or so, until the echoes of their guffaws started to come back, resounding in weird concussions, like ghosts from the hills. Hey, said Dara, wiping her eyes, why don’t you and Kent take a hike up Governor’s Hill so he can see the lake that covers the lost town like a sheet of glass, ha ha? Sure, said James, ha. So we did. James was tired; he couldn’t get out of his chair. So I strapped him to my back with some belts, which he didn’t seem to mind, his arms were still free, and he somehow managed, even though we were back to back, as it were, to unhinge his arms from his sockets so that he could stroke my hair, backwards, and he did so for the whole duration of the arduous climb up the hill, softly crooning, in a gravelly voice, There, there, my dear boy, there, there… We will soon achieve the top, do not falter… And, no, of course, falter I did not: The dazzling, emerald lake with the lost town hidden beneath its glass top spread out beneath us, perfectly still and silent, though it was not that large, more like a pond, it seemed to me, though maybe my judgment was off. Isn’t it totally neat, said James. Yes, it is really some fucking view, I said. There is a lost species of humpbacked trout in that lake, said James. Wow, I said, really? That’s amazing. And then, after a while of my laboriously turning this way and that so that James could also appreciate the vista and comment on it, we headed back down the mountain, though this time James made me strap him to my front, which made it very awkward, perilous, even, to go downhill. But because he was now strapped around my groin, he was able to use his long, simian arms like a pair of extra legs, keeping us, at least, from tumbling down the slippery rocks. Good job, poet! he said, when we finally got back to the gingerbread house from whence we’d come, where he and Dara lived on the weekends, or when they were on seven-year sabbaticals every four years from U of Mass/Amherst. Four legs are always better than two in poetry, though we are like two peas in a pod! he said. Dara was up on the grass roof, in a gauze white dress, helping one of the goats to give birth to Siamese goats, and it didn’t seem to be going easy. Did you have a good time? she said above the heartbreaking squeals to heaven. There’s goat meat and beans on the stove, just help yourselves! Yes, dear, we had a great time, said James, unstrapping himself from my body, then leading me like a boyfriend by the hand into the gingerbread house. And it is only just now, right at the point where I go into the house, when the plot about the lost lake and the lost pilot and the lost book was totally ready for takeoff, that I realize, looking by chance at the cover of the book again, that the subtitle is not LOST Poems. It is LAST Poems. Last Poems! OMG! All that climb up the ancient basalt or maybe granite hill, whatever, just to pretend like we were flying over The Governor Lake like ghosts or birds or drones. And not only that. The title of the goddamn book is The Government Lake, not The Governor’s Lake. So now none of this book review even makes any damn sense, or is too embarrassing to share. Geez and shoot me now with a blunderbuss. Yes, depressing and a wasted trip, you could say. But even so, I do have to share: Those chunks of goat meat and ranch beans still taste in my mouth-thoughts like the sweetest kisses of Esmeralda. I mean, you tell me, poets, truly. What are the chances, eh?