Reading: Cryptozoa by James Tate

Today a 1969 poem by Missouri-born James Tate (1943-2014) who once said that “If you laughed earlier in the poem, and I bring you close to tears in the end, that’s the best.” I read this poem because it shows the magic of language and absurdity that Tate handled well:

I wish the stone lady would come to me.
Parakeet or no parakeet
the night is a vial of lighterfluid.
And I have been good, composing the perishable song
of my childhood: one dollar, one frond
meekly but loyally exploding the oath of circles.
I have been the best wound a diamond ever knew.

But what can I do for you? Write an encyclopedia
to which the least gnat could gain entrance?
I love you and I do not love you, perambulating utensils,
street names. An old man is giving mirrors
to a young girl. The meek have inherited the flypaper.
The past is more present than this moment.
I am drinking at a spring, my skin
is red and white. A little burning sensation,
a little joy I leave forever.

Oh well, I keep singing: I sing the song
of utensils, and there is one of street names,
and one of the names of dead pets.
The next day I am giving mirrors to a young girl.
I give free shoes for life to a stone lady.
She walks on air, she walks near the earth
in a region called the cryptosphere.

I can stare at the opening lines for a long time without having the slightest clue what they ‘mean’. Stone lady? Parakeet? Vial? The image I get is the declared “I” writing painful stuff about his childhood (Tate’s father died in WW II and he grew up with he mother and grandparents, but I don’t know about his childhood). He is an intense fellow, declaring that he was ‘in heaven’ and some poets ‘destroyed’ him, but also that he wouldn’t write about himself. Anyway, we can see how he is writing in the night.

Poetry was a ‘private space’ for Tate, he wouldn’t write an encyclopedia. I allow myself the interpretation that the fronds (segments of his childhood story from stanza 1) return here in the “I love you and I do not love you”. His mind is spinning. The gnats give rise to the flypaper, the encyclopedia to the presence of the past. The “joy I leave forever”: does it mean he leaves forever or he leaves the joy?

We get a little bit more sense from the third part. “Oh well” is ambiguous: He was talking about a spring. He sings about the useful things and the names now, the cryptic contents of our everyday world, the symbols we are so familiar with that make us feel at home. And giving out mirrors to a young girl, passing on the joy of self-reflection to the next generation. He does it ‘the next day’, but also hands out free shoes to a stone lady. If Mr. Tate wasn’t stoned himself when he wrote this, what did he want to say with the cryptosphere and its inhabitants the cryptozoa? Is this poem really about making peace with yourself and your mortality, so that once you pass on the gift of self-reflection and sing in contentment, you can ‘leave forever’ and walk off with the stone lady.

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