by Albert Goldbarth
Charles Darwin makes frequent appearances in Everyday People, the thirty-first volume of poetry by the prolific Albert Goldbarth. Goldbarth’s interest here is in Darwin’s research aboard the HMS Beagle, which became the basis for his breakthrough work On the Origin of Species. Yet, as with so much of what goes into Goldbarth’s poems, Darwin’s explorations are used as the occasion for the poet’s own restless, imaginative probing of the world.
The poem “A Great Volume” is preceded by Darwin’s exuberant quote about the variety of life found in seaweed: “A great volume might be written, describing the inhabitants of one of these beds of seaweed.” Channeling this exuberance but taking it in an imaginatively different direction, Goldbarth begins the poem with a description of the fictional characters that could populate this great volume:
Inside is a seaweed city of windmills
tilted at, and charged, by a doofus platoon
of seaweed Don Quixotes. A thousand
small green desperations attach
to their deep-green Anna Kareninas and Madame Bovaries,
saline, ululating with the tides. A seaweed
Leopold Bloom is perennially making his seaweed rounds.
A seaweed Gilgamesh is heroic and foolish and torn
at the root by mortality, like anyone.
Darwin’s work is a fitting trope for the scope and embrace of Goldbarth’s poetry. Just as Darwin’s theory unified the evolution of all life on earth, Goldbarth’s poems attempt to tie together the wild and disparate experiences of our collective lives. Included in this four-page poem are parents’ irrational fears of harm that may befall their children; sex toys packed for a business trip; his father’s synagogue bag; a long list of plants and animals found in seaweed; sexual innuendos shared over a few drinks; and his mother’s metastasized cancer. The poem concludes with another Darwin quote and a Goldbarth observation.
“Humboldt,” says Darwin, “has given a most interesting
discussion on the history of the common potato.”
Time to bend down to the dirt and read
the eons inside of those eyes.
While Darwin finds great interest in the potato’s history, Goldbarth points out that the stories of many individuals, as told in everyday discussions, objects, and emotional attachments, travel alongside that history.
Perhaps the most common accolade given to Goldbarth’s poetry is for its astounding breadth of subject matter. A characteristic poem could span subjects as diverse as marital difficulties, ancient wars, the origins of the universe, rock music culture, science fiction, particle physics, job stress, spiritual revelations, the lives of strippers, and boredom.
However, what makes Goldbarth’s work so remarkable isn’t the piling on of disparate subjects but how he binds them together. Goldbarth is interested in the ways we attempt to create meaningful lives in a world filled with pain, grief, bewilderment, and occasional delight. A poem that is appropriately titled “The Human Condition” begins with “—of course. What else is there to write about?” Ultimately the human condition is Goldbarth’s only subject.
Despite this ambitious reach, the poems rarely come off as didactic or “messagey.” One reason is the masterful way he allows metaphor to do much of the work.
One such example is “Minnows, Darters, Sturgeon,” another wide-ranging meditation on the complex worlds that lurk beneath seemingly simple surfaces. This time his broad lens sweeps over subjects such as an organism’s complete biological blueprint contained in a single genome; a papyrus in which the characteristics of Nile reeds can be found; a Neolithic village excavated from under the surface of the earth; and a husband putting his ear to his sleeping wife’s back to imagine her dreams. Goldbarth ends with a beautiful image that describes the intense and chaotic lives of tiny pond fish.
They’re noisy, it turns out, when you have
the proper equipment . . . thundering booms
and drawn-out kiss-squeak figure prominently
in these fierce displays of territoriality
and sexual welcome underneath
the still and quiet surface.
The metaphor encapsulates the point of the entire poem—that a complexity and intensity can be found under the surface of worlds around us and within us.
“The Whole of the Law of our Human Vision” begins with a list of frivolous objects and ideas that come in and out of fashion. It then moves to a more somber point that the time we have to experience those trends is limited. He describes this as “a limited linear stretch in which / we have our pontiff vestments and our bonnets / and our bikinis and then we don’t . . .” The poem ends with an exquisite image that represents “the whole of the law of our human vision” as
the light of an entire day,
on a cloche hat,
on a swiftly streaming river,
floating away, away.
As far-reaching and inventive as these poems are, there is a similarity in approach and tone. Even when Goldbarth includes details of his own life, the overall perspective tends to be from the outside looking in. After a while one asks, is this whirl of detail and metaphor leading to observations about human existence all that Albert Goldbarth has to say? Does the poet ever reveal a side that is more personal, less in control?
He does. Near the end of the book, two poems about his mother’s death reveal the poet in a wrenchingly raw state. “Disproportionate” centers on the anguish he feels as his mother dies of cancer. True to the Goldbarth form, he introduces subjects that seem far afield but, in the end, articulate his point in surprising, innovative ways. At one point he uncomfortably equates his mother’s dying with the Nazi atrocities committed against the Jews. While admitting these subjects are grossly disproportionate (note the poem’s title), he posits that one gives gravity and intensity to the other:
. . . And you might think
we’d be diminished by such contrast, we’d be one
cremated leaf in the roar of the forest fire . . . no, in fact
we’re validated; now our inchling soarings-up
and sinklings have a pedigree.
Then, in the midst of making this point, he inserts the shockingly incongruous statement “I don’t mean to underplay the enjoyment of this.” What? What enjoyment? Without hesitating he proceeds to describe a child’s enjoyment in eating a just-picked tomato and rapturous moans rising from a sultan’s pleasure palace. Then he shifts to a list of people with uncomfortable jobs: one who sweeps blood after a bullfight; a biologist attacked by flamingos; colleagues stuck all day behind computer screens. This culminates in the description of his sister’s job which “she performed with dearly purchased calm”: to tell him his mother died.
The detours in this poem successfully divert attention from the subject so that when we are brought back, the effect is completely jarring. The meanderings represent the mind’s natural tendency to move toward and away from such difficult thoughts. In this, Goldbarth enacts his state when he received the news of his mother’s death.
The poem that follows offers no relief. “Toward It” intersperses inconsequential facts like the makeup of Happy Meal toys and a Doctor Doolittle story from his childhood, with more personal details of an early sexual experience and the moment his grandfather told him that his grandmother had died. Interwoven with memories of his mother’s final days, these are powerful details presented in the quintessential Goldbarth style. However tracking alongside are italicized fragments that appear at different points in the poem and accumulate to make a point at the end of the poem:
everything prepares us
everything prepares us for death
[that doesn’t mean we’re prepared]
The movement of these fragments through the poem begins with the poem’s title. They enact the subconscious momentum of overwhelming grief that builds as a loved one is dying. These poems add new emotional colors to the entire collection. They expand the range of this book about the lives of everyday people to include the deeply personal emotions of Goldbarth himself.
With Everyday People, Goldbarth is intent on disproving any notion that ordinary people lead unremarkable lives. This new collection is a generous, expansive investigation of the richness, the struggle, and the beauty that pervade the lives of us all. It is the work of a remarkable thinker who, like Charles Darwin, significantly expands our understanding and appreciation of the world.