“Everyday People” by Albert Goldbarth (Graywolf Press, 185 pages, $18)
This, by my count, is Albert Goldbarth’s 26th full collection of poetry, and it runs to roughly 40,000 words, not including a comparatively skippable prose essay near the end. That’s a lot of poetry to have written in the 2½ years since the last previous collection, especially when most of it — even where the themes turn to illness, death, and grief — throbs with Goldbarth’s garrulous energy, as exuberant and unpredictable as a Barry Sanders touchdown run.
Fortunately, Goldbarth, though he expresses disbelief in a patterned world, believes in patterned poetry. The imagery in a typical poem jounces up every little side road along the route of the narrative, but at the end it finds its way to some satisfying form of the original destination.
In “The Versions,” for example, the images go from the history of explorations, to an artist’s canvas bearing several superimposed paintings, to the poem that is in itself a composite, to a scientific exhibition of a man whose twin “dangles out of his abdomen” but has its head inside the man’s body, to this rapt and perfect ending: “The waters are gorgeous too, / and prone to mercurial moods. Right now / they’re silverfoiled by the moon. A full moon ... look, / it has a face inside, of the loveliest lavender / features, partly covered but recognizable still.” (Ellipsis in original.)
Goldbarth’s themes, recurrent but because of his continual inventiveness not tiresome, have to do with the all-in-oneness of existence, the kinship of small and large, of old and new, humankind being “the atoms of what preceded the stars, / reorganized to the confines of Earth” and living in a state of “surreal indeterminacy.”
It’s not his ideas, of course, that make the poetry distinctive. It’s the startlingness and yet appropriateness of the words, the crackle of the ideas, the immediacy of the images in lines such as the ones about “the small flushed quail of childish delight,” or an old portrait “gorgeously veined, like a fine dessert cheese,” or, unforgettably, a war that “keeps spitting body bags out of itself as casually / as watermelon seeds.”
The near-scannability of many lines and the often stanzaic form of the otherwise free-verse poems are also part of the effect.
The deaths of parents, grandparents and friends, together with the poet’s (presumably) own aging and illness appear frequently in the later pages. Goldbarth must have felt their weight as he came to the end of the final poem, in which a time traveler tells his host what his life was like, back then: “I brought a book of many words / to an emptiness in my heart, / and I shook them out in there, to fill it.”
That’s as close to sentimentality as Goldbarth comes in this collection, and probably the imagined situation justifies it. “Everyday People” is yet another example of the world-class poetry that has rolled out of this man through his 25 years at Wichita State University. It’s a good bet that more is already rolling.