His later work, written in prose, mixing realistic and fantastic elements, is made up of little stories full of poetry that tend to be as concise and tightly structured as verse. It didn’t make any difference to Tate what one called these pieces. He worked on them obsessively even in his final years when he was in poor health and often in great pain.
The amazing thing about Tate, who died in 2015 at 71, is that he kept his sense of humor right to the end. Not once in our weekly phone calls over the years did he complain about his health. Tragedy and comedy shared the same stage in the poems he was writing — as they do in puppet shows and slapstick vaudeville routines. He continually juggled the two, never failing to remind his readers that life is full of absurd predicaments.
The following piece is excerpted from his final collection, “The Government Lake.”
My pet seahorse was acting sick this morning. He must have eaten something that didn’t agree with him. I thought of taking him to the doctor, but couldn’t find one who would see him. I looked up seahorses in a medical textbook and it suggested mouth-to-mouth respiration. So I reached in his aquarium and pulled him out. I placed my mouth on his and put my thumb and forefinger on his abdomen and started breathing on his mouth. I squeezed my thumb and forefinger back and forth as I breathed. After a while I started to fill with gas. I looked down and my body had grown enormous. I started to rise away from the seahorse towards the ceiling. I bounced around until I finally went out the window. I rose in the sky and floated around until I went to the sea. I started to lose altitude and crashed in the waves below. I started swimming towards shore. A boat came along and picked me up. The captain asked me what I was doing there so far from shore. I hated to tell him the truth, but I did. “A seahorse breathed in my mouth,” I said. “You’re lucky to be alive. That’s a terrible thing, there’s nothing worse,” he said. “But he was sick. I was trying to save him,” I said. “He was faking it. He was just trying to lure you in,” he said. “Really? I feel so stupid,” I said. “Well, at least you’re alive. A lot of great men died like that. Jesus, Napoleon,” he said. “Jesus? Jesus died breathing the breath of a seahorse?” I said. “Sure. They had to cover that up, of course. That wouldn’t do for the savior of mankind,” he said. “I don’t feel so bad now. Thanks for telling me,” I said. “Oh, you’re in good company, all right,” he said.
“The Seahorse” is reprinted from “The Government Lake,” by James Tate. Copyright 2019 by James Tate. Reprinted with permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Charles Simic won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1990, for “The World Doesn’t End,” and served as the U.S. poet laureate from 2007 to 2008.