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In the front all the weapons were
loaded. We sat there in the dark with 
not so much as a whisper. We could hear
sounds outside—skirrs, rasps, the occasional 
yap, ting. We were alert, perhaps, too
alert. Ready to shoot a fly for just 
being a fly. When you don’t sleep you
start to hallucinate and that’s not good.
One night this crazy notion started to 
possess me: I said, “Who are our enemies 
anyhow? We don’t have any enemies. What
are we doing here? We should be with our
families doing what families do. I’m laying
down this gun and I’m leaving right now.”
I knew there was a chance that one of them
might shoot me. Instead they all laid down 
their guns and we walked right out into the moon-
lit night, frightened, now, only of ourselves.

—James Tate

Amy Gerstler on James Tate’s “Wild Beasts”

Transcription of Commentary

This is a poem by James Tate, entitled “Wild Beasts”. I found it in an anthology called State of The Union: 50 Political Poems, which was published by Wave Books. The reader is Amy Gerstler.

So that’s the poem. We’ve been asked to contribute a little commentary. I know this project is related to the fluctuating idea of an American identity. One of the many things that moves me about this poem is it does not limit the idea of American identity to being American. America is, as we were all taught in elementary school, a melting pot. There are no countries named in this poem, there are no religious groups named in this poem. The speaker is a kind of everyman, every-citizen, who’s suffering for being a soldier and eventually lays down his weapon, and—in a kind of domino effect—everyone lays down their weapons. He’s thinking about the value of individual life and about the different kinds of fears we have and how it’s scary enough to be a human and to try and live and survive and lead a decent life. We don’t need to construct the added fears of trying to kill each other. So that’s my commentary. That’s the great James Tate poem “Wild Beasts.”

“Wild Beasts” James Tate from State of the Union: 50 Political Poems.

Wave Books, 2008.

By permission of the author.

Related Resources

Amy Gerstler

Amy Gerstler

Read “Womanishness” by Amy Gerstler

Amy Gerstler (1956- ) was born in California and attended both Pitzer and Bennington Colleges. She is the author of over a dozen poetry collections, two works of fiction, as well as essays and reviews. She received the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry for her collection Bitter Angel (1991), and her Dearest Creature (2009) was named a “Notable Book of the Year” by The New York Times. Photo Credit: Brian Tucker.

Learn more about Amy Gerstler at The Poetry Foundation

James Tate

James Tate

James Tate (1943-) was born in Missouri and educated at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is the author of twenty-five poetry collections—including The Eternal Ones of the Dream: Selected Poems 1990-2010 (2012) and Selected Poems (1991), which won the Pulitzer Prize—and several prose works. His many honors include the National Book Award, the Wallace Stevens Award, and fellowships with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he teaches at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Photo Credit: Stephen Long.

Learn more about James Tate at The Poetry Foundation