James Tate

(8 December 1943 - / Kansas City, Missouri)

The Lost Pilot Poem by James Tate

for my father, 1922-1944

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.

Submitted: Monday, January 13, 2003

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Comments about this poem (The Lost Pilot by James Tate )

  • Rookie Nadine Gallo (11/19/2011 3:35:00 AM)

    The poet idealizes his lost father who crashed during WWII in the company of his buddies who are imagined to suffer decomposition. For the poet, Dad is forever orbiting and never landing. He is immortal in his mind. The urgent, certain voice of the narrator convinces the reader that his father is immortal regardless of what really happened. Heroes who die young give up their lives with their families in exchange for immortality. That is the traditional hero myth. Yeats wrote a poem about an Irish airman who died in WWI from a less personal POV. This one won the Yale prize and set Tate up for his long career in poetry. (Report) Reply

  • Rookie Marina Gipps (7/20/2007 6:52:00 PM)

    I love this poem dearly. This is probably my favorite contemporary poem of all time. This poem should be on every poetry list in every school. Tate's 'The Lost Pilot' and Simic's 'Butcher Shop' are two poems that inspired me to read more poetry and to write more poetry. Another great Tate poem is 'Who Can Tell if He Is Awake' (I think that's the title...I might be off one or two words...but it has all kinds of magical stuff going on in that poem. That's what I love about Tate. There is a definitely a suspension of disbelief when you read him. Even when something seems silly there is a serious undertone to it that just breaks my heart. Everyone should read Tate, Simic, and Strand...their poetry...all Pulitzer prize winners and all poets that will be remembered long after they are gone. (Report) Reply

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