Combinations of the Universe

by Albert Goldbarth
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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1533

Albert Goldbarth is the author of more than twenty collections of poetry.Combinations of the Universe is his latest foray into the infinite world of knowledge. He always has been a poet who believes in the power of the imagination, almost to a fault. Goldbarth never shies away from pulling together seemingly disparate items into a new and complicated whole. For the poet, everything under the sun can belong in the same poem. He not only ventures into uncharted territory with exuberant abandon but also has the talent to make his creations work.

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Relentless in his approach, he has been a tireless creator for thirty years. Born in Chicago, Goldbarth received his B.A. from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1969. He went on to earn an M.F.A. from the esteemed creative writing program at the University of Iowa. Since 1987 he has held the position of Distinguished Professor of Humanities in the English department at Wichita State University. He published his first full-length poetry collection, Coprolites, in 1973. Goldbarth’s 1974 collection,Jan. 31, was nominated for a National Book Award in Poetry. BothHeaven and Earth: A Cosmology (1991) and Saving Lives (2001) won for Goldbarth the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry; he became the first writer to win this prestigious award twice. In addition to being considered an important American poet, Goldbarth has published a number of essay collections, including A Sympathy of Souls (1990), Great Topics of the World (1994), Dark Waves and Light Matter (1999), and Many Circles: New and Selected Essays (2001). In 2003 he published his first novel, Pieces of Payne.

Goldbarth has stated that he is not one to look back at what he has already written. It is more to his liking to move ahead, to get on with the task of creating something fresh. New challenges and new inspirations drive the poet forward. Goldbarth aspires to have devoted readers invest some quality time with his words in order to understand better what he is trying to do throughout the collection.

When read aloud, Goldbarth’s poems have a strange, hypnotic effect on their audience. For this reason, he has been compared favorably with the nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman. There is an almost electric quality to Goldbarth’s poetry. It has been his way to specialize in the “extended” poem. Goldbarth wants there to be enough room in each poem for him to “weave” various motifs throughout a poem or even add “quoted source material.” Within each of his long poems, there are still flashes of “concentration” that a reader might expect “from a brief poem,” but Goldbarth is looking for the accumulative richness that comes from the impact of the whole work.

Goldbarth’s poems are more than just the sum of their parts. Each of them is only as long as is necessary to arrive at the desired destination. It has been said that his creative method is one of putting everything around him “into the shopping cart even if the money runs out.” This is only true up to a point. He cannot be called reckless or careless or uninterested in what he dredges up from the world around him. Goldbarth sees interconnectedness in places where others may see none. As with his previous imaginative collections, Combinations of the Universe is brimming with energy and a passionate exuberance. The poet believes wholeheartedly in the interconnectedness of art, science, and myth. One critic said that reading one of Goldbarth’s collections is like “visiting Disney World, Vegas, the Library of Congress, and Graceland all on the same day.”

Combinations of the Universe is made up of eight sections: “Jan. 31st: Degrees of the Same Thing,” “Gods / Ancestors / Rituals,” “Gone,” “The Children,” “Everyday Astronomy, Cosmology, and Physics,” “Troubled Lovers in History (and a Few Who Seem Content),” “A Woman Bathing in a Stream, 1654,” and “From the Moon.” While Goldbarth excels at innovation, it is impossible for him to throw things away. There is seemingly nothing on the scrap heap of ideas that he cannot use to his advantage. What may look ordinary from one angle of observation may become profound from another. Under close observation, all lives and all theories become both more and less important than common tradition has dictated. There is spirituality in the mundane. There is comic relief in religious ritual. Goldbarth is interested in “intellectual excitement.”

As in his earlier collections, the poet shows off his mastery of various poetic forms, including the lyric, the narrative, the prose poem, and the long poem. He must be considered a born storyteller. The years of seemingly constant creative output have not diminished Goldbarth’s high standard of achievement. He begins the poem “The Polarized Responses” with the line “Of course the gods are alive! . . . they’regods.” Later in the poem, he makes the point that such gods as Siva Vrsabhavahana and Parvati do “attend to their celestial business: weather,/ cycles, essence, fate.” These gods, as do all other deities, have work to do. They must “listen/ every day to the wants of their human petitioners,/ and indulge in the perk of a deity:/ adoration.” This poem is divided into four parts. Goldbarth opens the second part with:

—The polarized responses
Walter Benjamin calls “cult value”
versus “exhibition value.” The tiger
is vitally alive to the seven-year-old boy
in the comic strip, it tussles, slurps, and romps,
though when the parents enter Thursday’s
final panel, it’s a stuffed toy
you could easily fit in a backpack.

In the last section of the poem, Goldbarth speaks of his own past. At synagogue, he “lifted/ the Torah” and found it to be “as heavy and large as the Word of God/ should be. . . . ” Toward the end of the poem, he confesses that “the Word is a radiant,/ touchable presence! . . . ” Because of the ecstatic joy that wells up inside the heart of someone who takes part in the “sober” synagogue service, Goldbarth is not surprised that he sees a man “nattily kick his heels/ in the air and twirl! Just the two of them./ Cheek to cheek. Slow dancing./ Swaying to the music.” The man has been seduced by the Torah, by the Word of God. The love affair is real; the love affair is pure truth.

Goldbarth’s playful side is in evidence in the poem “Remains Song.” Throughout the work, he makes note of what once existed fully formed and functional and is now no more than a fossil, DNA, and “so many atoms of carbon.” The last two lines give away Goldbarth’s sardonic sense of humor: “’She’s with God now,’ the priest said—frowning, as if/ God were a boy-toy neighbor she’d decided to run off with.” It is one of the poet’s well-known habits to take a provocative turn. Reading one of his poems can be a bumpy and meandering sojourn, but for readers who value adventure, exotic locales, and learning something central about themselves, the journey becomes impossible to resist.

As already noted, Goldbarth is a poet of many tones and shades. He is at times playful, at times passionate, and at times quite touching. In “Packing for a Difficult Trip,” he takes a “sci-fi paperback,” a “pedantically serious treatise,” and a “book of verse,” in order to pass the time on a “flight to Chicago.” Goldbarth tries to anticipate every eventuality, every “reading need” that may arise. The last four lines of the poem let the reader know what other eventualities may need to be prepared for:

If she’s in pain, I’ll divert her with
If she dies, I’ll be strong for my sister’s
Preparing preparing preparing. Now getting
onto the flight to Chicago.

This personal, heartbreaking situation is familiar to all people. Goldbarth gives himself away with his choice of reading material. The attentive reader of Combinations of the Universe will understand how the poet seems always to be juggling the likes of science fiction, dry treatises, and vibrant verse.

In “Myth Studies,” this point is brought home. It opens with “The custodian erases whatever simple biology/ lesson was on the blackboard: BIRTH.” The poet glimpses what the custodian does and imagines him to be “the Saint/ of First-Time Mothers.” Goldbarth explains himself by stating that “after the walls split, and the screams stopped,/ and Atlantis disappeared, another Atlantis/ —the one we carry in our heads, of scented gardens/ and ornate avenues—fills the emptiness.” The poem ends with the line “the blankness of fresh possibility.” For Goldbarth, the human mind has the capacity to wipe the slate clean, which makes it far easier for someone to move forward.

Goldbarth holds onto the notion that comprehension and faith are possible, even in the face of great suffering. If evolution has done anything, it has made the human brain able to conjure up “wholeness” where there was none before. Ever the optimist, Goldbarth has sought in his poetry to help the curious try to unlock as many doors as possible in the vast universe. Combinations of the Universe is another extraordinary collection from one of the United States’ most prolific and original poets.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 12 (February 15, 2003): 1033.

Library Journal 128, no. 1 (January 1, 2003): 115.

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