Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1556
Albert Goldbarth looks at life as a complex maze, something not easily reduced. As a poet, he has thrived on the contradictions of life. Goldbarth is fascinated by the common human quest to establish connections with some people and to break connections with others. He is amused by the need to find a structure to life. In his poetry, Goldbarth throws together myriad images, facts, anecdotes, and historical perspectives. It is an understatement that Goldbarth is a challenging poet. He has a knack of gathering together obscure details in order to fill out his universe. The uninitiated reader may scratch his or her head and puzzle over where the poetic journey may lead.
Goldbarth is the author of more than twenty volumes of poetry and several collections of essays. Two of his previous volumes have won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. His poetic approach has been called postmodernist. Some of his poems can be best described as puzzles, as labyrinths for the curious and diligent reader. Every subject is fair game for Goldbarth, worth adding to the mix.
Educated at the University of Illinois and the University of Iowa, Goldbarth published his first full-length poetry collection, Coprolites, in 1973. Since then, he has amazed the literary community with his output. He has stated that he strives for “a kind of shared wisdom or power” to exist “between my poems operating at their best and the best reading that can be brought to them.” Goldbarth clearly recognizes the special bond that can be established between reader and poet. Any truth that can be culled from a poem becomes possible only when the “good reader” and the poem that was “so well written” intersect. Goldbarth believes intensely in the “integrity to the written word.” The good reader must be able to absorb what is on the page.
Goldbarth searches for connections in odd places, between strange items, things that are in seemingly unrelated orbits but in the end are linked by the human condition. For him, “the universe is nothing but incomprehensible multilayers.” He can be looked at as an archaeologist or a private detective, a sleuth for the ages. A Goldbarth creation is packed with details. For him, individuals are “all a thousand things at once.” People and the universe are “multiplicitous.” It is as if he has plucked elements out of the air like a magician, has unearthed a lost civilization like a dedicated scientist. A Goldbarth reader must love becoming immersed in the surroundings. There is no fast in and out, poem understood, point made. If Goldbarth can dig, collect, gather together, then his readers must be willing to do the same.
Over his career, Goldbarth has been extraordinarily productive. Budget Travel Through Space and Time is his twenty-third volume of poetry, and it is no less complex than all of his previous volumes. It is divided into nine sections. Most of the sections contain four or five poems. Three of the sections, the first, fifth, and ninth, are named “Space and Time.” Sections 4 and 7 are titled “Through History on Pennies a Day,” with 4 subtitled “1” and 7 subtitled “2.” The collection opens with the poem “Budget Travel Through the Universe.” As Goldbarth’s poetry primarily is written for the peruser, the casual reader may immediately recoil and seek refuge elsewhere. The first line of the title poem makes the bold statement “We can rig a supernova in a single laptop jiffy.” This certainly is an intriguing concept, and the curious reader will continue down the page with eager anticipation of what comes next. Toward the end of the second stanza, the poet lets the reader understand that “It turns out we can travel assuredly through time/ by simply sitting in our chairs or on the floor/ and making lazy conversation. Just by having/ a metabolism, we can voyage into the future.” By the end of the poem, the poet is left breathless by the journey, “changed for a moment” and “beached on a foreign shore.”
The second section of the collection appropriately is titled “A Trip to the Country of Crazy, and Back.” It always has been Goldbarth’s approach to take the reader on a journey to somewhere far beyond the ordinary, beyond any semblance of normalcy. The images in this section can be startling, as is the following from the poem “A Knife Through the Head (Your Distresses and Mine)”:
One man, in a stellarscape of novas and cankered planets,displays his asshole as if it’s a ring on a white silk pillow:eyes spew out. One woman is nothing but a red penny-sized dot.
The poem ends with “it’s only one more/ room in the world of a thousand selves of the one self.” In a sense, this is a precise way to describe Goldbarth himself. He is at least a thousand selves wrapped into one, but this is something he would say is true for everyone. Humans, the universe, everything has too many faces to count, but Goldbarth will not go away without giving the exercise a brilliant attempt. As a poet he is also philosopher, scientist, historian, explorer, inventor, and more. Always seeming to relish the telling of a good yarn or tall tale, as long as something can be learned by its telling, the poet uncovers truth wherever it may hide. Goldbarth is certainly of the viewpoint that someone can learn just as much from an everyday experience as from some lofty profound one.
As the poet sees it, good ideas can be found under every proverbial rock. Over the years, though, some critics have taken issue with Goldbarth’s approach to poetry. It has been argued by some that his poetry really is nothing more than a bunch of lists and that all the dazzling wordplay adds up to very little. The idea of everything being interconnected, therefore, becomes nothing more than an elaborate smokescreen. Goldbarth is one of America’s most learned and prolific poets. It can be argued that he has been prolific and learned to a fault. He is a poet who needs to be revisited, to be savored, and yet he continues to produce volume after volume. In sheer output, he has been compared to the amazingly prolific American novelist Joyce Carol Oates. For some in the literary community, the comparison is more a complaint then a compliment. The critics seem to be asking Goldbarth to better manage his literary career, to not oversaturate the market. In reality, writers cannot think this way. For more than thirty years, Goldbarth has felt inspired to write long poems, to sew together his multilayered visions of the world. It is unlikely that he will be giving up his quest to make sense of what is around him anytime soon.
The last section of Budget Travel Through Space and Time opens with the poem “Three Days: Three Sections.” In the first stanza, Goldbarth lets the reader know that “It’s a thousand years after the last real city” and that “Humanity is nomadic again, is scattered bands/ with collapsible tents.” The nomads come across “the remains/ of a cloverleafed freeway.” With this remarkable discovery, the nomads hope that by following the route of the freeway that it will be possible for the glorious past to be “regained.” By the end of the stanza, it is revealed that “For now, their chosen task is preparedness.” Goldbarth emphasizes the necessity for patience, for being prepared for every eventuality. The last stanza informs the reader that waiting “is what this poem is about” and that there is beauty in the very act of waiting. The poet is not about to promise instant gratification. If anything is to be gained by reading poetry, it only will come through the methodical, line-by-line reading of what has been put on the page.
A Goldbarth poem can be as exhausting as it is exhilarating. Although similarities can be found in each Goldbarth collection, he does not look back at what came before, instead blazing a new trail. Within each new collection, he constructs unique labyrinths that stimulate him as well as those who make up the family of his devoted readers. Goldbarth believes in the “power of books to save some individual life out there.” It is obvious that he will not give up his attempt to connect with the good readers of the world. While Goldbarth is not naïve enough to think that a book alone can have a major impact on culture at large, he still remains a poet who strives to make a difference in one person’s life.
Budget Travel Through Space and Time is one of Goldbarth’s most challenging collections. The reader will be introduced to William Herschel constructing a telescope out of horse manure in the eighteenth century, to the migratory patterns of Arctic terns, to American colonial history, to the Paleolithic era, and much more. The collection can be thought of as an 162-page jigsaw puzzle. Goldbarth once again has done his part to write with extraordinary fervor and can only hope now that this collection will be picked up and closely read by one good reader, and from one good reader the collection will be shared with an ever-expanding number of devotees who are willing to take the journey through space and time.
Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14
Booklist 101, no. 12 (February 15, 2005): 1053.
Library Journal 130, no. 3 (February 15, 2005): 134-135.
Poetry 186 (June, 2005): 260.
Publishers Weekly 252, no. 10 (March 7, 2005): 66.
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