Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1865
Albert Goldbarth is one of the most talented and prolific writers of his generation. His twenty-five years of nonstop productivity do not seem to have diluted his energy or his level of achievement. In this collection, he is better than ever.
The title is slightly, whimsically, misleading. Goldbarth does not really travel in ancient Egypt (by visiting ruins), modern Egypt, or any of the several other civilizations he conjures up in this exuberant collection. The adventures are intellectual and emotional. The travels are like those John Keats took when he read George Chapman’s translation of Homer and “traveled in the realms of gold.” Goldbarth’s themes, as he contemplates the rich pasts of Egypt, Sumeria, and Italy, have to do with continuity and the memorializing impulse. As any poet knows, art and artifact are expressions of identity and selfhood. The rulers of ancient Egypt in particular knew how to say “Here I am.”
This business of projecting the self and its values through time is Goldbarth’s playing field, and he romps delightedly across it, making distances vanish. After all, how better to understand the past than to find today’s parallels; how better to understand the present than to find its seeds in yesterday? The clues are temples, implements, weapons, reliquaries, canopic jars, and sarcophagi. These items focus the business of life and death, and particularly the struggle against extinction. Goldbarth treasures these vanities, not only because they have beauty, not only because they send messages, but also because he reveres the doomed impulse toward immortality.
His poems are busy traveling back and forth between his readings of contemporary civilization and those messages sent from the cultural birthplaces of the Fertile Crescent, Renaissance England, and other glorious time zones. His jocular juxtapositions are the wise and playful heart of his vision and artistry. Any book that includes a poem titled “Poem Beginning with a Quote from Keith Laumer’s Galactic Odyssey and Ending with a Quote from Mika Waltari’s The Egyptian” must to be both wise and playful.
In one poem, “Real Speeches,” William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge drop in on a group of widowers who meet regularly at the neighborhood McDonald’s; the trailblazing poets proceed to catch the disease of American, Yiddish-flavored argot. The preface to Lyrical Ballads (1798) is thrown into doubt, with its hope of making poetry out of the language really spoken by people. Of course, Goldbarth is making poetry out of it. Elsewhere, hieroglyphs and comic strips are leveled.
The passage that comes closest to announcing the credo for the entire collection is found in the opening lines of “The Saga of Stupidity and Wonder”:
The history of the world could be written
in anything’s history: native gourds; meteor rubble;
the capping machine at bottling plant number 7 . . .
I’m convinced of this—how anything,
gripped right and studied long, contains the telescoped
story of everything, the way our protein coding holds
the germ of the lizard we once were.
Given the premise that evolution rarely gives anything up as it unfolds, all life—and all human expression—becomes a complex master unfolding, a dance of encoding and decoding the same essential givens of creation. Goldbarth’s singing self, with a healthy self-consciousness, participates in this process while illuminating it.
To do this, of course, he must sift through the relics of language and art, ceremony and style. He must process what is held in books and—most important for this collection—museums. Several poems in Adventures in Ancient Egypt would seem to develop from the kind of knowledge-hungry drive that is fed by special collections of antiquities. Though Goldbarth does not plunk his speaker down among such exhibits, he imagines several characters interacting with the memorial artifacts that he is compelled to describe. In this way, Goldbarth focuses one culture through another.
This strategy works particularly well in “Ancient Egyptian Canopic Jars,” where his central character, on break from addictive hours at the fitness center, absorbs what she can from the archaeology sections of a museum. Her own hip, urban, contemporary body consciousness (she is clad in Spandex) interacts with the preserved organs and the names for their presiding deities. She translates what is written on the informational placards into the kind of sense that her time (and ours) needs to make of such practices, never seeing the ironic relationship, as author and reader must, between the need to extend life—or personhood, at least—by preservation of remains and the need to extend it through Jazzercise.
In “Sumerian Votive Figurines,” Goldbarth moves his protagonist through a landscape of material culture that includes a lawn ornament outlet. Among the featured items are gnomes, deep- sea divers, statues of the flag raising at Iwo Jima, Viking warriors, and animals wearing human dress: “snoods or zoot- suits or biker garb.” Readers are led to wonder whether there is a functional relationship between these figurines and those that the Sumerians set up to pray to ceaselessly on behalf of their owners. Readers will also wonder whether museums of the future will enshrine the plaster artifacts now sold at “BUBBA’S LAWN ORNAMENTS PAINTED OR PLAIN.” The time travel, since it all takes place in the imagination, is the poet’s domain.
Goldbarth takes pride and responsibility, and sometimes offers playful self-deprecation like a maestro making a symphony out of separate movements and instruments. The playfulness comes forth, to give one example, in “The Reliquary.” In this poem, Goldbarth brings two people together before a museum case. They are “the woman from my Ark’ piece, and a man from the crowd scene in Ancient Egyptian Canopic Jars,’” a certified public accountant. Certainly the godlike poet here reminds the reader of his power. Goldbarth, acting as a Yiddishshadkhen (matchmaker), ignites their romance while he measures the different ways the catalysts in the exhibit inspire and define them. After they spend a night together, the woman—herself a poet—tries to set down her experience in her notebook. In making fun of her—“She’s been working all year on Ancient Musics—a kind of prose poem overview of spiritus in its endless holy masks”—Goldbarth makes himself a target as well.
Here and elsewhere, Goldbarth admits to and accepts the self- interest—even the self-absorption—of the artist. In “The Lives of the—Wha’?” he announces (to fill in the title question), “The lives—the singular, undivertable/ lives of the artists!—this is my theme.” Although the quotation is meant to anchor this particular poem, it reminds readers of how the larger theme of self-projection through time is essentially the spur and consequence of art. Perhaps the undercurrent argument is that without such ego there is no art, and without art there is only the dying present. In “The Compass,” Goldbarth assents to Howard Nemerov’s decree: “Every poet’s middle name is Mimi.”
The journeys through time that Goldbarth shares with his readers include not only those to ancient civilizations, the European Renaissance, and the early Romantic period of Wordsworth and Coleridge. The Civil War era is alive in “Circa 1861,” as Goldbarth takes Emily Dickinson to task for ignoring it. Lesser journeys take us to the time of Goldbarth’s youth in the 1950’s and to earlier twentieth century scenes as he explores the pasts of his parents.
In fact, as the book moves forward, temporal distances shrink. The multipart sequence “Ancient Semitic Rituals for the Dead” addresses modern Jewish American culture more than anything ancient. As its second movement, Goldbarth fashions a dialogue, set in the 1980’s, between father (or the ghost voice of a father) and adult son. The two men try to negotiate the distance between the strong Jewish identity that defined the father’s outlook and expectations and the son’s less traditional orientation. The bittersweet turns of affection and misunderstanding end with the son’s dawning appreciation of the power and integrity of the father’s otherness. Goldbarth dramatizes the old story of children appreciating parents when it is too late while keeping his themes of identity and projection in time alive in new ways.
The closing section of the book is called “Ancient Egypt/Fanny Goldbarth.” It brings together many strands of the entire collection, strands never really widely separated: the universal and the personal, the remote and the immediate, the urge to defeat death and the inescapable fact of death. The initial poem, “Qebehseneuf,” is Goldbarth’s elegy for his mother. While tracing the stages of her dying from cancer, the poet interweaves a tracing (once again) of the cultural history through which he has kept his readers traveling. “Qebehseneuf” is a marvelous achievement in its wisdom, emotional range, and sustained poetic force.
It takes its place alongside such achievements as Allen Ginsberg’sKaddish and Gerald Stern’s “Bread Without Sugar,” poems that similarly mourn parents in ways accessible to both universal and Jewish sensibilities. Of the three, Goldbarth’s is the most intellectually rich and varied.
“Qebehseneuf” is one of many poems in Adventures in Ancient Egyptthat demonstrate Goldbarth’s ability to manage long, sustained pyrotechnics: to juggle, elaborate, improvise, and yet weave a unifying poetic spell. The collection’s opening poem, “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before,” is another such dazzling sequence. The sonnetlike sections are enjambed yet set on separate pages, pulling and pushing at each other. At its conclusion, Goldbarth announces the overarching thesis of his book: “I’m here is the submost unit of the universe.” “Deer,” which closes the collection, is another such virtuoso piece.
Another source of variety in the collection is the inclusion of several prose poems. These include “Ancient Egyptian Canopic Jars,” “The Ark of the Covenant,” “Etruscan,” and “The Reliquary” (the one with the woman writing “a kind of prose poem”). Also in this mode is the third movement of “Ancient Semitic Rituals for the Dead,” in which Goldbarth underscores the claims the dead make on the imagination of the living. He reminds readers how old films present the nonliving as if they once more roamed the earth. He refers to Dracula, ghost stories, and the commemoration rites of elephants. “We need the dead,” the poet says. “. . . The dead are our excuse. The dead are guardians of acumen and power beyond our mortal ken.” Yet the dead need us as well, and this two-way dependence is one more formulation of the theme of this wonderful book.
Goldbarth is one of a small but growing number of working poets who have dared to allow difficult thought to enter their work. He has managed to do this without becoming annoyingly pedantic or impossibly obscure. Maintaining a robust sense of humor and an urgent but unthreatening voice, Goldbarth juxtaposes the human grandeur of expressive monuments to the seeming trivia of popular culture, humankind’s highest aspirations with its most tedious vices and foibles. Albert Goldbarth is a most charming thinker, a thinking charmer, and all the while a dexterous poet tinkering and tuning a well-oiled linguistic machine.
Sources for Further Study
The Kenyon Review. XIX, Summer, 1997, p. 173.
Library Journal. CXXI, December, 1996, p. 98.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, November 25, 1996, p. 71.
Wichita Eagle. April 6, 1997, p. D4.
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