Albert Goldbarth

. . . and although the Chinese police refused to allow meinto a town so near the border of Tibet,and lifted guns to make their point, that afternoonI played a game of pick-up basketballwith six of them: what hoops freaks!—saysmy friend D’s twenty-year-old son from an internet café. Perhapsbecause I’m from a certain generation and a certain unsophisticatedsocioeconomic class, this casual ability to travel the planetastonishes me: I worry how to tip in foreign currencyin a cab with the rigor that someone else might bringto saving a marriage or forging a Middle East peace treaty.And travel is astonishing; on the weeks-longrat-infested vomit-sour voyage in steeragefrom his shtetl in the “Old World” to America,my grandpa Louie was ordered into the sunlight once,to help in heaving cargo, and the passengers he saw there—with their parasols and top hats, with their monoclesand their jaunty straw boaters, and white,white clothes that had never contacted toil, “oontvun vooman hass a green birt on her shouldermit a golt chain, OONT IT TALKS!“—thesewere as amazing to him as the fearsome tribes of cyclops,and the turbulent rivers of liquid gold, and the rocthat could carry an elephant back to its nest,that other, earlier travelers vouched for.Herodotus swears that far-off tribes of people existwhose semen is black. And there are mermaids. Flyingmountains. When he journeyed across the brutalGobi Desert, Marco Polo heard of the spirits there, “theycall a man by his name and so lead him astray,” orone might hear “the tramp and hum of a greatghost cavalcade and the sound of drums.” In 1930when Karl Jansky heard, for the first time, spritzand sizzle from his radio antennae, he was traveling—but in time, and for billions of years—and stood therebefuddled and charmed in the snow of ghostswe know now are the background radiation of the universe’sbirth from out of Nothing. All of those lone adventurerschallenging the Atlantic in a dinghy, or the skyin a chair and 700 helium balloons . . . can we compare thisto the anomalous praying mantis found on a window ledgeon the forty-seventh floor of the Empire State Building?How many thousands of miles was it, when my friend Danleft his honeymoon bed—for better or worse,the phone was on—and drove for an hour to Belle Plainwhere the nursing home was, that had called to sayits dim, forensic-smelling halls now heldhis mother’s corpse? Another question is whatmy grandpa Louie thought, when this photo was takenin 1958. A little old man, a barely acclimatized immigrant Yidwho’s stepped from some joke or textbook example, moreat home with a samovar and a Torah and a seder cupthan anything from the Buy-4-Less. I’m ten,and out of the frame, as is my pal Llewellyn,who’s tossed a basketball into the air (and intothe frame), and yelled “Hey, catch!” so thatmy grandfather—he who has possibly never beheld,much less held, such an object—instinctively grabs itout of the blue, and stares with a goggling wonder atthis globe of an alien world.

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Albert Goldbarth has published more than 30 collections of poetry and essays, including The Adventures of Form and Content (Graywolf Press, 2017) and The Loves and Wars of Relative Scale (Lost Horse Press, 2017). He has received the National Book Critics Circle Award twice, and has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He is the Adele B. Davis distinguished professor of humanities at Wichita State University in Kansas.

New Letters

Volume 84, Number 1

Kansas City, Missouri

University of Missouri-Kansas City

Christie Hodgen

Assistant Editor
Ashley Wann

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—Alan Cheuse, National Public Radio book critic

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