James Tate is the Charlie Chaplin of contemporary poets, a slapstick clown on a tightrope who falls on his face to show us that the ground is hard, the spirit fragile, and there are no nets beneath our feet. Tate was one of the youngest poets ever to receive the Yale Younger Poets Award and, in the decade since, has more than fulfilled his early promise. His voice is that of a Trickster persistently turning everything upside down, unraveling all the usual connections. ""The moon is discovered to be almost human/ probably from hearing cowboy songs/ on lonely nightwatch"" or ""Come quick, Hans, a leaf is falling inside of me!"" Tate alternately cajoles and shocks: ""A sign said YIELD/ and a woman ran through the streets/ actually crying."" As a result, we are brought back to ourselves, nerve endings exposed, and all of the old questions cannot be answered in the same way--""What is the sky/ the sky is a door/ a very small door/ that opens for an inchworm/ an inch above his rock/ and keeps his heart from flying off."" Although Viper Jazz is uneven--the prose and ""catalogue"" poems seem incomplete--the collection has some of Tate's best work to date. A pleasant surprise for those who still think serious poetry has to be somber and obscure.