Albert Goldbarth has been wrestling with the poetic form and popular culture since the early 1970’s. He has earned the reputation of being one of the most important poets of his generation. Amazingly enough, Goldbarth has found a way not only to write penetrating and complex poems but also to be prolific in his output. Since the early 1970’s, he has averaged almost one collection a year. This certainly is a rare achievement. Goldbarth always has upheld a high standard. Humor, family, popular culture, and civilization have been but a few of the many topics that Goldbarth has successfully juggled. He likes to take the long view, to observe the present by investigating the past and finding connections. It is always an adventure for both the poet and the reader. A lesson must be learned, or the mistakes of the past will be repeated again and again. The wisdom imparted is never heavy-handed, though. Goldbarth believes that playfulness is a strength of poetry, not a weakness. The poet is absorbed with the architecture of a poem and the many cultures described. Born in Chicago, Goldbarth learned to appreciate the rhythm of the urban landscape.
Both Saving Lives (2001) and Heaven and Earth: A Cosmology (1991) won the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. Amazingly, Goldbarth is the only poet to have won the award twice. Asked about the purpose of poetry, Goldbarth has stated, “It’s not my place to define the job of poetry, but a lot of my poems do try to serve as memorials, as segments of frozen time that save people or cultural moments that have otherwise passed away or are in danger of passing away.” The poet can serve as a keeper of the record, someone who can capture the flavor of an age or a people. For Goldbarth, curiosity is paramount, curiosity about the world around him. There is a zest both for the mystical and the secular, and both must be given full voice. Goldbarth wrestles with the relationship between the material world and the religious domain. Some of his collections that take on these crucial themes are Faith (1981), Heaven and Earth, and Beyond (1998).
It is always difficult for a poet to select poems for any collection. For Goldbarth, his publisher generously allowed him 350 pages for The Kitchen Sink: New and Selected Poems, 1972-2007, and the poet wondered whether he would be able to fill the book. Soon enough, however, Goldbarth realized that he had more than enough poems. First of all, it was decided that there needed to be a “substantial section of ‘new’ poems.” With this in mind, the number of representative poems from the earlier collections had to be trimmed. Not wanting to “excerpt” long poems, a number of poems had to be instantly set aside. The inclusion of long poems would obviously mean that fewer poems could be included, and excerpts rarely do justice to the whole, so it is no surprise that Goldbarth and his publisher would agree that very long poems had no place in The Kitchen Sink.
He also wanted the “selected” poems to have been published in his previous collections, not merely in journals. For the most part, poems that Goldbarth has published since 1983 have received the largest representation. The “Albert Goldbarth” who existed before 1983 was “seminally important” but receives “little representation” in this collection. The “Prefatory Note” is divided into “What’s Not Here,” and “What’s Here.” More times than not, a collection that includes poems from previous volumes will divide the sections by which collection...
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the poems appeared in, but Goldbarth has decided not to follow that pattern. ForThe Kitchen Sink, he has divided the volume into four major sections, with a short opening section titled “An Invocation to the Muse” and a “Coda” to end the collection.
Within the opening section, Goldbarth has merely included the poems “Shawl” and “Library.” Midway through “Shawl,” the poet states that “more reliable was the book; he was discovering himself/ to be among the tribe that reads.” The twenty-year-old male riding on a bus who had eyed the woman’s knee several times comes to realize that it is merely himself and the book that really matter. The poem “Library” opens with the line “This book saved my life.” The poem ends with “This book is going to save the world.” This poem can be looked at as a description of a book by the poet himself. In the library, readers can find books for every interest, with a wide spectrum of viewpoints. There are also every absurdity, every horror represented within the walls of a library. The poem includes such provocative lines as “This book gave me a hard-on,” “This book deflected a bullet,” “This book is an intercom for God,” and “This book I slammed against the wall.” The Kitchen Sink is Goldbarth’s library, his book about everything. It is evident that Goldbarth believes in the power of the printed word. The next two sections of The Kitchen Sink include poems that were published between 1983 and 2005.
The first of these sections, “Love and Cosmology,” is divided into thematic groupings such as “The Far Perimeters,” “Ancestored-Back,” “The Gods,” “This Thing Larger than Self,” and “The Fathers.” For this collection, Goldbarth decided that he did not want to divide up everything by the previous volume in which each poem had appeared. The poems have been arranged in a fresh way, allowing each to be read from a new perspective. This is an unusual arrangement, since most volumes of selected poems do identify the poems by collection.
For the second section of poems from 1983 to 2005, Goldbarth grouped them by length. This section, “The Rising Place for the Dough,” includes only poems of one page each. Within these two sections of poems from the recent past, there are more than eighty well-chosen poems. Over the years, Goldbarth has written about love, including the need for love, love of family, love of life, and especially romantic love. He has revisited romantic love time and again. One of his one-page poems, “The Dating Report,” relates the progress made by his friend Don with his latest relationship. Don calls “to tell me about a woman he’s dating” and during the conversation confesses that even though he likes her that there are “small things” getting in the way. This new love has a “psychic therapist” who has told her that she had “drowned in Atlantis.” What is someone supposed to do with this knowledge? She is irritated by “His tightass opinion of television,” and Don is bothered by “her kids.” There also is “panic” and “the waters pouring in between.” It is difficult to see how this or any relationship survives the slings and arrows, the “tightass opinion” and “her kids.” With all of this and more, Goldbarth still believes in moving forward, in making connections.
On the cover of The Kitchen Sink is an image by the artist John Schoenherr. There is a finger prominently stuck in the cosmos, possibly stirring the pot. As a poet, Goldbarth always seems to have his finger firmly placed in the cosmos. He must probe, test, experiment, gather evidence, and certainly make connections. Goldbarth’s poetry has been called “sprawling,” an appropriate word to describe his approach. One word will never do when five or ten words are available, yet they remain well-chosen words, well-chosen images that sparkle, that sting. The section “The Fossil of an Omelet” includes thirteen poems from 1972 to 1983. Of these early poems, one of the most memorable is “A History of Civilization.” The poem takes place in a “dating bar” where “the potted ferns lean down/ conspiratorially, little spore-studded/ elopement ladders” and “The two top buttons/ of every silk blouse have already half-undone all/ introduction.” At the end of the poem, “a hand tries a knee, as if unplanned.” This and everything in between constitutes the history of civilization. It can be said that there is really nothing new under the sun, in the mix, that drives the human heart.
For the section of new poems, Goldbarth has seen fit to include thirty-four poems. The poet has named this section “Human Beauty,” and the title poem speaks to the idea of what makes up human beauty. The poem opens: “If you write a poem about love / the love is a bird,// the poem is an origami bird./ If you write a poem about death // the death is a terrible fire,/ the poem is an offering of paper cutout flames// you feed to the fire.” The poet identifies how these images are “the space between/ our gestures and the power they address/ an insufficiency. And yet a kind of beauty,/ a distinctly human beauty.” The idea of how human beauty can be created, built, moldedin all of its insufficiencyis at the core of the poet, the inventor. Humans look for beauty, for meaning, as they muddle through the ordinary day.
In the new poem “Voyage,” Goldbarth details the inner demons that can haunt humans. It opens with “The banditos of the inner region would take not only/ your money but, with little provocation, your throat/ their dogs were said to love that tender delicacy/ especially.” What someone encounters during the day can come back to haunt him at night. Toward the end of the poem, Goldbarth states that “when the bed has reached/ the shore of another morning, that’s when I often see him/ holding to the rail, somewhat weak.” The voyage in question is the one taken by Charles Darwin to the Galápagos. The last line of “Voyage” urges humans to “Go out and see what’s new today with the species.” The idea of collecting or gathering objects is a recurring topic for Goldbarth. Over the years, he has remained fascinated with archaeology, with linking the past to the present. He is intrigued by how humans fit into the mix, into the cosmos. Goldbarth recognizes, however, that pain, heartbreak, and death of a loved one can strike a blow to the human psyche that makes it difficult to recover. In one of his one-page poems, “The Theory of Absolute Forms,” Goldbarth expresses how it may not be easy to comprehend “an infinite universe,” but “how far pain can go in your bone” is a question that almost everyone must face. Unfortunately, the answer could be “Forever, I think.” In the second stanza of the poem, the poet relates how a wound that he has had for merely an hour is very familiar to his doctor. The doctor has been on “intimate” terms with it “for years.” Each time a doctor examines a patient, years of preparing for “this moment” come into play.
The Kitchen Sink shows off Goldbarth at his expansive best. Always willing to take chances, to find new ways of exploiting his brilliant imagination, the poet has produced yet another extraordinary collection that reminds readers of this truly original voice.
Booklist 103, no. 13 (March 1, 2007): 54.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 11, 2007, p. 2.
Publishers Weekly 254, no. 9 (February 26, 2007): 61-64.
The Virginia Quarterly Review 83, no. 3 (Summer, 2007): 264.