Poetry Book Review: Hell, I Love Everybody

Poetry Book Review: Hell, I Love Everybody

Sure, a fever dream. Absurdism, related—in time and space and feeling—to DeLillo’s White Noise, which I read last month. But sometimes clear, or clear enough. Hell, I Love Everybody: The Essential James Tate was not a collected book of poetry like I would expect. I mean, its meanings were hidden enough (sometimes so deep I did not bother to dig further for them), but these poems are not achingly beautiful or even heavy with saturated object-ness, if that makes sense. Not technicolor. In fact, Tate often wanders into dialogue and into prose-poem-territory. I appreciated the book. I laughed now and again. I think older people would probably find (or found) more footholds in his stuff (by which I largely mean a generational feeling), more places to relate to Tate. But it’s still interesting poetry, still well-written, as least in the moments where I didn’t feel out of my depth as a reader and reviewer.

James Tate was a well-loved and well-lauded freeverse poet who was published at 23 and kept writing and being a poet until he died in 2015. Hell, I Love Everybody is a slim collection of Tate’s most beloved poems (though not at all comprehensive), recently published, kicking off with a poem titled “Hell, I Love Everybody,” a quote from a laid-back Jesus. The poems are no longer than three small pages a piece, full of trippy characters and nonsensical interactions woven with meaningful musings and jump-off-the-page turns of phrase. Many of the thoughts end at conscious-adjacent; the shadow you’re left with instead is emotion: fear, revulsion, sadness, nostalgia, confusion, wistfulness, hilarity, wonder…

It is poetry month. I gave you some recommendations at the beginning of this month and told you that I would be reading a new collection of classic James Tate with one of my book clubs. I had never read James Tate (that I could remember). (During the month, I happened to acquire a few more books of poetry, And Yet Held by T. de los Reyes, What Pecan Light by Han Vanderhart, Lovebirds by Hananah Zaheer, and If We Had a Lemon We’d Throw It and Call That the Sun by Christopher Citro. They are all small, indie books that I will be reviewing for you eventually.)

The foreward in this book describes Tate’s poems in this way: “He was a ventriloquist and witness.” It also uses the words bizarre, mythic, absurd, quotidian, diurnal, surreal, and sometimes nightmarish. There are only enough poems to read one a week for a year, but it is a carefully curated (three years of thought and debate) book of “beloved favorites.”

It is often more prose than poetry (even sacrificing lyrical beauty for content and for a point (like repeating the same line till the bottom of the page)), some (absurd) storytelling, and even repeat characters (and phrases such as “hell,…”). Lots of conversations with fantastical things and animals. Tate uses stand-in words frequently (felisberto, mergatroid (which came first, the Tate poem or Yogi Bear?)), like a Lewis Carrol poem. Even gets to sound Shel Silverstein at times.

While there’s a genius to the foreward by Terrance Hayes (in how very James Tate-ish it is—What’s real? What’s the truth in fiction clothing?), I would have liked some clarity and straightforward exposition in the book to anchor my thoughts. Also, I find it mystifying that there is not one lick of biographical info between the covers, as if an About the Author or short bio—or even mentioning anything about the man in the foreward—would have broken faith with the James Tate club that this book seems to be compiled for. Honestly, it just would have helped me understand if allusions were before or after (were the poems referencing something else or was life referencing them?) and what historical events and cultural markers Tate was writing about. His contemporaries had that much at least when they were reading the poems (and short stories) the first time: it’s not something that was meant to be hidden, guys.

My favorites from this book are:

  • “Never Again the Same”
  • “Toads Talking by a River”
  • “The Bookclub”
  • “Of Whom Am I Afraid?”
  • “A Largely Questioning Article Offering Few Answers”
  • “The Ice Cream Man”
  • “The War Next Door”

So with a little understanding that you’ll have to come to on your own, you can probably read your way through these poems either in an afternoon or in 52 trips to the bathroom. Or read one a week for a year and then go to the James Tate site and poke around, notice that the poem index has hundreds and hundreds of poems, look for a few of his recorded readings on the internet, consider listening to the poems in the car…

James Tate was an American poet. He came out of the Iowa creative writing program, was published early, and was a poet through and through. He won some top awards, including the Pulitzer, the William Carlos Williams Award, and National Book Award. He taught in an MFA program and ended up with 19 volumes of poetry and other books that included one (co-written) novel. He was born during WWII and it looks like his dad died the next year in the war. Tate died in 2015.

“You are the stranger / who gets stranger by the hour” (p7, “Consumed”).

“We are playing the same song and no one has ever heard anything” (p10, “Read the Great Poets”).

“They get home. That’s all that matters to tme. They get home. They get home alive” (p10, “Read the Great Poets”).

“’Frogs in the Dark, Lily / pads in the Dark, Pond in the Dark. Just as / many things exist in the dark as they do in / the light’” (p22, “The Painter of the Night”).

“’You regret / everything, I bet. You came here / with a crude notion of righting / all that was wrong with your own / bitter childhood, but you have become / your own father—cruel, taunting— / who had become his father, and so on’” (p28, “Worshipful Company of Fletchers”).

“I thought it was going to be / an awful party, but I just told the truth whenever I was spoken / to, and people thought I was hilariously funny” (p34, “The Formal Invitation”).

“The wind makes a salad / of the countryside…” (p84, “Pastoral Scene”).

“…the / river is a truck in / a hurry” (p84, “Pastoral Scene”).

“Danger invites / rescue—I call it loving” (p93, “Rescue”).