In Albert Golbarth’s world we do and we almost always emerge once more under stars.
The Adventures of Form and Content is Albert Goldbarth’s sixth collection of essays, enough that we don’t need to spend much time discussing how effortlessly he glides from his regular gig as a poet to full-on prose priest. His poems tend to be prose-y anyway and his prose so deeply informed by the poetic that he can make most veterans of the form want to quit. He shows no signs of doing so, however. After decades of practicing his craft, he continues to refine it. Though it’s sometimes hard to imagine, the lines become more eloquent, succinct; the voice continues to be a revelation.
The essays themselves defy the typical rundown: He doesn’t dredge up obscure points about lesser-known Lithuanian architects or offer sepia-toned appreciations of jukeboxes and faded Hollywood stars. Topics that narrow would never stay that way for long. Not with a mind like Goldbarth’s.
The Chicago-born scribe is a notorious bibliophile (as one might hope every scribe is), so it’s a nice touch that the presentation of Adventures gives a nod to “Ace science-fiction” doubles he spills ink about in “Everybody’s Nickname” by having the two halves of the book “69’d” (his word) for your pleasure. This makes for a short read in some ways: Around 90 pages one way, a little over 100 the other. It may also enhance the collection’s primary theme in others.
These are works that explore duality: From the mother/escort in “A Cave in a Cliff in Scotland” to the titular figures in “Two Characters in Search of an Essay” to those (once) cheap paperbacks described in “Everybody’s Nickname.” None of this is news in Goldbarth’s world: Selves and others are splayed out across many of the pages he’s graced us with in volumes such as Troubled Lovers in History, Saving Lives and Heaven and Earth: A Cosmology. Each times he visits the mask and/or the unmasking, he reminds us of the subtle shades that the individual experience provides for the universal experience.
He remains a master of marrying high and low as well. Once referred to as the “bang zoom” guy of poetry, he remains the single best bearer of that title across this collection. The academic steeped in classics rubs elbows with bawdy bards and cheeky humor, while they commiserate on the rate at which things seem to be going to hell. Weekly World News and Song of Myself are both worth our attention and study in this environment as they both speak to some vexing something or other of the day.
The marriage/appreciation of these two poles has in some circles become as old hat as the expression itself. No matter that Goldbarth clings to his typewriter (he doesn’t use a computer: never has, never will), he still finds ways of moving forward. The clicks of those typewriter keys transport us through time, from the days of the dime store novel, the schetel, and no-budget sci-fi to the now; what was true then is true now: We must find the good in people even when we believe only their darkest tendencies will prevail. And sometimes, we learn, those darkest tendencies, those things that give us the biggest fright, are the things we cannot remove from the pits of our own good intentions. Duality, man. Duality by the word, by the sentence.
For his gift at creating and exploring these juxtapositions, Goldbarth is rarely a manic writer. He has fits of enthusiasm and can rattle off a list like the best of them, but there is always a purpose there and a sense that order remains firmly in place. No matter the themes he explores, no matter what he reveals to us about our local call girls or book binders, in the end there is a sense that the wrongs can be corrected, even if there is no such thing as utter harmony or what the more pie-eyed among us call balance.
Though he often references the now, he is not beholden to it. Like those two-sided Ace books he plays upon in this volume’s early (or later, depending on how you read it) pages, the foibles of our forefathers can provide us with enough amusement/bemusement to get by on as easily as steering our browsers toward TMZ. At the end of the day, the gossip around the cave man’s fire pit doesn’t differ all that much from the gossip on social media.
If we can read these works and travel into the darkness for a little while, dig into the lives of those who are not necessarily more or less fortunate but just different enough to be the same, then we might learn something. In Albert Golbarth’s world we do and we almost always emerge once more under stars.