Retroduction to American History

By Allen Tate 1899–1979 Allen Tate
Cats walk the floor at midnight; that enemy of fog,   
The moon, wraps the bedpost in receding stillness; sleep
Collects all weary nothings and lugs away the towers,
The pinnacles of dust that feed the subway.

What stiff unhappy silence waits on sleep
Struts like an officer; tongues next-door bewitch   
Themselves with divination; I like a melancholy oaf   
Beg the nightly pillow with impossible loves.   
And abnegation folds hands, crossed like the knees   
Of the complacent tailor, stitches cloaks of mercy   
To the backs of obsessions.

                                  Winter like spring no less   
Tolerates the air; the wild pheasant meets innocently   
The gun; night flouts illumination with meagre impudence.
In such serenity of equal fates, why has Narcissus   
Urged the brook with questions? Merged with the element
Speculation suffuses the meadow with drops to tickle   
The cow’s gullet; grasshoppers drink the rain.   
Antiquity breached mortality with myths.
Narcissus is vocabulary. Hermes decorates
A cornice on the Third National Bank. Vocabulary   
Becomes confusion, decoration a blight; the Parthenon
In Tennessee stucco, art for the sake of death. Now   
(The bedpost receding in stillness) you brush your teeth
“Hitting on all thirty-two;” scholarship pares   
The nails of Catullus, sniffs his sheets, restores   
His “passionate underwear;” morality disciplines the other
Person; every son-of-a-bitch is Christ, at least Rousseau;
Prospero serves humanity in steam-heated universities, three
Thousand dollars a year. Simplicity, Flamineo, is obscene;
Sunlight topples indignant from the hill.
In every railroad station everywhere every lover   
Waits for his train. He cannot hear. The smoke   
Thickens. Ticket in hand, he pumps his body   
Toward lower six, for one more terse ineffable trip,   
His very eyeballs fixed in disarticulation. The berth   
Is clean; no elephants, vultures, mice or spiders   
Distract him from nonentity: his metaphors are dead.

More sanitation is enough, enough remains: dreams   
Do not end—lucidities beyond the stint of thought.   
For intellect is a mansion where waste is without drain;
A corpse is your bedfellow, your great-grandfather dines
With you this evening on a cavalry horse. Intellect   
Connives with heredity, creates fate as Euclid geometry
By definition:
            
          The sunlit bones in your house   
          Are immortal in the titmouse,   
          They trip the feet of grandma   
          Like an afterthought each day.   
          These unseen sunlit bones,
          They may be in the cat
          That startles them in grandma   
          But look at this or that
          They meet you every way.

For Pelops’ and Tantalus’ successions were at once simpler,
If perplexed, and less subtle than you think. Heredity
Proposes love, love exacts language, and we lack   
Language. When shall we speak again? When shall   
The sparrow dusting the gutter sing? When shall   
This drift with silence meet the sun? When shall I wake?

Allen Tate, “Retroduction to American History” from The Collected Poems 1919-1976. Copyright © 1960, 1965 by Allen Tate. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, www.fsgbooks.com. All rights reserved. Caution: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Source: Selected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1932)

 Allen  Tate

Biography

Allen Tate was a well-known man of letters from the American South, a central figure in the fields of poetry, criticism, and ideas. In the course of a career spanning the middle decades of the twentieth century, Tate authored poems, essays, translations, and fiction. Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor James T. Jones wrote that his "influence was prodigious, his circle of acquaintances immense." Tate relished his "man . . .

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