James Tate, a highly imaginative poet, died on July 8 after a long illness. Sad to lose such a genius. And so many wonderful poems, but this is one of my favorites. The enjoyment starts with the title!
By James Tate
A vagabond is a newcomer
in a heap of trouble.
He’s an eyeball at a peephole
that should be electrocuted.
He’s a leper in a textile mill
and likely to be beheaded, I mean,
given a liverwurst sandwich
on the break by the brook
where the loaves are sliced.
But he oughtn’t meddle
with the powder puffs on the golf links—
they have their own goats to tame,
dirigibles to situate.
He can act like an imbecile
if the climate is propitious,
a magnate of kidnap
paradising around the oily depot,
or a speck from a distant nebula
wishing to purchase a certain skyscraper ….
Well, if it’s permitted, then
let’s regulate him, let’s testify
against his thimble, and moderate his gloves
before they sew an apron.
The local minister is thinking
of moving to Holland, exchanging
his old ballads for some lingerie.
“Zatso!” says the vagabond.
Homeless, like wheat that tattletales
on the sermon, like wages swigged.
“Zatso, zatso, zatso!” cries the vagabond.
The minister reels under the weight
of his thumbs, the vagabond seems to have
jutted into his kernel, disturbed
his terminal core. Slowly, and with
trifling dignity, the minister removes
from his lapel his last campaign button:
Don’t Mess with Raymond, New Hampshire.
James Tate, “A Vagabond” from Selected Poems. Copyright © 1991 by James Tate. Reprinted with the permission of Wesleyan University Press.