My Great Great Etc. Uncle Patrick Henry

James Tate - 1943-2015
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.

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.

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.

Success Comes to Cow Creek

I sit on the tracks, 
a hundred feet from
earth, fifty from the
water. Gerald is
inching toward me
as grim, slow, and
determined as a
season, because he
has no trade and wants 
none. It's been nine months 
since I last listened 
to his fate, but I
know what he will say:
he's the fire hydrant
of the underdog.

When he reaches my
point above the creek,
he sits down without
salutation, and
spits profoundly out
past the edge, and peeks
for meaning in the
ripple it brings. He
scowls. He speaks: when you 
walk down any street 
you see nothing but
coagulations
of shit and vomit,
and I'm sick of it.
I suggest suicide;
he prefers murder, 
and spits again for 
the sake of all the 
great devout losers.

A conductor's horn 
concerto breaks the 
air, and we, two doomed 
pennies on the track, 
shove off and somersault 
like anesthetized 
fleas, ruffling the 
ideal locomotive 
poised on the water 
with our light, dry bodies. 
Gerald shouts 
terrifically as
he sails downstream like 
a young man with a 
destination. I 
swim toward shore as 
fast as my boots will 
allow; as always, 
neglecting to drown.