BOOK REVIEW / ESSAYS : Tales of Time, Science and the Awkward Feel of Humanity : GREAT TOPICS OF THE WORLD: Essays by Albert Goldbarth, David R. Godine ($22.95, 192 pages)


Call them philosophical flea circuses: diverting, raffish, unexpected and with a remarkable ability--once you note the tiny thread that hitches flea to tiny chariot--to express a cosmos by other means. Also a flea circus because the conceits manage to jump 150 times their own length and about 80 times their own height; and because as we watch, we have the sudden urge to scratch.

This is a convenient way into Albert Goldbarth's four suggestive and purposefully disrupted essays. All four are about time, art, science, and the feel and awkward fit of humanity's skin upon humanity's back. And the first, "Delft," although it reserves important places for Vermeer's paintings, the Dutch microscope-maker Antony van Leeuwenhoek, and the workings of young lust, is held together by fleas and the exuberant literary tricks that Goldbarth--a poet and you know it--gets them to perform.

"Delft" begins with Leeuwenhoek lying beside his mistress, as any man of his time might do, but knowing--as virtually nobody could until his magnifying devices came along--of the teeming, heretofore invisible life on her body. "He knows her busy micro-citizenry is going about its daily rounds clearheadedly, in alpine height, in swampy Venetian recesses. O, the krill of her! The rotifers! The roe!" Obligingly he relieves her of a flea here and there.

Elsewhere in "Delft," Vermeer is waiting for the light to be right ("and now it hits--no, it's so gentle I'd say it endorses--the side of a building") and reaching down his model's bodice for the flea that won't let her be still, and for some quick canoodling. And here is the narrator--young Goldbarth, it seems--with Cynthia, an early bedmate ("love was so new and I was so new that my heart squeaked like a boot fresh from the box"); both engaged in a contemporary flea hunt.

The author is immediately off on a flea hunt through erotic literature, from Ovid on. But simultaneously he has been on a hunt around smallness, as one of the symbolic pillars on which human consciousness rests. For millennia, the flea was just about the littlest thing that could be seen. Comes the microscope and "the flea, which had been the final blank wall of the world became the door to a new world . . . our last visible datum before we slip over into the silence between black holes, electron spin, quark iffiness. . . ."

As with space, so with time. Three one-thousandths of a second is the tiniest interval that we can hear between sounds; anything less and it is a continuous buzz. The reference to time is the heart of Goldbarth's method. As post-Newtonian physics declares space to be curved, Goldbarth curves time until everything is simultaneous.

Simultaneity shapes the next essay, "The History of the Universe is Important to This Story," in which Goldbarth shifts from the tiny to the immense. We get the pushy young astronomer, Kepler, wrestling with Tycho, his mentor, for Tycho's planetary charts; we get both men as guests of Emperor Rudolf II in a Prague castle, and crossing paths with the legendary Rabbi Loew, creator of the Golem. We get the narrator taking a college astronomy course with Noschel, his best friend, and the heartbreak caused by Noschel's father's decades-long adultery with a Gentile woman. We get Noschel's mother telling Golem stories.

And so, back to 17th-Century Prague: to the Keplerian formulas that would change humanity's sense of its place in the universe, to the building of the Golem, a benevolent clay hulk brought to life to ward off a threatened pogrom. The yearnings of two Chicago adolescents intertwine with the histories of science and necromancy, themselves intertwined. Take clay, from which Adam as well as the Golem were made. Two legends--yet clay is a matrix for the development of complex, organic molecules.

In "Worlds," the narrator's grandfather--real? fictional? both?--is another organic molecule, a single crystal of time around whom a whole variety of figures and themes take shape. Louie arrives from Poland in 1907 and goes west. Aboard the train he makes friends with George Herriman, who would create "Krazy Kat" and to whom Louie, supplies at least one Yiddishism ("mooys" for cows). He gets a job as assistant caretaker in the laboratory set up by Percival Lowell, advocate of Mars canals and discoverer, by sheer reasoning, of Pluto. At one point he solves the observatory's difficulty with getting its new telescope in focus by shoving his pulp-fiction magazine under one leg. Its cover story: "Under the Moons of Mars."

"Worlds" is a beguiling dream of simultaneities. Amy Lowell, Percival's corpulent, cigar-smoking poet sister, arrives with her deep devotion to Keats and her shared cult of the moon. Flagstaff, Ariz., becomes a focusing-glass of times and cultures: the Navajos and their spirits, the eccentric Bostonian Brahmanisms of Percival the scientist and the artist Amy, Krazy Kat's grass-roots American version of moonbeams, and the resourceful blend of Polish-Jewish meditative practicalities. Goldbarth has taken time and bent it into a rainbow.

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