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The Argonaut

What made anyone think I was a Communist I don’t know.  I never went
to any of the Communist meetings.  I didn’t know any other Communists.
I didn’t believe in any of their tenets.  It’s true, I hunted elk in the
winter.  I never actually shot any, but I followed them.  And I laced my
cranberry juice with vodka.  But these things didn’t make me a Communist.
I stood on the bridge and watched the boats go out to sea.  I dreamed
of going with them one day.  I danced alone in my apartment.  I hated my
job with the government.  I went to parties where I didn’t know anyone.
I went to the zoo and talked to the animals.  I dreamed I had an affair
with a zebra and its stripes rubbed off on me.  I met a woman I
liked and called her on the phone.  She said she liked phone sex and I
didn’t know what she meant.  I lay on the couch and counted my blessings.
There were none, or so few they slipped through my fingers.  I got up and
looked out the window.  A cloud of sparrows flew by.  I made myself a can
of soup.  I thought of my relatives, all gone except for one.  I called
her on the phone.  She didn’t remember me.  I told her I was Edna’s son.
She said, “I remember Edna.  I never liked her.  She cursed too much.”
My mother never cursed, but I wasn’t about to argue.  I went to the movies.
I saw Hopalong Cassidy.  I wished he didn’t wave so much.  But I liked
the popcorn.  I walked about the city, feeding the pigeons.  I bought a
soda on the street.  I sat down in a garden.  A woman came along and sat
down beside me.  She said, “Nice day, isn’t it?”  I said, “Yes, very,
I like it.”  “What do you do for a living?” she said.  “I’m an accountant
in the government,” I said.  “That must be nice,” she said.  “But most
people I know think I’m a Communist,” I said.  “That’s a joke, right?”
she said.  “To me it is,” I said.  “To me, you look more like an
Argonaut,” she said.  “What’s an Argonaut?” I said.  “It’s somebody
who swims in the deep waters of the ocean in search of treasure,” she
said.  “I found a penny in my bathtub once when I was a kid,” I said.
“Then you’re an Argonaut,” she said.

—James Tate

Matthew Zapruder reads James Tate’s “The Argonaut”

Transcription of Commentary

James Tate died on July 8th, 2015, at the age of 71. This poem is from his final volume of poetry, The Government Lake. His life as a poet lasted nearly fifty years, since his first book, The Lost Pilot, won the Yale Younger Poets award when Jim was 22. Jim was my teacher at the MFA program at UMass Amherst, and later became a friend. I loved him and his poems dearly, and learned so much from him and them, and still do.

From his very earliest poems his voice was always completely present and appealing. It’s that thing great poets have, that you can’t exactly describe and can never imitate, not that you would want to. Jim was from the Midwest, and his poems have a straightforward, no bull, goofy, casually brilliant bemusement that is unmistakably American: a bit of Chaplin, or the hilarious victim Joseph Keaton, nicknamed Buster by Houdini when he fell down a flight of stairs at the age of three, along with some Will Rogers, the knowing vaudeville cowboy from Oologah, Oklahoma. 

There was always a storytelling impulse in Jim’s poems, even in the most wild and surreal. In his last several books, he fully embraced the possibilities of narrative, from shaggy dog stories to distracted stemwinders to ordinary rambles that turn sharply surreal. Most are written in the first person, and describe more or less ordinary situations that are constantly slipping into a dreamlike quasi-reality. You could almost add a paradox to a paradox and call them lineated prose poems.

Often in Jim’s poems, beyond the antic hilarity, there is also a sense of undefined dread, a gradual unraveling of the conventions we depend on, and our assumptions. This double consciousness, that whatever is “normal” barely covers up something deeper, wilder, stranger, more anarchic, and beyond our ordinary ken, strikes me as characteristic of much of the best of American literature.

As in “The Argonaut,” Jim’s poems often start with a premise, either mundane or absurd, as if the reader has wandered into an ongoing internal monologue. Here the speaker gently quarrels with the anachronistic accusation that he’s a communist. He examines his behaviors for signs, and makes a kind of haphazardly organized confession, at turns absurd and heartbreaking, not to being a communist, but something else. A confused lonely dreamer? It does seem a bit dangerous to be one of those these days.

It’s a tired truism to say that poems take things that are ordinary, mundane, small, ignorable, and transform them, making them feel full of magic and importance. Yet that is exactly what they sometimes do. And when it happens, as it does here with this small childhood memory and moment of connection between strangers, it can feel thrilling, sad, full of regret and hope and possibility, a representation of how our lives can feel suddenly meaningful in undeniable, unparaphrasable, fathomless ways.

James Tate, “The Argonaut” from The Government Lake.

Copyright © 2019.

Reprinted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins

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Matthew Zapruder

Matthew Zapruder

Read “Poem for Passengers” by Matthew Zapruder

Matthew Zapruder (1967- ) is the author of four poetry collections: Sun Bear (2014), Come On All You Ghosts (2010), The Pajamaist (2006), and American Linden (2002). He has also written a collection of poetry criticism, Why Poetry (2017); collaborated with painter Chris Uphues on For You in Full Bloom (2009); and co-translated, with historian Radu Ioanid, Romanian poet Eugen Jebeleanu’s last collection, Secret Weapon: Selected Late Poems (2008). Zapruder’s honors include the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, the May Sarton Prize from the Academy of American Arts and Letters, the Tupelo Press Editors Prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Lannan Foundation. He currently lives in Oakland, California, where he is an associate professor in the Saint Mary’s College of California MFA Program in Creative Writing, as well as editor at large for Wave Books. Photo credit: B.A. Van Sise.

James Tate

James Tate

James Tate (1942-2015) was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1942. He is the author of nearly 20 collections of poetry, including The Government Lake (2019); Dome of the Hidden Pavilion (2015); Worshipful Company of Fletchers (1994), winner of the National Book Award; and Selected Poems (1991), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the William Carlos Williams Award. Tate’s honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, and a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Poetry. A former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Tate was a distinguished professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst until his death in 2015.