WHAT might the poet Marianne Moore have thought of Albert Goldbarth’s “The Kitchen Sink”? Moore famously wrote that she disliked poetry because she wanted “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Too bad she wasn’t around for Goldbarth’s work, which has more than imaginary gardens going for it. Indeed, if you squeezed one of his toads, it might surprise you by declaiming in 2/4 time on philosophical topics that stirred up Egyptian royalty in 1200 BC. Or, perhaps, it would report what Darwin had been thinking as he collected flora and fauna in the Galapagos. Poetry in that mold would no doubt interest Ms. Moore.
Many readers probably won’t have been paying attention to the hubbub in the poetry world over the last quarter-century or so about how poetry is supposed to be written. Some poets favor the position that words don’t have to be held to their meanings, since meanings are artificial anyway. Others hold that the free verse revolution of the 20th century has been a bust and that poets should scurry back to the sweetly predictable confines of rhythm and rhyme. Still more have been lured away to advertising and screenwriting. Then, of course, there’s Goldbarth, who has consistently gone his own way, publishing more than 20 books of poetry, as well as several collections of essays and a novel, while racking up honors and prizes, including two National Book Critics Circle Awards. What’s his take on the state of poetry?
“The Kitchen Sink” goes a long way toward answering this and other questions. Goldbarth’s project as a poet has been to write expansively about everything -- and usually all at once. He is particularly enamored of history (ancient Egypt rates high on the list), philosophy, science (especially quantum physics), comic books and cartoons, the multifaceted angst of teenage boys and the ever-shifting wonders of language.
Many of Goldbarth’s poems don’t even look like traditional poems. Of the 125-plus pieces in “The Kitchen Sink,” a goodly number could be mistaken for tiny essays. Often, sequences composed of 14-line chunks of text -- not sonnets exactly -- function as “mix and match” stories. Goldbarth is a master of the braided narrative: a poem or series of poems in which a small set of stories weaves in and out. In the hands of your cousin Louie, drunk at a wedding, the braided narrative is something you would studiously avoid. In the hands of a poet like Goldbarth, however, it is a Pear Belle-Helene arriving at your table for dessert. Each ingredient is a delight -- creme, poached fruit, ice cream and a small pot of melted chocolate. Each mouthful is a velvety zig of heat lightning moving from tongue to brain. The whole is so much more than the dribblingly delicious sum of its parts, your jaw just has to drop.
Take “Will the Real Shakespeare Please Stand Up?” The poem opens in a bar called the Duck Blind, the walls of which are decked out in decoys. There’s a man chatting up a woman. He’s a serial killer, she’s an undercover cop “wired” for this canoodling. The president is on TV, “mouthing like a carp / -- if we could hear him, he’d be promising us he did or he didn’t.”
“And so,” Goldbarth writes, “my theme is deceit.” (Hold that thought.)
The poem then shifts to a forger of Shakespearean texts who fooled even Boswell, before moving back to the woman, now home from the bar. The seducer was not a serial killer, just a jerk -- Goldbarth admits the lie -- but the woman is real. The president is on her TV, his speech a rerun, which leads Goldbarth to reflect on something the woman would know because she’s an avid birder -- that some species, such as cuckoos, lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and leave. “True,” he writes, “the victim may discover this deception, then weave / a new nest over the cuckoo’s eggs -- but just as often / a cuckoo simply repeats its trick: we’ve found nests seven / layers tall, the real, the fake, the real, the fake ... Now / what’s the President saying up there?”
And so deceivers abound in every walk of life.
Should we be amazed that poets traffic in deception? Perhaps the search for emotional truth is a better goal. Goldbarth is rock solid in this regard, particularly with his ability to manage poetry’s major topics of love and death. Again and again here, he returns to these themes, even loading them into lines of poems that are ostensibly about other topics. His most touching expressions of love are reserved for his parents. His father, a salesman, inspired in Goldbarth his touchstone emotion: generosity directed toward a person who works for little reward. His mother’s physical suffering taught him to respect what can’t be altered, even by words.
And as for romantic love, more often than not Goldbarth traces his pen around the edges of divorce. What went wrong, when did it start, how did a failure of this kind come to live in the house? And when it comes to death that takes away both parents and friends, Goldbarth is resolutely philosophical. Viewed from the outer rim of the universe, there is no death. Taken from the graveside, death is all there is, and then it isn’t that either.
There is no death here; only the dead, which is
Only the bones: the stopped batons. Only the music
written for scarab-shears and petroleum forming.
Gertrude Stein said poetry is about nouns, about naming. At Goldbarth’s birth, someone must have given him an Oxford English Dictionary and said, “Get going, Mister!” Gathering poems from four decades, “The Kitchen Sink” is a great place to get acquainted with a wildly inventive poet. Pinch this toad and a prince named Albert will appear. *