Albert Goldbarth’s links to the New Formalist movement are evident in the sonnets, a sestina, and many poems in regular unrhymed stanzas in his oeuvre. He also was affiliated with confessional poets, making his life a subject of numerous poems. While Goldbarth warns in a few poems against a too literal autobiographical reading of his poetry, he is explicit and specific in his poems about himself at all periods of his life, from youth to late middle age; his friends at the various periods of his life; and his various paramours, including their names. Overall, despite its wit (including puns and abundant, perceptive figurative language), humor, range both in language and subject matter, and liveliness, the poetry has an elegiac feeling because of the many poems that deal with the romantic or marital troubles and divorce of the author or of his friends, and illness and death among Goldbarth’s loved ones, particularly his father and mother.
Archaeology and prehistory
Many of Goldbarth’s poems deal with archaeology, prehistory, paleontology, and diverse associated subjects and themes. Goldbarth’s skill at finding and making connections among apparently disparate things is evidenced in “Dialogue: Johann Joachim Wincklemann and Joseph Busch” (from Coprolites), intercutting monologues of the real eighteenth century German founder of archaeology and an imagined twentieth century elderly German art restorer. Ironically, while Wincklemann helps to re-create the past, Busch witnesses the reduction of Dresden to an archaeological ruin in the Allies’ World War II bombing, which seems repayment for the medieval massacre of Jews there, prefiguring the systematic German holocaust of them.
In “Ursus: Speech and Text” (1976), prehistoric archaeology is the subject, as often in Goldbarth’s poetry; the poem deals with the relationship between animals and humans through description of the various conceptions of bears, from fearsome through Winnie the Pooh, as well as their manifestations in cave art, the visual arts being another of Goldbarth’s recurrent interests. “The Story of Civilization” (1981) begins with the lack of communication between prehistoric individuals, which results in their fighting each other, with killing “pervasive as weather”; moves through the development of agriculture, architecture, and extended life spans, including that of Goldbarth’s Grandpa Louie; and ends, in Goldbarth’s typical circular, spiral form, with the communication through the modern invention, the telephone, to Goldbarth of the death of Grandpa Louie. Louie, who carried sacks for a living, now, with an irony emphasized by Goldbarth’s figure of speech chiasmus, must be carried in Goldbarth’s memory like a sack, almost empty but not devoid of the spark of Louie’s life story. “Khirbet Shema” (1986), based on the resemblance in photographs of the toppled columns of an ancient synagogue built in the year 400 and unearthed pottery beads, interrelates science, in an application of Einstein’s ideas about light and relativity (including the ending pun on whether a female synagogue attendee’s cry on Yom Kippur is penitential or joyous being “relative”); Renaissance art, in the speaker’s perception of an inversion of the theory of perspective, something farther away, the ancient synagogue, getting larger rather than smaller in his mind and mind’s eye; and the Jewish culture connecting Einstein, the synagogue, Yom Kippur, and the female worshiper wearing the beads.
Facets of the romantic relationship are the focus of many of Goldbarth’s poems. “Song for Longing” (1974) opens with anaphora, a recurrent stylistic device in Goldbarth’s poetry—“Now you will,” “Now we will,” “Now anybody who”—tied to the poem’s recurrent image, metaphor, and synecdoche of “tongue,” which comes in the poem to represent not only erotic contact between the lovers but also communication, language, and naming—all frequent subjects of Goldbarth’s poetry—as related to romance. Both “Dynamics of Garbling” and “Codes” (1976) deal with the problems of communication in the romantic relationship, symbolized, respectively, by problems in the telephone line and the need to bypass through silent physical contact the world’s distracting surrealistic phenomena and linguistic expressions such as “the stork/ brings them.”
Both “The World of Expectations” and “The Accountings” (1983) deal with adolescent erotic yearning. Appropriately, both poems use Goldbarth’s structural device of an incomplete beginning statement or reference completed only at poem’s end. As Goldbarth’s poetry often does, the former poem contrasts past and present, with at least one of the adolescents having fulfilled youthful yearning but later becoming divorced; the latter poem’s same temporal contrast has the adult Goldbarth generalizing his eros to love of all those he has ever loved in his past, including his teachers and parents.
“Ellbee Novelty Company, Inc.” (1990), which profusely details all the popular-culture novelty items shown by Louie Berkie (after whom the company is named) in his warehouse tour, contrasts the plethora with the nocturnal loneliness experienced separately by the owner and his cashier, Rosie. The joyousness in the poem’s allusion to Christopher Smart’s exuberant Jubilate Agno (1939; as Rejoice in the Lamb, 1954) through the recurrent anaphora (“For I have,” “And . . .”) contrasts the implied sadness of Berkie’s and Rosie’s nights alone, without romantic love or lover.
Religion and the supernatural
A repeated constellation of subjects in Goldbarth’s poetry is religion, worship, the afterlife, the question of the existence of the supernatural, and the relationship between the supernatural and the material world, suggested in part by some of the titles of Goldbarth’s collections: Faith, Heaven and Earth, The Gods, and Beyond. In “An Explanation” (1991), the poem’s speaker relays the report of an ecstatic female worshiper’s speaking in tongues in a small rural charismatic church and then utterly disappearing, an event he both implicitly and explicitly relates to an epileptic seizure witnessed in eighth grade (a transit to an ecstatic state) requiring the teacher to place a spoon in the...
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