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Shroud of the Gnome

Shroud of the Gnome

by James Tate

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Speakers in James Tate's poems are and are not like those we know: a man's meditation on gardening renders him witless; another man traps theories and then lets them loose in a city park; a nun confides that "it was her / cowboy pride that got her through"; a gnome's friend inhabits a world where "a great eschatological ferment is at work. "Shroud of the Gnome"


Speakers in James Tate's poems are and are not like those we know: a man's meditation on gardening renders him witless; another man traps theories and then lets them loose in a city park; a nun confides that "it was her / cowboy pride that got her through"; a gnome's friend inhabits a world where "a great eschatological ferment is at work. "Shroud of the Gnome" is a bravura performance in Tate's signature style: playful, wicked, deliriously sober, charming, and dazzling. Here, once again, one of America's most masterful poets celebrates the inexplicable in his own strange tongue.

Editorial Reviews

Stephen Whited
Tate, who has won almost every major poetry prize, can hardly claim the title of bemused outsider, but it’s an intellectual pose he has always adopted. He’s the smart guy’s—and I mean to say “guys”—Charles Bukowski. In book after book, his elaborate conceits present a synthetic blend of plain everyday life, dreary companions, nature outside the window, the amusing cliche and various absurd associations, which makes the familiar enigmatic by way of surreal images. Ultimately, however, Tate doesn’t expand the real: He narrows its scope, limiting his impact with a fashionable ennui. His anti-poems merely reflect a precious distaste for the comfortable academic world Tate himself inhabits.
Albert Mobilio
James Tate's new collection, The Shroud of the Gnome (a title that could have graced a Moody Blues or King Crimson album), is his 12th since winning the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1967. The book continues his sly subversion of the anecdotal poem. For instance, in "Restless Leg Syndrome," the familiar anecdotal tone of Tate's first lines is quickly punctured by their spiky abstraction: "After the burial/we returned to our units/and assumed our poses./Our posture was the new posture/and not the sick old posture." The speaker then reports on all the items -- an ocelot, a scrimshaw collection, a snuff box -- he uncontrollably kicks, and the poem wraps up with a blow delivered to "the White House we keep on hand/just for situations such as this." This is high-grade nonsense, undiluted by whimsy, and as such affords more head-scratching than knowing nods.

Another smart bit of funambulistic clowning opens the poem "Twenty-Five":

Twenty-five is such a big number 
if you're talking about how many times I make
love every
But if that's all the years she lived,
although she was a full-time nudist
and necromancer, it seems so insignificant
and one might even say "Why bother?"

Tate bends and bounces the trite conventions of a birthday wish in a poem that outlines his overall insurgent strategy: "Twenty-five minutes later, he was sleeping like a baby,/which I realize is a cliché and I only say it to punish him, to torment him so that he might in fact/stop 'sleeping like a baby' if he so hates clichés." For readers whose digestion can handle this double-talking, Tate serves his anecdotes well scrambled. -- Salon

Adam Kirsch
On the surface, his poetry is deliberately difficult....But if his style owes a great deal to Dada, his feeling is almost Victorian in its piety: he is always concerned to tell us that beneath the busyness and loneliness of our daily lives, there remains in us the possibility for peace, happiness and real human connection. -- The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.37(w) x 8.37(h) x 0.21(d)

Read an Excerpt



Many are from the Maldives,
southwest of India, and must begin
collecting shells almost immediately.
The larger ones may prefer coconuts.
Survivors move from island to island
hopping over one another and never
looking back. After the typhoons
have had their pick, and the birds of prey
have finished with theirs, the remaining few
must build boats, and in this, of course,
they can have no experience, they build
their boats of palm leaves and vines.
Once the work is completed, they lie down,
thoroughly exhausted and confused,
and a huge wave washes them out to sea.
And that is the last they see of one another.
In their dreams Mama and Papa
are standing on the shore
for what seems like an eternity,
and it is almost always the wrong shore.


They ask me if I've ever thought
about the end of the world,
and I say, "Come in, come in,
let me give you some lunch, for God's sake."
After a few bites it's the afterlife
they want to talk about. "Ouch," I say,
"did you see that grape leaf skeletonizer?"
Then they're talking about redemption
and the chosen few sitting right by His side.
"Doing what?" I ask. "Just sitting?"
I am surrounded by burned up zombies.
"Let's have some lemon chiffon pie
I bought yesterday at the 3 Dog Bakery."
But they want to talk about my soul.
I'm getting drowsy and see butterflies
everywhere. "Would you gentlemen
like to take a nap, I know I would."
They stand and back away from me,
out the door, walking toward my neighbors,
a black cloud over their heads
and they see nothing without end.


Speaking of sunsets,
last night's was shocking.
I mean, sunsets aren't supposed to frighten you,
Well, this one was terrifying.
People were screaming in the streets.
Sure, it was beautiful, but far too beautiful.
It wasn't natural.
One climax followed another and then another
until your knees went weak
and you couldn't breathe.
The colors were definitely not of this world,
peaches dripping opium,
pandemonium of tangerines,
inferno of irises,
Plutonian emeralds,
all swirling and churning, swabbing,
like it was playing with us,
like we were nothing,
as if our whole lives were a preparation for this,
this for which nothing could have prepared us
and for which we could not have been less
The mockery of it all stung us bitterly.
And when it was finally over
we whimpered and cried and howled.
And then the streetlights came on as always
and we looked into one another's eyes--
ancient caves with still pools
and those little transparent fish
who have never seen even one ray of light.
And the calm that returned to us
was not even our own.


After the narrator's abrupt departure
several significant threads were left dangling
so, to break the tension, I chimed in:
What if a finger-sized peasant
makes off with a magic steed, eh?
(This seemed to please them.)
And Ivan eats a bird's giblets
which gives him the ability to spit up gold.
(Could feel my power growing.)
But this makes him very thirsty
and he drinks a great deal of beer.
Soon he is pixilated and experiences
an overwhelming desire to kiss his sister.
Ivan sets off on his quest.
Here, incidentally, also belongs the dialogue
between the stepmother and the chisel.
The sister, the homely Dorita,
dotes only on agrarian prosperity.


Spherically wondrous sunbeam
dwelling in the mansion
of the pine of chastity,
today we bought an ice pack
for Mildred's injured foot.
Luminous shadow
in the plumflower chamber,
Edna quit her job yesterday,
got drunk, stayed drunk,
behaved like a defective monster
collapsing in the mansion
of self-pity. Meanwhile,
the great sea of compassion
rolled in, rolled out, rolled in.
And the blue mountain
of itself remains,
and the blind shampooers
never tire of their work.

Meet the Author

James Tate was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1943. He is the author of seventeen books of poetry, including Worshipful Company of Fletchers, which won the National Book Award in 1994; Selected Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the William Carlos Williams Award in 1991; and The Lost Pilot, which was selected by Dudley Fitts for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. He has also published a novel and a collection of short stories, as well as edited The 1997 Best American Poetry Anthology. His honors include a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Poetry, the Tanning Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

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