The Villa of the Mysteries

Many poets take you by the hand, and with great care, show you their world and their wisdom, a great gift no doubt.

But, James Tate affords the reader more opportunity than that, his poems present themselves, as if he has swung open his arms and said, “Here is what I see! Now, what do you think of that?” One can wander the rooms of his vision for years, seeing marvels anew and gaining fresh insights. His world never recedes, never dulls. This week I recite from his masterful book, Distance From Loved Ones.
Hear it here! On my Ytube channel.


Saturdays are for Bathing Betsy
by James Tate


I am thinking about Betsy almost all the time now.
I am also thinking about the relationship between
a man and his watch. I am amazed at how each sort
of animal and plant manages to keep its kind alive.
Shocking poultry. Maybe there’s a movie playing
downtown about a dotty fat woman with a long knife
who dismembers innocent ducks and chickens. But it’s
he reconstruction of the villa of the mysteries
that is killing me. How each sort of animal
and plant prevents itself from returning to dust
just a little while longer while I transfer some
assets to a region where there are no thinking creatures,
just worshiping ones. They oscillate along like magicians,
deranged seaweed creatures and their gals, a Nile landscape
littered with Pygmies. I’m lolling in the banks.
I am not just a bunch of white stuff inside my skull.
No, there is this villa, and in the villa there is
a bathing pool, and on Saturdays Betsy always visits.
I am not the first rational man, but my tongue
does resemble a transmitter. And, when wet, she
is a triangle. And when she’s wet, time has a fluff-
iness about it, and that has me trotting about,
loathing any locomotion not yoked to her own.


and it made them happy
to be alive, even as authentic poverty
transforms this world into a rose
no one can any longer recognize

James Tate

There’s a house on the curve into El Studiante I admire, a piecemeal jumble of rooms, at first glance wretched– and yet, there’s something commendable, something compelling about it. Its wattle and daub, rusting sheet metal hinged with miscellaneous wire, crafty use of feed bags and mattress skeletons, unlikely components of habitation plaited with string and skill. Chickens skitter in its confines, kittens tight walk barbwire festooned like prayer flags with dripping laundry, tiny children sit on the roadside (the front porch), fearless, surely to be squashed by an innocent motorist not familiar with their habitual peril, young and old move through portals difficult to define as doors attending chores, oblivious to my preoccupation with their vibrant homestead.

After reading Beyond Mountains There are Mountains, I fully comprehend the import of secure roofs and concrete floors. Our house is a concrete box. Still, I hold the organic beauty of hovels in high esteem.

When I consider the El Studiante home I’m reminded of an image Felipe has related to me many times; he’s a naked bulbous bellied child of four or five, filthy, covered in black beans having eaten with his hands, sticky, he clutches an icy glass bottle of coca cola– a rare treat, he evokes the thrill of it against his skin. Smiling and happy, his mother laughing at him, it’s a favorite memory.

If a photo of this event existed the viewer might think; how sad, a naked, filthy, possibly mal-nutritioned child drinking a coke. Perhaps they’d give money to clothe him, improve his diet. It’s unlikely they’d see a happy child with a treat.

Because we’re inclined to apply our own values to images the subject is vulnerable to misinterpretation. For this reason I’m careful not to present images unless I believe the subject understands how, and agrees with the way they’re represented. For this reason, there is no photo of the house in El Studiante.

I imagine people view scenes of squalor like this: it’s polluted, unlivable; the people who reside there are impoverished, miserable and… Helpless.

With concrete ideas of comfort and health standards we aren’t apt to appreciate the charm of scavenged goods fashioning a patio, or consider the possibility the occupants are capable, but see no reason to buy more refined building materials. It’s challenging to recognize independence within the ragged, and of course it’s not always there. But I’m familiar with many households that are cobbled by choice, not necessity, their occupants comfortable and satisfied.

I value squalor, quirky craftsmanship, structures built with care and ingenuity, and the life that seems to rise from them like steam breathes off hot black top washed with new rain.
It is my practice to acknowledge innovation before deprivation—to appreciate resourcefulness and avoid applying the panacea of pity, because in part– Dignity is in the eye of the beholder.

A wall of salvaged doors for shade, at my families home.

A wall of salvaged doors for shade, at my families home.

© 2013 Abby Smith, Writer