Santa Claus and lederhosen


Down the chimney came old Saint Nick, which
was weird, because it was noon on a hot July day.

—from James Tate’s “The Special Guest”

Everyday people in the midst of bizarre events populate James Tate’s poems in his newest collection, return to the city of white donkeys (Harper Collins, 2004). Pulitzer prize-winner Tate, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, teamed up with U Mass colleague and poet Dara Wier on Thursday night for a reading from their respective collections. The mostly student audience filed into Rosenwald 405 and filled up on Rajun Cajun and red wine at 5:30 p.m.; the poets, detained by flight delays, arrived an hour later.

Sharing from her collection Remnants of Hannah and a book-length poem, Reverse Rapture, Wier peppered the reading with personal anecdotes. After seeing a baby in a stroller left alone in a parking lot, Wier mused, for the first time in her life, “I thought I could steal.” This baby, with “no one in earshot patrolling or guarding,” inspired a character in her poem “Limestone of the continent consists of Infinite Masses.” Another poem, “That Vagrant Minstrel,” is written in the voice of her daughter’s Chinese friend who moved to Amherst with her family at age two. Her parents’ plan, Wier explained, was to put her through university and then return to China. The poem expresses Wier’s concern about the girl, who knew her parents would be leaving: “I no longer had friends, no sister, no brother / They left me no instructions.”

Wier proclaimed she has a love-hate relationship with prose poems and often writes in fragments and lists; Tate takes a different approach. To control the length, he limits each poem to one page, which, he says, can lead to “very cramped pages.” Deadpan, Tate read a selection of poems, each drawing laughs. In “The Rules,” a hold-up in a candy store is thwarted because the owner asserts the “candy store protection plan.” In “The Radish,” a trip through a supermarket produce aisle brings about a strange turn of events in which the narrator, after being “jostled” and “rammed” by other shoppers, is separated from his cart and encounters “a man dressed in lederhosen and an alpine hat.” Remarking that his poems seemed long when read aloud, Tate concluded, “I think that’s good.”

Ruthie Kott

Photos: Tate reads from his work (top) then chats with students (bottom) after the reading.

March 30, 2007