This posthumous volume collects 43 prose poems that the winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize wrote in the final months of his life, offering surreal takes on work, love, death, and everyday experience.
The Government Lake might be the best introduction to James Tate. It is sad and exhilarating to realize that, with these poems, Tate has completely mastered yet another form he invented. I read the poems and thought, This one is a classic, now this one is a classic, and now this one is a classic … until I realized the whole book was. In some ways, this is my favorite of all of his books. It’s funny and sad and troubling and weird and singular. Only someone with a great mind, who had devoted his whole life to poetry, could write so casually, while also conjuring such a quiet, wild, mysterious force, to the very end.
James Tate...has given the world one last wondrous poetry collection in The Government Lake. The 43 prose poems in this collection defy easy categorization. Perhaps they're best described as parables for the peculiar moral lessons they impart, but they're especially surreal ones, full of strange characters and dream imagery, bending reality with a nonchalant assurance reminiscent of the great magical realists more than other contemporary poets. Tate is a builder of small whimsical worlds, and the reader must not so much suspend disbelief as surrender all expectations upon entering ... bizarre...events are portrayed as ordinary happenstance, which makes the poems all the more alluring, as if Tate has stumbled upon another dimension hidden in plain sight. For all their otherworldliness, however, Tate grounds his poems in the human dimension. His characters struggle to understand each other better, and sometimes they succeed ... Whether quaintly sweet or unexpectedly sour, The Government Lake is fun to read. Tate is a master of wordplay and varying mood and effect. He is a wizard who will be missed.
The Government Lake (Ecco), a posthumous collection, makes a distinctly un-Tate-like ending to his career ... Often, an unstated figure of speech links Tate’s seemingly unconnected perceptions ... Yet a quotient of weirdness keeps the poem from being distilled into just an idiom or a cliché ... Tate 'goes through' the strictly unnecessary medium of figurative language rather than stating things straightforwardly, and uses his madcap style as a vehicle for implying other, graver things ... Tate’s poems tempt you to interpret them as parables ... They belong to the New England intellectual tradition of looking for signs and portents in thickets of happenstance, but they usually stop short of facile meaning. You can ruin these poems by adding too much weight; even the saddest of them contain their own charm ... Tate’s final work will lodge him permanently in the landscape of American poetry[.]