“. . . It’s the town’s goat. I’m just taking my turn caring for it. . . ” (James Tate)

This town is like a fairy tale. Everywhere you turn there’s mystery  and wonder.

This town
is like a fairy tale. Everywhere you turn there’s mystery
and wonder.

There’s no accounting for it, but one of my favorite poems of all time is James Tate’s “It Happens like This.”

I say there’s no accounting for it because I have no idea what it “means,” and it certainly is not the most “elevated diction” from which anyone ever composed a poem. The language—like all of Tate’s writing—is refined and graceful, but not Shakespeare.

It’s hard to imagine walking through town being followed by a goat. And any time a poem uses a phrase that I associate with the Bible—like “Prince of Peace”—I get nervous.

But something about the image of someone being followed by a goat (why not a pony, or a dog, or a raccoon—why a goat?) and that person having the presence of mind to understand that it’s the town’s goat, and that anyone who is patient will get their turn to care for it makes perfect sense to me.

I think I’ve had a few goats follow me through town. Anything I’ve been given to do that is worthwhile has happened pretty much like the town’s goat attaching itself to me to take my turn at caring for. The most worthwhile experiences of my life have been nothing that I planned. I simply accepted them and walked with them. Usually without having any idea why or how or who or when.

Right now I’m in the middle of caring for something that belongs to all of us and is precious to the town, both the small village and the big city of the world. I have a little job to do for a while—I don’t know how long. It’s just my turn. Be patient, and it will be yours. It has to do with caring about and caring for some young men who have been neglected. But it’s time for someone to look out for them, walk through town with them. Be patient. It’ll be your time soon.

While camel herding is a diminishing feature for the Palestinian Bedouin since they lack the financial ability to maintain them, each family has a herd of goats and sheep, essential to their survival for meat and dairy.

While camel herding is a diminishing feature for the Palestinian Bedouin since they lack the financial ability to maintain them, each family has a herd of goats and sheep, essential to their survival for meat and dairy.

Earlier today I was looking through some papers—insurance stuff, tax stuff, those sorts of things, the kinds of details of living in a first-world society that I find totally incomprehensible. I promised my tax man I’d keep track of the stuff so I can take it to him when we finish my taxes for two years ago. I came across a check made out to me, a rather nice amount of money, dated 6 months and 2 weeks ago. It was valid for 180 days.

It’s the check I was given for substituting as organist at one of my favorite churches. In October (it’s now April). That Sunday the choir sang the wonderful simple old-favorite anthem by Joseph Clokey, “Lay Not up for Yourself Treasures on Earth” (Matthew 6:19-21, King James Version). I guess I took the admonition literally. I certainly didn’t lay up for myself that treasure.

I don’t suppose it makes much sense that I was thinking about it being my turn to help out a few young guys and remembering the Tate poem and then thinking “Lay not up for yourself treasures on earth.”

Helping some young guys get through a really difficult time is like taking care of the town goat. (I’m not in any way comparing the guys to the goat.) And, although I don’t believe in heaven, I understand the concept of not laying up treasures on earth. (I’m not comparing my absentmindedness to not laying up treasures for myself in heaven.)

All of this goes together in my mind. I’m caring for something that is essential to the life of the town, and that caring is, in some metaphorical way I can’t figure out, the closest I will ever come to doing something not related to my wanting treasure on earth.

“Be patient. Your time is coming.”

“IT HAPPENS LIKE THIS,” By James Tate (b. 1943)

I was outside St. Cecelia’s Rectory
smoking a cigarette when a goat appeared beside me.
It was mostly black and white, with a little reddish
brown here and there. When I started to walk away,
it followed. I was amused and delighted, but wondered
what the laws were on this kind of thing. There’s
a leash law for dogs, but what about goats? People
smiled at me and admired the goat. “It’s not my goat,”
I explained. “It’s the town’s goat. I’m just taking
my turn caring for it.” “I didn’t know we had a goat,”
one of them said. “I wonder when my turn is.” “Soon,”
I said. “Be patient. Your time is coming.” The goat
stayed by my side. It stopped when I stopped. It looked
up at me and I stared into its eyes. I felt he knew
everything essential about me. We walked on. A police-
man on his beat looked us over. “That’s a mighty
fine goat you got there,” he said, stopping to admire.
“It’s the town’s goat,” I said. “His family goes back
three-hundred years with us,” I said, “from the beginning.”
The officer leaned forward to touch him, then stopped
and looked up at me. “Mind if I pat him?” he asked.
“Touching this goat will change your life,” I said.
“It’s your decision.” He thought real hard for a minute,
and then stood up and said, “What’s his name?” “He’s
called the Prince of Peace,” I said. “God! This town
is like a fairy tale. Everywhere you turn there’s mystery
and wonder. And I’m just a child playing cops and robbers
forever. Please forgive me if I cry.” “We forgive you,
Officer,” I said. “And we understand why you, more than
anybody, should never touch the Prince.” The goat and
I walked on. It was getting dark and we were beginning
to wonder where we would spend the night.

James Tate was born in Kansas City, MO, on December 8, 1943, .
___His first collection of poems, The Lost Pilot (1967), was selected by Dudley Fitts for the Yale Series of Younger Poets while Tate was still a student at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, making him one of the youngest poets to receive the honor.
___Tate published prolifically over the next two decades, including The Oblivion Ha-Ha (1970); Viper Jazz (1976);  and Selected Poems (1991), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the William Carlos Williams Award. Since then, he has published several collections of poems, most recently The Eternal Ones of the Dream: Selected Poems 1990 – 2010 (Ecco Press, 2012).

“Touching this goat will change your life,

“Touching this goat will change your life,” I said.
“It’s your decision.” He thought real hard for a minute,
and then stood up and said, “What’s his name?” “He’s
called the Prince of Peace,” I said.

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