David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: 21 Poems That Shaped America (Pt. 5): “The Lost Pilot”

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I suppose it’s justifiable to describe war poetry in quasi-literary terms because when you read it, it’s partly a clash between jingoism and cutting documentary: first you see gambit and stratagem and its aftermath and then you are taken by brutality and loss. I’ve been wondering about a quieter sort of war poem that shudders with moral nuance. Not quite home front hostility in the manner of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Roosters” or Yannis Ritson’s “Women”—but one where the epicenter is in privacy and remembrance.

It is from this spirit, of retrospection and restoration, that James Tate shaped an American view of the discreet memorial, one we often short-hand with the salutation, Gold Star family. I say shaped because Tate draws upon the death of his father in World War II to characterize the hauntings of parentage, familial and national. In “The Lost Pilot,” the dead dwells like an hulk without end. Distinct from the disguise of breast-beating patriotism, Tate’s portrayal of private trouble from public violence is generous and poignant:

THE LOST PILOT

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.

Forget Tate’s sense of living like debris, of possessing a spirit that is part remnant, part surplus. Forget his marooned psyche. Forget his argument that his essential nature is stranded, high and dry. Instead, watch how he strives for the tone of a castaway searching for evenhandedness when his cherished crisis of American warfare is relayed to us as “misfortune.” This is a fair-minded, scrupulous, and virtuous characterization as you are likely to find. With all the heavy work done in this country to translate every war into a good war, a just war, one wonders why Tate doesn’t settle there. Why aren’t the forces of militarism defeating the forces of grief? Why is the cheap jingoism of an aggressive foreign policy no match for his imagined reality?

We are certainly in “The Lost Pilot” not in the realm of the “windiest militant trash” criticized by W.H. Auden. Nor are we in the oratorical whiz of Winston Churchill, who paid service to those who render service to their country “but whose names will never be known, whose deeds never.. recorded… the Unknown Warriors.” Nor are we near the prophecy of Robert Gregory in W. B. Yeats’s “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” as the tragic pilot replaces the elegiac poet to offer a living tribute to his own death, shifting from a feeling of “delight” to the clarity of the “waste” of life. As for American antecedents—one thinks of Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” where the gunner emerges, as if from dream, into the life of his death or Richard Eberhart’s “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment” or Richard Wilbur’s “First Snow in Alsace” or Anthony Hecht’s sestina, “The Book of Yolek,” about entering for the first time the German death camps. Moreover, we are far removed from the failures of the treaty of Paris following the end of World War I, from the devastation of European economies and extreme nationalism between the wars, from the unrest and rise of dictatorships in Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union, or from the failure of appeasement after Germany surrounded Czechoslovakia in 1938.

lost-pilot

The best argument for Tate’s turn in the poem from standard-issue afterthought to chimerical vision, from calm to ravenousness, from serenity to myth, is that “The Lost Pilot” cradles the fabulism worthy of hallucination:

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.

This is high sentiment, and no doubt Tate, who died in 2015, had his opinions about war. When Charles Simic asked Tate about his father’s parents in The Paris Review in 1984, he says—

They died, my mother likes to say, of grief very shortly after my father died. The father was a one-legged zookeeper in Kansas City. He had diabetes and lost his leg. I only have the faintest memory of him. No one on his side of the family has ever contacted me. Ever. I’ve waited all these years thinking there must be somebody out there and surely they’d like to meet me, but I’ve never heard from a soul.

What is terribly heartbreaking about this biographical detail is its singularity: it is nitty-gritty, it is the low down, it is the score. And it spotlights how much “The Lost Pilot” does involve a trek into a tender purpose. Tate is deliberately hurt. Also: evil is bleary. Therefore he risks the cliche of grief and one-sided love, situated in a national drama of destructiveness and heroism. The poem’s sentiment is a long way from the sagas and epics and soap operas of battlefield poetry or patriotic worship songs. Dispiritedness is all. That could be one allure of a poem like this, namely, to reshape domestic paranoia, to disinfect valor. If Tate’s father is martyr to a cause, his son is not giving him to us.

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This is part five of a twenty-one part series. Here are links to parts 1,  23, and 4. These pieces will appear every two weeks. We value your feedback and your suggestions for other pieces to be included in this list of poems which shaped, and continue to shape, America.


David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Charming Gardeners and The Book of Men and Women, which was named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. His book of essays A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns on Poetry received the Frances Fuller Victor Award. More from this author →