The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Reading “A History of Civilization” is somewhat like opening a box within a box within a box. The poem consists of four six-line stanzas organized so that each stanza focuses on a particular place and each place suggests a particular past. Each of the first three stanzas ends on the open phrase “In back,” thus sending the reader quickly into the next stanza. For all its brevity, “A History of Civilization” does not quite fit the definition of a lyric. The reader does not “overhear” a speaker, but is treated to a complex layering of scenes.

The poem opens in the present, in a “dating bar” where everything is a bit suggestive. All the details evoke the contemporary—silk blouses, sweet brie. In back of the dating bar is the “last one-family grocer’s,” with its strings of vegetables, coffee, kidney beans. The lush details of the store—the “millet barrel” and the cash register “as intricate as a Sicilian shrine”—seem to be of another era. The woman here is proud of her clean linen apron rather than a silk blouse.

In back of the grocery is a room with a fireplace where a ring of “somber-gabardined grandpas” play dominoes: “Even their/ coughs, their phlegms, are in an older language.” This scene evokes America’s immigrant past. The final stanza takes place “in back/ of the back room” where cats are eyeing other cats, spraying the sacks and baskets with their scent. Here, in the animal world,...

(The entire section is 483 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The most notable device in “A History of Civilization” is the use of subtle shifts in tone and language. Goldbarth not only lingers lovingly on the details of each specific place but also looks at each scene with a slightly altered eye. In the dating bar, sexual innuendo is extended to inanimate objects; the ferns are seen as “spore-studded/ elopement ladders.” There is a sardonic eye that equates “slices of smiles” with “slices of sweet brie.” Even the atmosphere of the bar (“dark and its many white wedges”) is reduced to pockets of light where the single people can eye one another. In the grocery, however, Goldbarth illuminates the past, as though it were imperative to “fix” it in memory. His adjectives and similes make the objects almost palpable. The coffee barrel has a “cordovan sheen,” and the millet scoops “stand at attention.” “Sheen” extends to the woman polishing the cash register until “sheen” elides to “shrine.”

The next stanza finds its core in the repeated imagery of insubstantiality. The old men doze and wake in “fitful starts” by a “guttering” fire. Their beards “flicker” in the light. In the shimmer of such vocabulary, the people appear and fade, half-seen, nearly legend. There is an almost formal tone as the poet pays homage to their simplicity. The vocabulary and tone of the final stanza returns to the informal, almost hip, language of the opening. (Both stanzas have to do with...

(The entire section is 477 words.)