In a new collection of his poetry, Albert Goldbarth supplies a marvelous mosaic of images, quantum leaps of intuition, and artifacts of historical anecdotes.
“Budget Travel through Space and Time” by Albert Goldbarth. (Graywolf Press)
By Vincent Czyz
Last year’s compilation, “The Best American Poetry,” guest-edited by Lyn Hejinian, was, with a few exceptions, a dismal, often tedious test of how much mediocrity a reader could handle in one book. Judging from this anthology — and from a lot of what literary magazines published in 2004 — it seemed that, with few exceptions, there was a conspiracy against language that could not double as prose, against phrases that might be (my Puritanical sensibility shudders to think of it) considered showy, extravagant, and might even — heaven forefend — flirt with the baroque.
“Better flat than stared at,” seems to have been the guiding principle. And then there was the cavalcade of poems that were mostly sentence fragments or outright jabberwocky and seemed to draw strength from their ability to obscure meaning, to defeat the reader’s attempt to make sense of them. Either way, there was usually a yawner or a head-scratcher of an ending. Not surprisingly, there wasn’t a single Albert Goldbarth poem among the lot.
Fortunately, Goldbarth, who has been regaling us with his unique experiments in verse for more than 30 years and has twice won the National Book Critics Circle Award (the only poet to do so), has published “Budget Travel through Space and Time.” This collection, a hefty 162 pages, is neutron-star dense. The neutron star is one of those celestial impossibilities likely to show up in a Goldbarth poem — a sphere of crushed-down matter a cubic inch of which weighs a couple of tons. The volume is loaded with eye-poppers, jaw-droppers, stunningly pulled-off metaphors and images, and is stacked to the rafters with startling analogies. Indeed, Goldbarth has a gift for finding uncanny parallels that stretch the length of a two or three-page poem and leave the reader with the equivalent of the blank retinal ghost that appears after a camera flash.
My mouth runneth off a bit, perhaps, so here are a few examples: the moon in “Budget Travel through the Universe” is described as “the huge, round resume of the career of light,” and as “a curd of afterglow.” In “Far: An Etymology,” Goldbarth writes, “That handful in our skull might hold more distance/ than the lights from the edge where our telescopes/ shrug hopelessly and turn around for home.” In “The Sign,” he takes as a central image “geese across the sky/ at the end of a day — the second when/ its brightness is stubbed out on the horizon line/Now there’s more sun on the bellies of these geese/ than anywhere in the world altogether. Incandescent./ Freshly smelted ingots– flying.”
In “Hoverers,” when the writer wants to convey the tenor of “circling,” he instructs, “Think of the birds/ that migrated back to Atlantis, circling the empty sea.” The image and the language are simple enough and yet the metaphor, one of literally dozens strewn throughout the collection, is a perfect fit.
But this is Goldbarth at the micro-linguistic level. Skeptics will ask, “Yeah, but does he say anything?” Herein also lies the beauty of a Goldbarth poem; whereas many are the anthologized poets who made me wonder why they bothered versifying, he is a kind of Samson of poetry. If Goldbarth doesn’t always bring down the house, at least he leaves the columns we’ve come to rely on most, whether erected in the name of science, philosophy, religion or anything else, quivering. He makes us rethink, re-experience, and reassess; taken collectively, a sine qua non of the best art. His poems have so much inner resonance it’s difficult to pull out a few lines and stand them up on their own and a lot of the luster is worn off by this sort of deconstruction.
Any one of the majority of the longish poems in this book — “The Feelers,” “The Sign,” “Into That Story” and “A Gesture Made in the Martian Wastes,” “Where the Membrane is Thinnest” among others — is worth the price of admission. The latter, perhaps my favorite in a book of favorites, begins with an epigraph from a science fiction novel and contains the image of a “svelte seductress,” who is able “to feel her way among the walls and statues of a city/that no longer exists.”
This metamorphoses into a scene set in Vietnam in which a soldier is “feeling/gingerly over the ground with one arm for his other arm that had been torn off the in darkness. Only seconds/had gone by but already he reached out into that past/of himself as if it were countless centuries.” It ends up with Goldbarth recalling himself as an adolescent enamored of interplanetary adventures, “and I reach out/ toward that sixteen-year-old boy from forty years ago, who’s only a hole in the air now, that the wind blows through,/the wind of Mars, in it immemorial quarrel with stone/and skin and the scurf of the planet itself/and our on-loan solar resplendence.”
It is thoroughly refreshing to read poems that end, not obscurely or tritely but, on the contrary, almost always leave the air humming — sometimes as loudly as a whacked gong, sometimes as subtly as two gold coins touching rims. Goldbarth is not afraid of words that suggest incomprehensible phenomena (universe, supernova, singularity), of made-up words (telecyberfiber, uberglobal, terra mysterium) or of rare words (suzerainty, cumulonimbus, ziggurat). He doesn’t feel the need to dumb down his language to admit the so-called “common man” to his fabulous verbal theme park, and yet he can be as colloquial as a blue collar worker sitting down to his beer at Miller Time.
A marvelous mosaic of images, insights, ruminations, erudition, mundane details, quantum leaps of intuition, artifacts of pop culture, and historical anecdotes (Paul Revere and da Vinci both put in appearances), this book proves you don’t need a machine to travel light years through space and time in the blink of an eye, you simply need a poet, like Goldbarth, who specializes in singularity.