Reasonable Words: Albert Goldbarth

A bit of a literary essay from Albert Goldbarth, a poet I’ve long admired:

“Charles Dickens started work on Bleak House in 1851. If you’re like me and don’t spend all of your free time romping through the fields of etymology, you too may startle at suddenly stumbling on “ganglion” in those 900-plus pages. Like, what?—did he make a quick trip in his time chaise, and return with a shiny copy of this month’s Scientific American, set on appropriating its language? “Refrigerator” is here too: not in the sense of a kitchen appliance, but still…a frisson volts across my spine. (For a thousand more reasons than this, it’s a glorious book. Bill Matthews says, in “Le Quarte Saisons, Montreal, 1979,” “I read Bleak House / a third time, slowly, fondly.”)

Dickens, Meville, Mary Shelley…something in the nineteenth century seems to set a tiny crystal ball in the heads of certain writers. When Wordsworth stares out dolefully at London’s silhouette and frets at its burgeoning changes—the rise of the factory system and market economy; the end of cyclical time; the degradation of child labor; the first industrial pollution; and the rest—it’s almost as if his gaze is so intense, he can see it all unfold like gritted, sooty origami into the centuries ahead, until it is 2006 for him. No wonder he’s so despondent.

I like to teach his daffodils poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” For one thing, it’s a terrific simple example of connotation at work: we only understand the poem if we understand the difference between the negative “lonel[iness]” (line 1) and the positive “solitude” (line 22). The intervening daffodils, of course, are what alchemize one state into the other. Or rather, his recollection of the daffodils. And so it’s a terrific poem, too, for teaching the distinction between a subject (here, the joyous encounter with nature) and a theme (the healing use we can make of a memory)”

I share Goldbarth’s, and the late William Matthews’love of Bleak House too.

Robot Words: Albert Goldbarth

The poet and essayist Albert Goldbarth collects robots and rocketships. He  gave a charming interview to Poetry Foundation about them.  Reminded of this by a photo I took last week of a toy store in window in Amsterdam.

From the end of the interview:
Is there anything you’d like to tell me about your collection that I didn’t ask?
I guess for me some of these robots are beautiful. Some of them have a kind of futuristic look that I really appreciate. They’re part of the future that was promised us, that wonderful future where we really were going to be living on other planets, zipping around to work with little jet packs on our back and changing our personal weather by turning a dial in our homes, telebeaming to one another from the moon, to Mars Port, that beautiful innocent very optimistic and expansive promise-ful future. Of course, it became the world we’re living in now—AIDS and overpopulation and terrorism—but these robots are part of that alternative future. That’s quite lovely to me.

But also when I look at robots, I see heavy manual labor. To a large extent, we imagined that as mechanical creatures they would do our work for us. They would go into the mines on the moon, and they would be the ones to wield the picks to take out all the moon metal. The word “robot” comes from Karel Capek’s early play R.U.R., Rossum’s Universal Robots. Robot, for him, means labor or some heavy manual laborer. But when I look at these rocket ships, these anti-gravity vehicles, these things the size of 12 battleships put together, that nonetheless can zoom off the surface of a planet as if through the pure power of wishing, I think of the exact opposite of manual labor. For me, I think space and spaceships imply a world of immediate wish fulfillment. A kind of technological version of Peter Pan’s flight. And I wish I could articulate well for you how absolutely and deeply beautiful they are to my eyes.

Check out his funny, perceptive poems as well.

Reasonable Worlds: Albert Goldbarth

Found an absorbing prose piece, “Absence” by Albert Goldbarth, a favorite poet of mine. Taking the Chauvet Cave Paintings as a starting (or perhaps stopping) place and, as he does in his poems, spinning out cosmic possibilities that are both funny and apt.

A few bits from a wonderful spell of writing:

How that door is such a real, knockable, tape-a-note-onnable, solid thing—and floats, like the ocher rhinos of prehistoric caves, on a field of absence. How we all walk every day, all day, through unlimited meadows of emptiness: what happens between the toggled switch and the light bulb’s watting to life, what line of transmission exists between the turn-on keystroke and the lit screen, or between the turned ignition key and the engine thrum. That’s Dimension X for myself and my friends. Most of us still live in a world of magic.

As for me, I’ve decided to pioneer an existence that’s Internet-free. I’ve never touched a computer keyboard, not once. What follows—never sent or received an e-mail, shopped online or paid a bill there, no eBay, online porn, or social networking, not one Google moment, or Nook, or Kindle, not one Wikipedia glance—is a willful illiteracy; is a life that’s increasingly antimatter; a charcoal stag or a reindeer that’s itself, that’s more itself, because of everything it’s not.

It’s common to suppose that a Luddite wants less. That’s what refusal must mean. But in fact a Luddite wants more—of the same. If I had enough space I’d devote an entire room to the museumly care of early manual typewriters. As it is, my few mementos of that vanishing world are dear to me … and the blue mesh bag of typewriter keys that Peggy gave me is doubly dear.

To his Luddite point, I of course learned about him via the Internet (the same place I found this essay, Poetry Daily, an effort out of UVA.

Later in the piece, he quotes a writer on the caves paintings, “The more you look, the less you understand.” Exactly as it should be for some things perhaps.

For work a couple of years’ back we got fairly involved with Gilgamesh (far younger than the Cave paintings but still the oldest known narrative). I’m working on some of it again (making an iBook version of our project, which has a certain piquancy that Goldbarth would probably pounce on). And found this elusive illustration for it–a photo of the tablets itself in all their 3-D mystery. Joking aside, for me Goldbarth is asking to take what’s missing–permanently unknowable–as something central, not peripheral. What’s missing about these tablets, the broken off places, is what (as Yusef Komunyakaa says in the video we did) beckons to us.

gilgamesh title image

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