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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2633

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...

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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.

Romantic love

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 epileptic’s mouth. The speaker asserts that the female worshiper was the universe’s tongue, related to her speaking in tongues, which may have been swallowed by the universe itself. All of this is behind the explanation, the poem’s title, of why the speaker threw himself across his lover when the sleeping woman began talking in dream “tongues”: He wanted to prevent her disappearance. This poem, like many of Goldbarth’s poems, equates dreaming and sleep to a supernatural realm and reflects the poet’s recurrent concerns about the disappearing and distancing in human life.

In “A Pantheon” (1985), a Victorian world traveler (combining Goldbarth’s recurrent interests in historical periods and in travel or exploration) encounters a variety of cultures and their deities—Egyptian gods, the God of Judaism, the Greek gods, native American gods—which the speaker multiplies to the multitude of external entities that heterogeneous individuals and groups have imagined to heighten feeling, explain, comfort, or justify. In “Ancient Semitic Rituals for the Dead” (1996), which contains one section of poetry, one of drama, and one of prose, the speaker’s drinking too much of the distinctively Jewish wine Mogen David at a bar in section 1 is revealed to be a bolstering of his courage to visit his father’s grave. At the grave site, in section 2, the son, “Albie” (Goldbarth’s nickname used by his family), does commune with the spirit of his father, which helps reconcile the son to his father, his father’s death, and his own life.

“The Two Domains” (1994), representative of Goldbarth’s fine extended-length poems, deals with the hiring by the female owner of a novelty catalog and warehouse of a male medium able to commune with and allay unhappy supernatural spirits, which are apparently disrupting her business; in this forty-five-page mixture of verse and prose, which demonstrates Goldbarth’s mastery, as elsewhere, over the prose fiction components of plot and narrative, are combined popular culture, romantic love, eros, and the supernatural. The medium discovers that the unhappy spirits are lovers frustrated on the brink of fulfillment, and when he and the pragmatic business owner, representatives of the two domains of the otherworldly and worldly, make love, they overcome the dead lovers’ impeded act and in several senses lay the ghosts to rest.

Art and collecting

The visual arts—painting, painters, architecture, objets d’art—and collecting are recurrent subjects in Goldbarth’s poetry. For example, the extended-length poem “Radio Pope” (1993) deals with the relationship between father and young daughter affected by the father’s mania for collecting old radios, causing the nickname of the poem’s title; the radios symbolize the communication, or lack of it, between parent and child. A key impulse behind both collecting and art, as suggested in “Acquisitions” (1994), is the assertion of self: the idea that “this is mine.” The poem also contains Goldbarth’s recurrent metapoetic comment on poetry (in this instance, the contrasting styles and perspectives of Elizabeth Bishop and Kenneth Koch) and scatology (a mentally disturbed modern painter uses his own excrement—symbolizing the idea “this is mine”—for his medium).

“In the Bar in the Bar” (1998) and “1880” (2001) show how the recurrent concept of layering in Goldbarth’s poetry—related to archaeology, family, and time (one civilization or generation on top of another)—coincides with the poet’s interest in art and science in the topic of the X-raying of paintings and the overpainting of paintings. In the former poem, the very different underpainting covered by Portrait of Edward VI of England suggests how an opposite self or perspective is inside many people, as in the case of the Goldbarthian speaker and his bride uttering ”yes, yes” to the marriage vows, while already beginning to change to “no, no.”

In the latter poem, a mysterious figure in Renoir’s At the Concert, brought out by infrared examination, symbolizes or parallels the intrusion or beginning intrusion of the twentieth century—the telephone, Albert Einstein, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock—into the sedate Victorian world of the painting and of Renoir himself. The style of the poem, with its disjointed, intervalled, intruding stanzas of italics (with parts of some individual words broken off or fragmented from one italic stanza to the next) of a conversation seemingly independent of the poem, helps convey the theme of fragmentation, as does the fragmenting pun on “brush” (the painter’s brush or brushwork, the social brush or contact with another person) at the poem’s end.


In his several collections after 2001, Goldbarth has continued the focus on several subjects in his earlier poetry books. His interest in science and its connections with daily life, along with a gift for neologism, has produced such humorous coinages as “overloadium,”“beforeon,” “thoughtosphere,” “pupaverse,” “inbetweenodon,” “possibilityrons,” and “eternacules.” In “Zero: Terror/Lullabye” (2003), the vast emptiness in the universe, from the space within atoms to that between planets, is seen to motivate various human constructs, from religion and art to science itself. In “The Invisible World” (2005), the relation between a small mass and its huge energy potential may explain ghosts, extrasensory perception, the brain’s scope in dreaming, and a stone’s scope, in “subatomic potential,” of being the moon. In “Whale and Bee” (2007), evolution impels diversity in marriages as “experiments, in search of further/ alloys of the human genome,” while universe and world are continually and paradoxically “melding and dividing/ in . . . small parts.” In “Alimentary” (2009), with a pun on “elementary,” pigs’ omnivorous consumption and fertilization is a parallel of the process of “undo-and-replenish” of the earth and of the cosmos itself (as stars explode and furnish matter for new stars and planets).

Science fiction

How subjects and motifs intersect in Goldbarth’s poetry, such as science fiction and illness, aging, and death, may be seen in “Futures” (2003), in which the “sci-fi book” being read by the protagonist strongly contrasts in its bright future and heroic rescue of a woman with the protagonist’s real present of helplessness in the face of a mother’s impending death from cancer. Likewise, in “The Rocket Ship” (2005), the fifty-five-year-old Goldbarthian protagonist runs across a favorite toy rocket ship that he saw at age twenty-five as a metaphor for the radiation cancer treatment of a lover, whose body seemed worthy of Einstein’s and Hawking’s theorizing. In “While Everyone Else Went Starward” (2007), the speaker notes that a science-fiction novel posits Earth representing a science-fiction Rapture, with everything a remnant of what was left behind; this “dire” outcome becomes “dear” (in an inevitable half-rhyme), exemplified by latter-day devotees of Stonehenge who bring flowers and the widow who had her husband’s ashes included in her breast implants. In “The Mailbox” (2009), the speaker has a dream of awakening more than a century in the future and discovering marvels but also the sad loss of books and mailboxes—words on paper.

Aging, illness, and death

A great number of poems deal with aging, illness, and death: of Goldbarth’s parents, of Goldbarth’s friends and acquaintances, and (especially in later books) of Goldbarth himself. In “The Sonnet for Planet 10” (2003), the speaker connects his mother’s process of dying in the nursing home with the unfinished establishment of a tenth planet for the solar system, Michelangelo statues with an unfinished appearance, incomplete household chores, unrealized conversations with his mother, and the incomplete form of the poem, originally meant to be a sonnet. In “Patoot and Poopik” (2005), the speaker’s memory of his father in the hospital as well as after the father’s death is connected to the speaker’s fascination with some of his father’s favorite words and the process of new words being enabled by the death of old words like “orrery,” “wastrel,” and “sillibub.” In “’You Might Notice Blood in Your Urine for a Couple of Weeks’/& Scenes from the American Revolution” (2005), the speaker becomes a “crystal ball” (with a colloquial anatomical pun) for male friends in relation to his prostate biopsy, while connections are made to the speaker’s reading on the American Revolution. In “Off in the darkness hourses moved restlessly . . .” (2007), the misprint in a Clifford Simak science-fiction novel (“hourses” instead of “horses”) leads to the notion of the inevitable passing of time, even though the person is attempting to dismount. In “Marble-Sized Song” (2009), a meditation on the words and concept of “in” and “into” leads climactically to the focus on the speaker’s friend John, whose wife’s marble-sized, mysterious “growth” causes the primary and secondary physicians to declare “we must go in and in.”

Language and literary criticism

Goldbarth’s fascination with individual words and phrases, often linked to malaprops, is connected with the issues of how language affects perception, interpersonal relations, and whole cultures. It also connects with constant comments about poetry, his own and that of other poets. “Maypurés” (2003) links obsolete maps, poems with obsolete words, and the famous parrot of Maypurés, whose language none could understand when the last of the Atures tribe had vanished. “Some Common Terms in Latin That Are Larger Than Our Lives” (2005) moves from application of the word “etcetera” to elements of the more outlandish science-fiction novel, to the application of the words “et alia” (including supernatural elements akin to those of science fiction) to New York victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to Manhattan’s dazed victims staring “at the incomprehensible shape of things, the sky,/ and what’s beyond the sky, and beyond that, ad infinitum.” In “Completing the Things” (2007), the words “love,” “tumor,” and “frisson” complete the things or experiences referred to, while the Asmat New Guinea tribe “can enter realms/ denied to us because they have a culture term/ like ’soul ship.’” In “3. B. Digital a. Baginal Wall” (2007), the speaker advises his undergraduate poetry students to intentionally engage in malapropism—“do you know what crime it is?”; “It’s yours for No Honey Down”—to experiment with other realities or perspectives rather than “being blinded by the immediacy of their own/ impossibly boringly splendid” but cliché autobiographical experiences.

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Goldbarth, Albert