The Lost Pilot

By James Tate b. 1943 James Tate

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.

James Tate, “The Lost Pilot” from Selected Poems. Copyright © 1991 by James Tate. Reprinted with the permission of Wesleyan University Press.

Source: Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 1991)

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Poet James Tate b. 1943

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Subjects Family & Ancestors, Living, Social Commentaries, Relationships, Disappointment & Failure, Sorrow & Grieving, Life Choices, Death

Poetic Terms Elegy