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Shroud of the Gnome, by James Tate

April 12, 1998

And what amazes me is that none of our modern inventions

surprise or interest him, even a little. I tell him

it is time he got his booster shots, but then

I realize I have no power over him whatsoever.

He becomes increasingly light-footed until I lose sight

of him downtown between the federal building and

the post office. A registered nurse is taking her

coffee break. I myself needed a break, so I sat down

next to her at the counter. "Don't mind me," I said,

"I'm just a hungry little Gnostic in need of a sandwich."

(This old line of mine had met with great success

on any number of previous occasions.) I thought,

a deaf, dumb, and blind nurse, sounds ideal!

But then I remembered that some of the earliest

Paleolithic office workers also feigned blindness

when approached by nonoffice workers, so I paid my bill

and disappeared down an alley where I composed myself.

Amid the piles of outcast citizenry and burning barrels

of waste and rot, the plump rats darting freely,

the havoc of blown newspapers, lay the little shroud

of my lost friend: small and gray and threadbare,

windworn by the ages of scurrying hither and thither,

battered by the avalanches and private tornadoes

of just being a gnome, but surely there were good times, too.

And now, rejuvenated by the wind, the shroud moves forward,

hesitates, dances sideways, brushes my foot as if for a kiss,

and flies upward, whistling a little-known ballad

about the pitiful, raw etiquette of the underworld.

From "Shroud of the Gnome" by James Tate (The Ecco Press: 74 pp., $23)

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