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...
(The entire section is 1865 words.)