by James Tate

She was in terrible pain the whole day,
as she had been for months: a slipped disc,
and there is nothing more painful. She

herself was a nurse’s aide, also a poet
just beginning to make a name for her
nom de plume. As with most things in life,

it happened when she was changing channels
on her television. The lucky man, on the other
hand, was smiling for the first time

in his life, and it was fake. He was
an aspiring philosopher of dubious potential,
very serious, but somehow lacking in

essential depth. He could have been
an adequate undertaker. It was not the first
time for either of them. It was a civil

service, with no music, few flowers.
Still, there was a slow and erratic tide
of champagne—corks shot clear into the trees.

And flashcubes, instant photos, some blurred
and some too revealing, cake slices that aren’t
what they were meant to be. The bride slept

through much of it, and never did we figure out
who was on whose team. I think the groom
meant it in the end when he said, “We never

thought anyone would come.” We were not the first
to arrive, nor the last to leave. Who knows,
it may all turn out for the best. And who

really cares about such special days, they
are not what we live for.

SOURCE: “A Wedding” appears in James Tate‘s Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 1991), available at

IMAGE: Actors Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on their (first) wedding day, March 15, 1964 (beware the ides of March).


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: James Tate’s many poetry collections include The Ghost Soldiers (2008), Worshipful Company of Fletchers (1994, National Book Award winner), Selected Poems (1991, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the William Carlos Williams Award), Distance from Loved Ones (1990), Constant Defender (1983), Viper Jazz (1976), and The Oblivion Ha-Ha (1970). Tate’s honors include an Academy of American Poets chancellorship, a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Poetry, the Wallace Stevens Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.