The Ghost Soldiers
James Tate
Ecco Books, $14.99 (paper)

In a seemingly absurd but all-too-recognizable world where the government repossesses homes for “strategic reasons,” characters spend their personal savings on a scrap of fire-resistant cloth thought to be a vestige of Jesus’ robe, and a canary learns to read Moby-Dick, the basic obstacle to happiness is formulated thus: “We have strayed from God’s embrace.” In his seventeenth collection, James Tate’s characteristic M.O. is intact: casually enjambed verse-prose stanzas marrying the narrative apotheosis of microfiction to the fatigued hope of a Shakespearean monologue. A faux-documentary account of the speaker’s desperado-like conversations about the war (what war?), most of these efforts result in intensified paranoia. Like the Native Americans of his poem “The Native Americans,” who arise, en masse, out of the ground to reclaim their native land, the guerilla soldier point-of-view that pervades this collection stands as a testimonial not to bystander apathy, but survivor’s guilt, wherein stragglers are ordered shot by “the captain,” and moments of other-recognition in the eyes of “the enemy” haunt the speaker’s conscience: “Don’t you think I’ve suffered enough?” one vanquished enemy, a monster named Liverpill, pleads. Those not charmed by The Ghost Soldiers’ premise will not last long in this lengthy meta-argument for civil disobedience: the narrator’s hard-won ingenuousness is as hilarious as it is unflagging. (New Formalists: look elsewhere for your villanelles.) After a lifetime of battle, all the while not knowing “which side [he] is on,” the speaker has this to say about the war to end all wars: “It’s true, we live in restless, unpredictable times, but you still have to go on being a human being . . . . I strive for enlightenment, but what is that, really? A peek through the cracks of the castle wall? A carrot is just a carrot, and a man is just a man waiting for the next thing to happen. But a pig that can count to ten is a thing of glory.”