Albert Goldbarth: “Some Archeology”
Editors’ note: Thumbing through the Poetry Northwest archives, many names appear with pleasing frequency, and Albert Goldbarth’s as often as any—particularly in the magazine’s early days with David Wagoner as editor. One finds already in those early-published poems the strobe of wit and intelligence we’ve come to expect from Albert Goldbarth’s poetry and prose. On the occasion of his visit to Seattle and of the publication of his new book of poems, Everyday People, we bring you five poems as they originally appeared in two vintage issues of Poetry Northwest, featured here with the poet’s own reflection on what these pieces mean to him now. Look for more from the archives in months to come!
1971—forty-one years ago! I was twenty-three when “Village Wizard” and “The Death of the Printed Page” appeared in Poetry Northwest, probably twenty-two when they were written. The cells of my body have completely replaced themselves six times since then. Whoever that “Albert Goldbarth” was, he isn’t me.
And yet I remember so clearly the day that acceptance letter arrived. These weren’t technically my first published poems (I believe we’d need to go back to 1969 for that) but they were the first to be taken for a journal that I recognized as nationally available (in Chicago, in those days, DeBoer distributed it to a prominent downtown bookstore) and that I’d been reading with a novitiate’s deep passions from before my attempts to submit. There were names in its tables of contents I recognized, and the poems of editor David Wagoner were already favorites of mine (and remain so today: I’ll be teaching him in a graduate poetry workshop this week). I remember dancing, whooping, around the living room table after I read that acceptance letter (Tom Cruise later copied my moves for a famous scene in Risky Business). I can’t imagine what could cue such a physically jubilant response today. I’d never met or corresponded with David Wagoner, I’d never at the time set foot in the Northwest; and that early moment of small validation, among others, cemented my working sensibility from then on: no networking, no multiple submissions, just faith in the poems themselves and in the honesty of the editorial process.
And although it was a many-cells removed Albert Goldbarth who wrote those poems, I can recognize in them the first seeds of subjects and strategies that would continue to grow in other, later pieces: the fairy tale and fantasy tropes of “Village Wizard,” the pleasure in word play and chewy vocabulary of “The Death of the Printed Page,” the use in both poems of listing as a viable substructure…and the trust that these gestures could accrue the gravitas of a knowing look at the human condition. (What I might not have known then was, sadly, how prescient “The Death of the Printed Page” would turn out to be: I suspect I saw it then as an exercise of the imagination more than an actual elegy for a way of life and its physical structures.)
This remains true for all of the poems Xeroxed from the Poetry Northwest archives and mailed my way: someone else wrote them; but he was clearly a progenitor, a proto-me. The self-referentiality in “Things I’ve Put Into This Poem,” and its willingness to use its own vertical layering of lines as an indication of passing time, have kinship with gestures in more current work. Ditto the celebratory long-windedness and overspilling population of “The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States”; and, in a very different poem and different voice, the tendency toward maxim in “Against the Odor” (“Every six seconds the blink lies / to the fovea”), as well as its willingness to morph scientific and historical facts into imaginative metaphors.
Can I find fault with these poems? If I wanted to. But I confess I feel a fondness for the sheer love of the art I sense radiating from that twenty-two-year-old’s efforts—his unstoppable energy, his belief in the magic of language and in its ability to inform us about ourselves. Some of these poems later appeared in books. Some didn’t; there are hundreds of my poems—hundreds of these little blocks of radiation—that have appeared in literary journals but have never been collected in book form. (“The Death of the Printed Page” is one of these: it never will be on a printed page again.)
Later collected in a published volume, or long-gone on the winds of chance, these poems are the first of what must have been a few dozen to appear in the magazine over the years, and David Wagoner’s generosity provided me with an important testing ground, showcase, and early self-identity as a poet working in, and for, a like-minded community. I felt that wonderful mixture of humble and proud, at being invited to join. It happens that the pure serendipity of the Xeroxing process also brings me Poetry Northwest poems and part-poems—printed right before or right after my own work—by Tom Wayman and Dave Etter, and part of a contents page with names like Michael Harper, Eve Triem, Robert Hershon, Greg Kuzma…names that filled the pages of the literary journals of the 1970′s…all of them, “my people,” all of them poets worth knowing still.
Begged by a novice-wizard to display the secret
of his craft, Waziri demonstratively
Asked to perform at the Merchants Bazaar
a feat never seen before, Waziri came
with a dozen coins in his purse and left
with a dozen coins in his purse.
Requested by the husbandless maid to conjure,
Waziri concocted three gifts: a flask of lotion
scented with spice; a beaker of potion
made with grapes; and a potent amulet
wrought with pearl to wear on a necklace
between her breasts when she bared her breasts
to the waxing moon. Even her husband
called it magic.
Paid to recite a spell for sleep, Waziri
began his life story.
Told to foresee the Emperor’s future,
Waziri closed his eyes.
Ordered to exorcise evil influence
from the royal heir at his birth,
Waziri cut the umbilical cord.
Commanded on pain of death to provide the impossible
virgin speculum for the Queen, that fabled mage’s mirror
so pure, it would have imaged nothing—not its maker,
not the air, and not the darkness—before her face
reflected there: Waziri stared at her despairingly
and wept a tear.
The Death of the Printed Page
I awoke to an inaudible stutter: the consonants
already floating into the moonlight or grime, keening
their singular claps of wisdom: once more, once
only, the sharp crack of k’s and j’s like a firing squad
and the rotund air of b’s rising skyward, ghosts released
with the last breath. The shadows of w’s in flight
fading across my skin. It is cold, a time for migration.
Fruit of knowledge? Last to go, the p’s burst
from their drying pods. This is a pun and a metaphor.
That was a pun and a metaphor.
cast t’s scattered the floor, then even those grave
markers disappeared. The grand thesaurus of silence.
The books? Shaking in their jackets,
curling their spines. Some going easily, willingly
perhaps: my extensive collection of porno
steaming into vapor above the bed: the real thing
at last! But it was the last, and the reticent paper
backs lined up against the wall without reprieve:
well, what could I say? Or how could the words in my throat
live honorably without birth certificates? Only the vowels
now, a wail: of ooo’s and aaa’s in a wordless dirge.
When I looked again, the silent e
vanished, at the end of life.
We can only comfort their final hours.
This repayment, however small: to hold the last anthology
of English and American Literature. This is the finish.
Turn to the start. Whisper the hymns of Anonymous.
And now when we talk across the oceans, no speech
reflects in water. We cannot talk to mirrors.
And now no living page is left with living contents, or ever read.
Of course this is silly.
Things I’ve Put Into This Poem
The top line is sea-level. Here, a girl dances the black flag
her hair makes in wind, over green leas fleecy with primrose.
She is out to dig for potsherds, shells in shale, pebbles veined
pied and peacock enough for rings and pendants, something
spaded up from history to shine between her breasts.
And splitting one hillock, her hands undress red earth
from around a skeleton: yellowed, at peace, a bullet
packed in red dirt where the heart was.
Long weeds of lantern-light seem to sprout
from the night soil; looking closer, through those bright cracks
splitting a farmsteader’s shack in the dark of the 1870′s:
one man, pallid and spread on the checkered quilt, twitches
under the flame-cleaned knife and forceps
the country doctor poises an inch above his chest.
The goal: to pry an arrow out of flesh. The advice: here,
bite on this. And the gray veins at the temple bulge
into a world without anaesthesia, from the wild try
of a dying man to chew a lead bullet in half.
(The outcome: he doesn’t die. Barb out, the farmer lives,
breeds, and whistles whacky orisons in the bull manure,
thinking: when I do die, let them lower me in my grave
wearing this memento, this tooth-marked pellet of birdshot
that is all the suffering in the world.) The scene:
skin split, forceps pinching in muscle, doctor’s breath
a cloud above his face, the farmer clamps his jaw
til its bone hinge warps. And in that moment
before his troubles tumble out of him into the shadowy sack
of fainting: he feels the fever go into the sweat, and leave.
The pain goes into the bullet.
So I’ve put some special things in this poem.
The girl whose hair is a small night sky star-specked
against the ordinariness of my daytimes
I put in so this poem will make me think of Syl.
She is Syl. She brings a primrose home to me.
The grass and flowers are here to remember
greenery by, in the forthcoming days of its disappearance.
Let those lines symbolize chlorophyll.
The jewelry I put in to be those circles of beauty
human hands shape for human hands,
to glint against the twilight.
And the quilt, and the shells, and the lantern.
And the bullet I’ve put in to make this prayer real:
All our pain, go into the bullet.
All our pain, go into the bullet.
And bullet stay buried in the bottom line.
The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States
The old Jew down the road near the gristmill
died, call a minyan. Call ten men to howl
prayers into amber bottles, and with wood
mallets tap mourning-songs
from their transparent necks. And call the frogs:
the flies have been jewelling the wayside jackal
droppings, they glitter and make a sound of wire
plucked by the sun’s touch; call blackwater frogs
and venus-flytraps carted over flagstone.
Also, call the caucus; and everyone playing faro
is welcome, even the croupier, tell her here
she could slither out of her glitter and run
on all fours with the rams and uproot cabbage.
Call the cows home. Call the reserves.
Dwarf-stars and snails are in alliance.
Tell the spelling bee its napkins are folded
in hyacinth-shape on the plum-patterned plates.
Let them congregate; let them daisy-chain so dense
word travels from thighbone to thighbone
like code rapped through the length
of a blue metal banister; let the space
between them be sweat; call the midgets;
ask the fife platoon; call the wranglers and glaziers;
if their brains are packed so flat together
one torched tongue arsons a flash-fire
under the scalp of the whole generation, yes,
though the word be “revolution,” even if their souls’
metaphorical hands are twisting teeth from the gums
to hurl like stones through the corneal blind-spot:
call the cubs to the sows’ teats, engrave what gulls
you may find along the abandoned pier
with my wedding invitation.
Let the sky go argyle with magpies.
Let the waters plump paisley with shrimp.
Let the triplets be an ellipsis.
Against the Odor
Every six seconds the blink lies
to the fovea. The sunspot burns
a hole in the long, looped radio wave.
A dozen roses is eleven
flowers and one mauve chameleon
straining to stamen its tongue. These
be the natural hypocrisies.
In the land of the lie you’re shown this
photo: a man standing spreadlegged
“in two states at once!” castrated
by their common edge; the ten inner intervening
tips of a husband’s gloves insulate his caress;
and one Jew, thrown to the showers, lifts
the soap t his nose against the odor
of gas, and smells his niece’s breast.
The white lie is the nephew
to euthanasia. This is the lie: the worm
in the history text; the alligator purse;
the Catholic virgin saving space in her womb
for eschatology. This is the difficult
rectification: the purse snapped open,
its pink mouse saved from drowning
in the digestive fluids. Keep him whole.
In the land of the lie the one-eyed man
blinks every three seconds. This is the myth
of the land of the lie: that the lamb led
by its tear ducts sees the blade
as just the Utah border. This is the queen
of the land of the lie: whose tongue crawls
into the vegetable bins and ballot boxes
to spread its wet; whose belly is ectopic;
whose menstruation, trompe l’oeil.
Albert Goldbarth is the author of over twenty books of poetry, and has twice won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. He is also the author of five collections of essays, including Many Circles (Graywolf), winner of the PEN West Creative Nonfiction Award, and a novel, Pieces of Payne (Graywolf). His newest book of poems, Everyday People (Graywolf), is out now.
“Village Wizard” and “The Death of the Printed Page” originally appeared in Poetry Northwest Volume XII Number 3 (Autumn 1971).
“Things I’ve Put Into This Poem,” “The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States,” and “Against the Odor” originally appeared in Poetry Northwest Volume XIII Number 2 (Summer 1972).
“The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States” and “Against the Odor” are published in Jan. 31 (Doubleday) © 1974 by Albert Goldbarth.
“Village Wizard” and “Things I’ve Put Into This Poem” are published in The Kitchen Sink: New and Selected Poems 1972-2007 (Graywolf) © 2007 by Albert Goldbarth.
All other materials © 2012 by Albert Goldbarth.