The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483

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.

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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, it’s mating season too. “The dust motes drift, the continents.” Time moves inexorably on, and very little has changed over the “history of civilization.” All species must reproduce themselves in order to move into the future, and the poem concludes, “In the fern bar a hand tries a knee, as if unplanned.”

Although the poem presents these rooms as opening into each other, as though they were linked in physical space, the subtle shifts in vocabulary hint that they may inhabit a continuum in time, as though there were only one room that has gone through the transformation from storage vault to “back room” to grocery to dating bar, following the needs of the new generations. Either “reading” is acceptable, since history is not only a series of successive events but also a fluid connection between events—a layering of time and place and interpretation.

The title of the poem makes large claims, but the details of the poem are so particular—and sometimes humorous—that the reader understands that the title is at least partly tongue-in-cheek. Take any place and peel back the layers, the poem seems to say, and you will find just such a “history.” The progress of the human race depends on rooms such as these. “A History of Civilization” honors the daily lives of ordinary people even as it pokes some fun at the concepts of “history” and “civilization.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477

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 sexuality and procreation, the first of humans, the last of cats.) Cats “eye” cats, and everything “comes down to a few/ sure moves.” There are “sure moves” in language, too, as Goldbarth deftly describes an era in a few chosen words.

“A History of Civilization” relies heavily on alliteration and assonance. “Two top buttons” emphasizes the letter t, and “white wedges” and “flicker like filaments” are other obvious examples of these techniques. Goldbarth also carefully orchestrates his phrases more subtly to take advantage of consonants, as in the parallel sounds of “coffee barrel” and “kidney beans” or the elegance of “unlit lengths.” Vowels are given similar importance, starting with the short a of “back,” which is echoed throughout. The short u of “rut” and “estrus” weds them in sound as well as sense. But the tour de force of assonance remains the “register as intricate as a Sicilian shrine.” The shift from a hard to a soft c and the repeated n make the tongue “polish” the phrase just as the woman lingers over her dusting.

There is a ghost of meter behind this poem—“In the dating bar, the potted ferns lean down” has more than a hint of iambic pentameter, and this rhythm is repeated just often enough to remind the reader of its presence. Never singsong, the poem builds toward the metrical authority of its most important sentence: “The dust motes drift, the continents.”

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Themes