Day of Infamy

December 7, 1998 at 6:00 PM EDT

ROBERT PINSKY, Poet Laureate: It’s interesting that some of the national dates we remember best like December 7th and November 22nd are dates that have to do with loss and vulnerability. The anniversary of Pearl Harbor with its loss and vulnerability changes its meaning as time passes, inevitably. Each was ages as those who remember it age – respect for those who fought in the Second World War and the loss of those who fell, the suffering of the wounded, the fears of those at home, all tend to become gradually more generalized and impersonal.

My generation roughly is those whose fathers fought in that war. The poet, James Tate, makes emotion about World War II personal and specific in his poem, “The Lost Pilot,” about a father who did not return from war to his child.

The Lost Pilot
by James Tate.
For my Father, 1992-1994.

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 you 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 a mistake

that placed you in that world,
and me in this; or that misfortune
placed these worlds in us.

As James Tate says in those last lines of “The Lost Pilot,” the worlds of the past do live in us — sometimes in their unknown effects and sometimes in memory.