Albert Goldbarth has been regaling us with his unique experiments in verse for more than 30 years and has twice won the National Book Critics Circle Award—the only poet to do so. Budget Travel Through Space and Time, published in 2004, is perhaps the single best of all of his collections. In other words, if you want to give Goldbarth a try, this is the place to start. A hefty 162 pages, Budget Travel is neutron-star dense (the neutron star is one of those celestial impossibilities likely to show up in a Goldbarth poem: a sphere of crushed-down matter a cubic inch of which weighs tons). Loaded with eye-poppers and jaw-droppers—that is, stunningly pulled-off metaphors and images—his poems also tend to stretch ingenious analogies the length of a three- or four- or even a nine-page poem and leave the reader with the equivalent of that blank, retinal ghost after a camera flash.
My mouth runneth off a bit, perhaps, so a few examples … the Moon in “Budget Travel through the Universe” is described as “the huge,/round resume of the career of light” and as “a curd of afterglow.” In ‘ “Far”: An Etymology’ Goldbarth writes
That handful in our skull might hold more distance
than the lights from the edge where our telescopes
shrug hopelessly and turn around for home.
In “The Sign” he takes as a central image
[…] geese across the sky
at the end of a day—the second when
its brightness is stubbed out on the horizon line.
Now there’s more sun on the bellies of these geese
than anywhere in the world altogether. Incandescent.
Freshly smelted ingots—flying.
In “Hoverers” when he wants to convey the tenor of “circling,” he instructs, “Think of the birds/that migrated back to Atlantis, circling the empty sea.” The image and the language are simple enough and yet the comparison is a perfect fit.
But this is Goldbarth at the micro-level where the skeptic can say, “Yeah, but does he have anything to say?” Herein also lies the beauty of a Goldbarth poem; whereas many are the anthologized poets who made me wonder why they bothered versifying rather trivial observations, Goldbarth is a kind of Samson who, if he doesn’t always bring down the house, at least leaves the columns we’ve come to rely on most—whether erected in the name of science, philosophy, religion or anything else—quivering. He makes us rethink, re-experience, and reassess; taken collectively, a sine qua non of the best art. The fact is, his poems have so much inner resonance, it’s difficult to pull out a few lines and stand them up on their own; a lot of the luster is worn off by this sort of detournement. Any one of the majority of the longish poems in this book—“The Feelers,” “The Sign,” “Into That Story,” “Where the Membrane is Thinnest,” “A Gesture Made in the Martian Wastes” among others—is worth the price of admission. The latter, perhaps my favorite in a book of favorites, begins with an epigraph from a science fiction novel (Goldbarth, with his omnivorous palate, doesn’t spit out comic books or aliens, the futuristic or pulp from the past; it all gets composted in). The poem opens with the image of a “svelte seductress” who is able “to feel her way among the walls and statues of a city/that no longer exists.” This metamorphoses into a scene in Vietnam in which a soldier is
gingerly over the ground with one arm
for his other arm, that had been torn off the in darkness. Only seconds
had gone by but already he reached out into that past
of himself as if it were countless centuries.
It ends up with Goldbarth recalling himself as an adolescent enamored of interplanetary adventures:
“…and I reach out
toward that sixteen-year-old boy from forty years ago,
who’s only a hole in the air now, that the wind blows through,
the wind of Mars, in it immemorial quarrel with stone
and skin and the scurf of the planet itself
and our on-loan solar resplendence.
It’s thoroughly refreshing to read poems that end, not obscurely or tritely, but with a line that almost always leave the air humming—sometimes as loudly as a whacked gong, sometimes as subtly as two gold coins touching rims. Equally refreshing that Goldbarth is not afraid to use words that encompass phenomena that generally surpass our ability to comprehend them (universe, supernova, singularity), of made-up words (telecyberfiber, uberglobal, terra mysterium), of rare words (suzerainty, cumulonimbus, ziggurat). He doesn’t feel the need to dumb-down his language so as to admit to his fabulous verbal theme park the so-called “common man” (who is much more likely to read a cereal box than a collection of William Carlos Williams), and yet he can be as colloquial as a blue collar worker sitting down to his beer at Miller Time. His poetry, full of wit and humor—both earthy and sophisticated—shrinks from nothing.
A marvelous mosaic of images, insights, ruminations, erudition, mundane details, quantum leaps of intuition, artifacts of pop culture, and historical anecdotes (Paul Revere and da Vinci both put in appearances), this collection proves you don’t need a machine to travel light years through space and time in the blink of an eye, all you need is a singularity like Albert Goldbarth.