By: JD DeHart
When I share James Tate poems with my students, they give me the same quizzical expression I am sure I had on my face when I first read “An Eland in Retirement.” After all, I was not too far-removed from their ages the first time I encountered the verses. When it comes to Tate, the quizzical expression, the search for some meaning, is part of the joy of reading.
The poem begins with what sounds like a set of facts lifted from a nature documentary, and then moves the location from Africa to New Jersey in a matter of the first eight lines. The images of daily consumer life and portraits of Africa arrive in a surprising juxtaposition, followed by exploration of the lives of the Eisenhowers and the Trumans.
It is as if opening a window and observing multiple quadrants of the same universe, then the confession: “I am the last/eland” in lines 39-40. Here, the speaker of the poem is revealed to be the phantom eland. The reader begins to get the picture of this anthropomorphized animal, who has moved to America and taken interest in its strange culture.
Topics range from Henry Adams to egg noodles, lobsters to impalas. The failed dates of the eland are mentioned. Toward the poem’s conclusion, the reader gets a tragic portrait once more of the eland, a creature lifted from its native wild to live a mundane life of trivia.
The last five lines of the poem feature the same juxtaposition introduced at the beginning: Images of the exotic followed by a brief statement about the beige political landscape of the newer country. Only after the reader has spent time mulling over the poem does he or she get the impression of the person underneath, the speaker, who has opened life up for our eyes on the page.
“An Eland in Retirement” is a strange, surprising, and evocative portrait of existence in a modern setting.