March 2012

Elizabeth Cantwell


Everyday People by Albert Goldbarth

Albert Goldbarth's†Everyday People†bears this little gem of an epigraph:

I've just finished looking through a book with 16,000 heroes and heroines. Their lives are rather briefly sketched, but the sympathetic reader can guess that there is more romance and tragedy in them than was ever put upon a bookshelf.

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† -- A. T. Burch on a 1920s Topeka, Kansas, telephone book

Intrigued by this A. T. Burch, I did a quick Internet search; both Google and Wikipedia came up empty. I also failed to find the quote itself cited anywhere but on the page right in front of me. What more appropriate way to begin a book about "everyday people" than with a quote by a figure so "everyday" he doesn't even have a†stub†Wikipedia page to his name? I suppose there is the chance that Goldbarth fabricated both Burch and the quote, though I suspect it's more likely that he dug this epigraph up in some forgotten, obscure publication; in any case, even if Burch is invented, we all know that little lies are the fuel of everyday life.

So, yes: this is a book about the mundane. About seemingly uneventful lives and unspectacular dreams and unheroic deaths. The danger of such subject matter is that it can also be un-compelling to read about, but Goldbarth is a master of both the craft of poetry and the craft of storytelling. In fact, his poems often skew more narrative than lyric, allowing Goldbarth to flex his†dramatic†muscles.

Reading Goldbarth's books often feels like going on a long road trip with an old and verbose professor -- one who teaches something fascinating but outmoded, like philosophy or classics. One who feels time pressing him to unload all of his stories on someone before he's gone.†Everyday People, Goldbarth's twenty-sixth book, clocks in at 178 pages. This is not a quick read; on the road trip scale, it's closer to a cross-country drive than a trip to a neighboring state.

Among Goldbarth's many themes, the reality of aging and death stands out as key to this collection; in "The Poem of the Dance of the Real," he reflects:

Dying is life -- the last of it,
but life, with its song, its colorectal flora,
its physics. Death is metaphysics:
i.e., we can only speculate. Whatever it is (if "is"
is even a state for it) exists ("exists") beyond
empirical knowledge. And this is a poem
against the insubstantiality of speculation.
this is a poem that asks for something real
in the hand, a tuber as sprouted with arms as an Indian god,
a saxophone, a gunnysack, a dingo.

These poems are so expansive and urgent and dense that Goldbarth seems to be using his lines to give "something real / in the hand" as an offering to stave off death. Or at least to postpone its reality -- an attitude echoed by the avid gym-goers in "Practice Journey":

You can see in their serious frowns, and in the care of their self-study... they believe, or they hope, or at moments they†know: they're going to live forever.

If our delusions of immortality turn out to be obsessions -- "everyday" thoughts in the sense that we can't escape them -- so, Goldbarth suggests, do our delusions of being born into prestige, of having been†chosen†for something great. It's no surprise, then, that Charles Darwin features prominently in†Everyday People. Darwin's theory of evolution earns its historical controversy from its unavoidable implication that we are†not†golden creatures invented in the image of a God. That we are so mundane, so "everyday," we share our DNA with monkeys. With mice.

Such seemingly inappropriate sharing acts as another of the book's thematic touchpoints: the falsity of distance. Two people separated by thousands of miles are often closer than two people sitting right next to each other on a bus -- and Goldbarth celebrates these surprising coincidences.

Of course, folding up these thousands of miles into an armspan often requires a meandering mental journey, Goldbarth's trademark digressive style. It's tempting to skip ahead in his longest and most dense poems, to cut right to the gorgeous synthesis at the end, a move at which he undeniably excels. Goldbarth himself pokes fun at his excessive verbosity, his tendency to get caught up so in the wordplay that the digression becomes a world in itself: "And I could spin this verbal fluff all day: / gavotte, guffaw, grisaille … so what?" †

So what indeed? What's the payoff at the end of this road trip? The world's biggest ball of yarn tucked away in a beautiful valley, the country house of a filmmaker who only directed movies about the inner city, a rainbow ending in a deserted warehouse:

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††...The story
of unalike elements struck together
into wholeness is an everyday story as well.

Maybe the poems' "payoffs" are these moments of kaleidoscopic focus, when seemingly random images suddenly click as part of one master pattern. Goldbarth approaches this wholeness through relentless accumulation, treating it as one does a horizon that ever recedes but is ever worth the walk:

††††† our human urge
is always toward the missing

(So much of everyday life is surviving despite memory, despite nostalgia. It's not only braving the pain of a phantom limb, but also learning how to hold the mirror up to your remaining limb yourself.)

Or maybe the big "so what" realization is that the line itself is a lie. The poetic line, the timeline, the line of thought, the line of love-- none of these is straightforward, none of them moves logically from point to point. Only our flawed perception makes it seem so. There's a great big wheel we're caught on, but in our limited minds

††††††††††††††††††††††††† it isn't
a wheel at all, but a limited linear stretch in which
we have our pontiff vestments and our bonnets
and our bikinis and then we don't, and then we aren't,
the whole of the law of our human vision is this:
the light of an entire day,
on a cloche hat,
on a swiftly streaming river,
floating away, away.

Or maybe it's that the everyday is just a thin layer of oil paint washed over the mythic, as strange images are often concealed beneath classical paintings. Maybe, if you x-ray our frail canvases, you illuminate Orpheus, Ulysses, "the canonically unreadable face of the Sphinx / above the unreadable face across from you at the dinner date."

Or maybe this elusive "so what" is just the passing on of the words themselves. The passing on of the stories, the histories. Maybe it's as simple as that.

Maybe it's that everyday.†

Everyday People†by Albert Goldbarth
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1555976033
178 pages