James Tate: “The Cowboy”
At least since Freud, jokes have been regarded as shortcuts to the unconscious. They reveal the sunny parts of even our darkest and most worrisome fears and desires. If “told” jokes are expressly linguistic revelations, “practical” jokes—performances that are funny at someone else’s expense—often require some explanation. Perhaps this is what can make them especially cutting. Sometimes it’s even funnier for everyone else if the target of the practical joke is confused, angry, or embarrassed—in these cases, the audience’s laughter is underwritten by the subject’s distress.
After attending a recent James Tate reading, I almost felt like the butt of such a practical joke. Sitting in an auditorium surrounded by uproarious laughter, I couldn’t help wonder why I wasn’t guffawing too. Maybe the joke was on me, or maybe I’m a bit of a grump. Though Tate is known for infusing his poems with a dry, absurdist humor, certainly not all of his poems are met with laughter: “The Lost Pilot,” from his 1967 debut book of the same name, reads like an elegy. It is dedicated to his father, a pilot who died in World War II while Tate was still a baby. I can’t imagine anyone laughing at this poem; in fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone not touched when reading lines dedicated to a lost father: “it was mistake / that placed you in that world / and me in this; or that misfortune / placed these worlds in us.”
But maybe Tate’s mastery lies in his ability to make readers laugh and cry, and in his penchant for constructing offhandedly dramatic transitions between those two most outwardly legible and nonverbal of human emotional responses. “The Cowboy,” a poem from Tate’s 2008 collection The Ghost Soldiers, begins with its speaker believing that a practical joke has been played on him: “Someone had spread an elaborate rumor about me, that I was / in possession of an extraterrestrial being.” But after this statement, the poem swiftly moves into deeper, and darker, territory. The poem’s jokey opening suddenly sets up a domestic situation involving an alien that is related to the kind of humor we find in sitcoms such as Alf and American Dad, not to mention the otherworldly schmaltz of a film like E.T.; all the fooling around aside, the poem ultimately reads like a late transposition, into a slightly sunnier key, of the themes that appear in “The Lost Pilot,” a poem that anchors the beginning of the poet’s career. In both poems, Tate writes about the ways in which fathers and sons can and can’t connect, about the family situations that reduce us to tears, that prompt us to wistfully chuckle, and that make us wonder how we manage to feel seemingly disparate emotions at the same time.
The poem’s opening conceit is of a practical joke that has taken hold of an entire community, and it is pretty funny. The speaker comes across as hapless, having finally succumbed (he thinks) to one of his friend Roger Lawson’s infamous pranks. Resigning himself to his fate, the speaker becomes a figure of fun, and it’s easy to imagine ourselves, as readers, among the curious numbers camped outside his house to see the alien:
Roger was a practical joker of the
worst sort, and up till now I had not been one of his victims, so
I kind of knew my time had come. People parked in front of my
house for hours and took pictures. I had to draw all my blinds
and only went out when I had to.
The first hint that something other than pure comedy is afoot, however, comes when the speaker chooses to announce the death of the “extraterrestrial” to the assembled crowds as a way of getting them to disperse: “‘The little fellow died peacefully in his sleep at 11:02 / last night,’” the speaker says, even inventing the manner of death: “‘He went up in smoke instantly.’” This is an act of deflation, a use of mortality to put an end to foolishness.
But to the speaker’s chagrin, invoking death seems to have the opposite effect: when he returns home from buying groceries he finds a “nearly transparent fellow with large pink eyes standing about three feet tall.” The community, and their laughter, are noticeably absent from this scene. The speaker is alone in his domestic space with the alien, and, no longer gawkers, we feel as though we are brought into the scene with them. It’s no coincidence that this is the point when the poem becomes poignant and starts to tack toward heartbreak.
This shift in the poem can remind us how differently emotional effects can play out in public and private settings. An event that seems like an occasion for laughter when we are in the presence of other people can suddenly feel much more serious or touching when we are alone and at our most vulnerable. Think about the difference in hearing a poem such as “The Cowboy” read in public and reading it privately at home. In the public setting, laughter provides not only a commonality but also a kind of armor against uncomfortable emotions—it’s so much easier to laugh together than to cry together. Perhaps a preference for tears is also a preference for privacy, and for the private effects that lyric poetry can achieve. These are the effects that drive us back to our favorite books of poems when we want solace or dark humor. They are effects that do not, unfortunately, thrive in the busy air of common spaces; they are the ones we seek to enact when we are alone and read a poem out loud to ourselves.
Alone with the extraterrestrial, the speaker accesses an emotionally generous, and even kindly paternal, side of his personality that seems to take him by surprise. The shock of finding an alien in his kitchen morphs into regard for the creature’s well-being: despite the inevitable attention that such an adventure would bring, he begins to entertain his new friend’s request to go on a journey to meet cowboys like the ones he has seen on television (“‘I’m going to get the maps / out,’ I said. ‘We’ll see how we could get there, . . .’”) and even offers him orange juice instead of sarsaparilla because “‘It’s good for you.’” We see a portrait of the hopes and hardships of parenthood as seen in a fun-house mirror: by the poem’s end the caregiver (the speaker) will have become the disappointed child, and the child (alien), unafraid of his coming death, will find himself relying on the power of imagination to comfort his temporary father. Rather than make the speaker laugh or cry, this reversal of expectations seems to pin him between the two, leaving him in a place where seemingly contradictory emotional responses overlap.
By allowing himself to grow an emotional attachment to the alien, the speaker inscribes himself in a cycle of emotions linked to the mysteries of mortality. We can feel his excitement as he goes to look for maps of Wyoming or Montana, imagining what it will be like to travel the American West with this strange visitor and his fresh experience of the culture and landscape; we can also imagine a boy of Tate’s generation eagerly hoping that his father might take him to meet cowboys like the ones that he’s seen in Westerns.
All this makes the news that the trip has been called off particularly devastating. Just when he was getting used to his role as the alien’s surrogate, terrestrial father, he learns that his adopted son has been called to death by his father. Roger Lawson’s practical joke has turned out in some ways to be a cruel one. “I stood there with the maps in my / hand. I felt an unbearable sadness come over me,” the speaker reports upon learning that his research was done in vain. In the context of “The Lost Pilot” and the larger trajectory of Tate’s work, we can read “The Cowboy” as a late, oblique acceptance of the disappointments that result from having been born the son of a father who was called to death in war, a father who must remain forever unknowable—which is to say, the disappointments that result from having been born at all, given that our parents are never completely knowable, no matter how much time with them we are granted or how determined we are to know them better. The poem’s basic conceit—having an alien stand in for a child—allows us to engage these emotions with a degree of distance, to laugh at the seemingly ridiculous and arbitrary way in which each of us is part of a generation of mortal creatures, destined to replace those who came before us and to be replaced by those who come in our wake. In this essential way we are not unlike the alien, and like him we will one day leave a world, and loved ones, that we never have the chance to know well enough.
How moving, then, that the alien surmises that his real father is calling him to his death not as punishment but for having succeeded in his mission, for arriving safely and meeting the speaker. This true extraterrestrial “father” is perhaps the most mysterious figure in the poem, an unabashedly deity-like presence who decides when his children must die without having to explain anything in human, or even alien, terms: “‘Why must you die?’ I said. ‘Father decides these things. It is probably / my reward for coming here safely and meeting you.’” Though he is not exactly sure why his father has called him back, the alien confronts his destiny with grace and even humor. After all, when the speaker encounters him after going to look for the maps, he finds him “dancing on the kitchen table, a sort of ballet, but very sad.” In this one inexplicable gesture, the extraterrestrial seems to express the confounding straits in which he—like all of us—finds himself at the end of his short stay: elated for having had the opportunity, sad to see it pass.
Certain kinds of laughter and humor can seem to express an appreciation for cruelty beneath a giddy surface. Practical jokes, above all, hint at this troubling aspect of our souls. And yet in this poem, which starts out silly and ends up touching, a wiser kind of humor takes center stage and dances sadly on the table. Laughter exists in a spectrum of emotions, reactions, and deeds, kindness and charity among them. Desperate to get the alien to stay, the speaker protests, “‘But I was going to take you to meet a real cowboy,’” to which the alien responds, “‘Let’s pretend you are my cowboy.’” This generous act of imagination on the part of the alien, of pretending, is offered as refuge, a mitigating circumstance between the extremes of joy and despair. Poetry and stories can also offer such a refuge. Parents and children, and poets and aliens, are created as if by design to leave one another too soon. This is what made the particularly sad circumstances that underwrote “The Lost Pilot” universally applicable and unfortunately ripe material for beautiful poetry. It’s also what makes readers of a poem about a practical joke and an alien burst into both laughter and tears.