Camp of No Return

James Tate - 1943-2015

      I sat in the old tree swing without swinging. My loafer had fallen off and I left it on the ground. My sister came running out of the house to tell me something. She said, "I'm going to camp tomorrow." I said, "I don't believe you." She said, "I am. It's a fact. Mother told me." We didn't speak for the rest of the day. I was mad at her for getting to do something I didn't. At dinner I asked mother what kind of camp it was. She said, "Oh, just a camp like any other." I didn't really know what that meant. The next day they got her ready to go, and then they drove off, leaving me with the neighbors. When they got back everything was normal, except I missed Maisie. And I missed her more each following day. I didn't know how much she had meant to me before. I asked my parents over and over how much longer it would be. All they said was soon. I told some kids at school how long my sister had been gone. One of them said, "She'll never be back. That's the death camp." When I got home I told my parents what that boy had said. "He doesn't know what he's talking about," my father said. But after a couple of more weeks of her absence I began to wonder. That's when they began to clean out Maisie's room. I said, "What are you doing?" You said Maise will be back soon." My mother said, "Maisie's not coming back. She likes it there better than she does here." "That's not true. I don't believe you," I said. My father gave me a look that let me know I might be next if I didn't mend my ways. I never said a word about Maisie again.

More by James Tate

The List of Famous Hats

Napoleon's hat is an obvious choice I guess to list as a famous hat, but that's not the hat I have in mind. That was his hat for show. I am thinking of his private bathing cap, which in all honesty wasn't much different than the one any jerk might buy at a corner drugstore now, except for two minor eccentricities. The first one isn't even funny: Simply it was a white rubber bathing cap, but too small. Napoleon led such a hectic life ever since his childhood, even farther back than that, that he never had a chance to buy a new bathing cap and still as a grown-up--well, he didn't really grow that much, but his head did: He was a pinhead at birth, and he used, until his death really, the same little tiny bathing cap that he was born in, and this meant that later it was very painful to him and gave him many headaches, as if he needed more. So, he had to vaseline his skull like crazy to even get the thing on. The second eccentricity was that it was a tricorn bathing cap. Scholars like to make a lot out of this, and it would be easy to do. My theory is simple-minded to be sure: that beneath his public head there was another head and it was a pyramid or something.

My Great Great Etc. Uncle Patrick Henry

There's a fortune to be made in just about everything 
in this country, somebody's father had to invent 
everything—baby food, tractors, rat poisoning. 
My family's obviously done nothing since the beginning 
of time. They invented poverty and bad taste
and getting by and taking it from the boss. 
O my mother goes around chewing her nails and 
spitting them in a jar: You shouldn't be ashamed 
of yourself she says, think of your family. 
My family I say what have they ever done but 
paint by numbers the most absurd and disgusting scenes 
of plastic squalor and human degradation.
Well then think of your great great etc. Uncle 
Patrick Henry.

The Lost Pilot

for my father, 1922-1944

Your face did not rot 
like the others--the co-pilot, 
for example, I saw him

yesterday. His face is corn-
mush: his wife and daughter, 
the poor ignorant people, stare

as if he will compose soon. 
He was more wronged than Job. 
But your face did not rot

like the others--it grew dark, 
and hard like ebony; 
the features progressed in their

distinction. If I could cajole 
you to come back for an evening, 
down from your compulsive

orbiting, I would touch you, 
read your face as Dallas, 
your hoodlum gunner, now,

with the blistered eyes, reads 
his braille editions. I would 
touch your face as a disinterested

scholar touches an original page. 
However frightening, I would 
discover you, and I would not

turn you in; I would not make 
you face your wife, or Dallas,
or the co-pilot, Jim. You

could return to your crazy 
orbiting, and I would not try 
to fully understand what

it means to you. All I know 
is this: when I see you, 
as I have seen you at least

once every year of my life, 
spin across the wilds of the sky 
like a tiny, African god,

I feel dead. I feel as if I were 
the residue of a stranger's life, 
that I should pursue you.

My head cocked toward the sky, 
I cannot get off the ground, 
and, you, passing over again,

fast, perfect, and unwilling 
to tell me that you are doing 
well, or that it was mistake

that placed you in that world, 
and me in this; or that misfortune 
placed these worlds in us.

Related Poems

Porch Swing in September

The porch swing hangs fixed in a morning sun
that bleaches its gray slats, its flowered cushion
whose flowers have faded, like those of summer,
and a small brown spider has hung out her web
on a line between porch post and chain
so that no one may swing without breaking it.
She is saying it’s time that the swinging were done with,
time that the creaking and pinging and popping
that sang through the ceiling were past,
time now for the soft vibrations of moths,
the wasp tapping each board for an entrance,
the cool dewdrops to brush from her work
every morning, one world at a time.