''A Wooden Eye. An 1884 Silver Dollar.
A Homemade Explosive. A Set of False Teeth.
And a 14-Karat Gold Ashtray,"
says my wife, and then she looks up from her book
called something like Cockamamie Facts and tests me:
"What's their common denominator?"—right. As if
we still believe some megamatrix substrate (God,
or atoms, or Imagination) holds the infinite unalike dots
of its body in a parity, and daily life reflects this. As if
all of our omniform, far-post-lungfish, nuttier-than-Boschian
evolution, crowned by any ten minutes of channel-surfing
the news and (little difference) entertainment possibilities here
at the bung-end of the millennium, hadn't knocked that idea
out of our heads and onto what my father would have charmingly
its bazoonkus. Common denominator—sure. And yet
it's Sunday night—my wife is reading in bed, with the grim
conviction that the work-week upcoming is going to be one
spirit-dead, hellacious spate of days—and so her mood,
her mind, increasingly assume the über-darkness of the night
itself, the way "industrial melanization" means those moths
in the factory districts gradually blackened to match
their new, soot / city background: and I see, now, how
the sleepless nun, and the lycanthrope in a skulking prowl,
and the warehouse watchman telling the face of his friend
the clock his griefs, his griefs ... are all subsumed and
equalized into the night, as into a magpie's hoard: so
maybe some Ultracommodiousness, some Great Coeval, does
exist (it might be the Night, it might be almost any of our
pancultural abstractions) and welcomes us into its organizational
gestalt. If so ... if so, it's more than my day's scan
of newspaper cullings and letters can ever rise above itself
to see. I learn someone's investigated the annual global methane
in cattle gas; that every seven years a god will fill the toad
attached to the tip of a ritual ribboned pole, and glow like a lamp
in its warty belly—then it rains; that only yesterday a girl,
eleven, was found with the name of a rival gang, the Lady Satans,
carefully cut in her thigh and rubbed with drainpipe acid. Somewhere
there may be a world where such as these are equally legitimized, but
not here in the thick and swirling mists of Planet Albert. So
imagine my confusion today at a letter from friend Alane,
who's sweet enough to read and like my poems, and praises
my "inclusiveness," and writes ''I'm watching a man with nothing
below the waist on television. He's saying he can do anything.
He walks on his hands, he has a lovely wife. Now, you'd
know what to do with him. Me, I just shake my head &
take my hat off." I can't guess at how reliably the toad god
zaps the crops with rain—I do know that this faith
in me is wholly undeserved. And as for lovely wives ... the answer
is: "Those are the weirdest items tuxedo rental-shops reported
finding in pockets of suits returned to them this year,
a fashion magazine says," and with that
thematizing of what had looked like data chaos, she
turns out the light, and flumes the pillows, and
starts her billowy downslip into sleep. And leaves me
wakeful—leaves me wildly trying to think of pockets adequate
to everything: The ashtree staff of the hermit
on his mountaintop for seventeen years. The latest Nintendo
epic, Callow Drooling Wombat Warriors. The doctors
cracking open Nicky's sternum like a matzoh—he was five.
The perfect wedge of brie John found one dawn on his car hood.
Gunshots. Twill weft. Owl-hoo. Storm, and calm.
The poem as fit receptacle. Sure. Right.
I'll know what to do with them.
Where other poets try to remove inessentials, to compress and condense, to make poems (as Ezra Pound quipped) into "gists and piths," Goldbarth does the reverse: his gregarious poems (he has published over a thousand) try to fit everything in, juxtaposing the serious concerns that have been the traditional domain of lyric—love, death, anomie, God, depression, joy—with trivia, ephemera, facts from any field of human knowledge, and other items that seem too awkward, too inconsequential, or too absurd to find a place in a more conventionally, or more densely, organized poem. No living poet—if we can judge by the poem—would do better on Jeopardy! Goldbarth entitled his 2007 selected poems The Kitchen Sink, as in "everything but the kitchen sink"; other titles from The Kitchen Sink include "Some Common Terms in Latin That Are Larger than Our Lives," "Astronomy / A Pulitzer Prize Winner's Statement That Bears upon Early American History / Cakeology," "***!!!The Battle of the Century!!!***," and "Things I've Put in This Poem."
"'A Wooden Eye'" is (like many of Goldbarth's poems) both a love poem and an ars poetica: as it pays homage to his wife, Schuyler, it shows us what his style tries to do, why we might object, why he—and we—might cherish it anyway, and what only Goldbarth's chatty, approximate, fast-paced poems can do. The poet and critic Mark Halliday has dubbed this sort of writing "ultra-talk poetry": an "ultra-talk" poet, in Halliday's words, sounds "like a practiced raconteur extemporizing," making easy-to-follow connections among "seven or eleven things ... swirling in my head," so that he might "go ... over well with a not-especially-literary crowd." Halliday was praising David Kirby; readers soon applied the term to Goldbarth, Barbara Hamby, Campbell McGrath, and Halliday himself. Among these writers, Goldbarth began publishing first; he also has the least predictable syntax, the clearest engagement with literary history, and the widest, most eclectic range of reference. Indeed, that range is one subject for his poems, as it represents one part of real life—one part of many people's inner lives—that sharper, slimmer, more songlike poems cannot address. It is the part, at once extroverted and geeky, that almost frantically collects information, trivia, ideas; tchotchkes, secondhand-store finds; and people, acquaintances, friends with stories to tell.
"'A Wooden Eye'" does not just demonstrate ultra-talk style; it shows what emotional work that style performs. To read Goldbarth is to watch his mind connect one fact to the next, and the next, as if talking and association were life itself. To stay on one topic, on the other hand, or (worse yet) to shut up, could mean death. More than half of Goldbarth's only novel, Pieces of Payne (2003), consists of digressive explanatory notes, introduced with an epigraph from John Muir: "When one tugs at a single thing in Nature, he finds it hitched to the rest of the Universe." The short "main" text of Pieces of Payne concerns a friend's cancer.
Restless, associative collection, both a subject and a project for Goldbarth's poems, becomes a pleasure in itself. But it also has a protective function: Goldbarth's accumulation of surfaces, of facts that fascinate for a bit, then slough off, suggests that depth, contemplation, remaining on one big topic for too long could be dangerous to our mental health, since the deepest topics of life—how should we live? what do we owe our loved ones? what should we do about death?—represent questions that do not have good answers. No "megamatrix substrate (God, / or atoms, or Imagination) holds" the solutions we seek. We can live with those questions only by asking more questions, by distracting ourselves and entertaining our friends.
Goldbarth's ultra-talk poems thus recall the proverbial shark, which must keep moving to keep breathing: they also suggest the work of a stand-up comedian, who has to keep entertaining at any cost. Goldbarth's wife, Schuyler, who figures in many of his poems, teases him with the expectation—more than reasonable, for another poet—that he can get organized, that his poetry can provide what Robert Frost called "a momentary stay against confusion." But Goldbarth says that he cannot: he is too riveted, too distracted, by the "omniform, far-post-lungfish, nuttier-than-Boschian" diversity of the facts at hand, which have no apparent reason to stay together, and no profound pattern they let us behold.
How can a poem built along such lines stay together? What do antique and modern, cosmetic and practical, dangerous and harmless, metal and wood, "Twill weft, and owl-hoo," "storm, and calm," have in common? How would you know? Can such knowledge turn out to be adaptive? Peppered moths, who depend on camouflage to hide them from avian predators, grew darker as the air in the north of England grew more polluted, a famous example of evolution by natural selection; can a poem help us get" darker" in order to better adapt ourselves to our dark world? Can a poem help you adapt to the "spirit-dead, hellacious ... über-darkness" of a terrible job, or of a depressive episode?
Writing in 1995, Goldbarth seems to anticipate the distracted, twitchy, multitasking reader, or nonreader, of the Internet age, with ten browser windows open at once (even though as of 2015 Goldbarth himself uses a manual typewriter and refuses email). Albert, like Schuyler, wants his eclectic, collector-oriented, inclusive, fast-moving mind and language to help us—and to help Schuyler—adapt to the weird, demanding world, "here / at the bung-end of the millennium." But Albert does not think his poems can do it. The kind of adaptation he hopes to enable, a kind of camouflage like the peppered moth's, is "more than my day's scan / of newspaper cullings" and so on can ever perform. There's just too much weirdness out there—too much embarrassment, too many warts and farts, too much violence, and too much pain, such as the gang-inspired torture of an eleven-year-old.
Poetry cannot do justice to such events. Nor can it offer a smooth escape: Goldbarth's poems are no heterocosm, no "Planet Albert" distinct from Earth, but rather an inadequate attempt to keep up (as other poets with other goals do not even try to keep up) with the flood of news about what's real. This ars poetica also addresses insomnia, and it ends after its grammar nearly breaks down: a cannonade of nouns and noun phrases, followed by speech particles—"Sure. Right"—resolves on a final, atypical, self-contained short sentence: "I'll know what to do with them." He pretends to believe that he doesn't know what to do, what poem to write, though he has just written it.
Goldbarth has been accomplishing, or perpetrating, what rhetoricians call paralipsis, saying he is not going to do, or cannot do, what in fact he has done. The poet has not justified evil, nor has he explained why gang members burn kids with acid, but he has composed a poem that finds a place for these bizarre discoveries, a poem that knows "what to do with them"; we have just read it. Moreover he has, with his fast, talky, apologetic style, provided a model, an attitude, a way to live with the crazed profusion of anecdotes and facts on Planet Albert, and on your planet too.
Goldbarth lets us admit what he thinks we already know: the world is disorganized, and only a baggy, unteleological, comic literary form can reflect it. Goldbarth's ultra-talk style, with its debts to stage comedy (in American English and in Yiddish) shows that he shares our fluster, our confusion, and that he can make it more bearable by telling jokes, by emphasizing—rather than trying to avoid—the clutter of facts (some horrible or disgusting, some simply amusing) that fly at him. If some of the facts provoke horror, others provoke awe, or awe and horror at once (perhaps the doctors' quick action saved Nicky); others still promote innocent fun, or even suggest that the world has become less dangerous, more amusing—not Homeric warriors, but video wombat warriors (who drool). Goldbarth's poems cannot wish horrors away, but their juxtapositions insist that the horrors are never the whole story—the jokes, and the spiritual questers' staves, and the random Brie, and the fact that we will know what Schuyler does if Goldbarth writes, not "fluffs" but "flumes," are facts about the world too.
It is a world that fits—so to speak—Goldbarth's talky, improvisational style, into which nothing finds an exact "fit" but anything can find an approximate one. Other than "tuxedo-rental shops' weirdest finds," no rubric includes these and only these objects, from eye to ashtray. In mathematical terms, no function can generate exactly this set; in philosophical terms, no intensive definition could produce them. But there are other rubrics, other functions, other labels, that could include them along with thousands of other things: "data chaos" is one, and "everything" is another. The title could also describe an update on the Renaissance visual art works called memento mori, since each object could stand for fleetingness (ash in an ashtray), for the hypocrisy of worldly pursuits (gold and silver), for violence (explosive), or for bodily decay. That rubric perhaps explains why Goldbarth's imagination moves to bad news, to news about death, so fast—though it does not stay there for the whole of the poem ("Twill weft" gets in too).
Tuxedos should also "fit"; their pockets are "receptacles." John Milton wrote that he wanted Paradise Lost to fit this world to the next, "to justify the ways of God to man," and that he hoped it would speak to the very best (best-educated or most upright) readers, "fit audience find though few." Goldbarth's long-lined, irregular, American poem shrugs away, almost sadly, Milton's ambitions: it asks us to join him in his shrug. At the same time it thanks a real person, the "lovely wife" to whom" 'A Wooden Eye'" also counts as a note of thanks. Not even Goldbarth can make the world as experienced look like a credible unity; not even Goldbarth can truly fit into a well-organized poem—or even into a slapdash, moderately organized, overstuffed poem—everything from theodicy to terror, from the Lady Satans to the kitchen sink; not even if Schuyler asks. But it is Goldbarth's cheerful vocation to try.
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The Poem Is You: Sixty Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press