Online Edition: Summer 1999

Troubled Lovers in History

Troubled Lovers in History

Albert Goldbarth

Ohio State University Press ($18.95)

by Jeffrey Shotts

Reading Albert Goldbarth's poetry is like simultaneously tuning in to late-night news, listening to a Hank Williams album, watching an Ed Wood science fiction flick, and all the time attending to the language of the book in your hands. Amazingly, all the plates Goldbarth keeps spinning never slow and fall. He is an immensely entertaining poet with a nimble sense of humor and a dizzying intelligence.

It is easy to be distracted by Goldbarth's digressive poetic style, but it is often his intention to take his reader seemingly farther and farther from the theme, even while is never truly straying from the matter at hand. In his latest collection, Troubled Lovers in History, the matter at hand is contemporary romantic and familial relationships, how their "ups and downs . . . can be amplified by historic reference," as the author's introductory comments suggest. Goldbarth has always dared large questions: What have we collectively learned about love? Why do so many relationships fail?

To attempt answers, Goldbarth enlists an extravagantly wide range of historical personas, from the famous to the obscure, and achieves a panoramic collage of how these historical figures influence contemporary relationships. In the opening sequence, "Travel Notes," the explorer Marco Polo, the isolated Emily Dickinson, and the physicist-theorist Stephen Hawking parallel the difficult and dutiful relationship of the poet's sister and her M.S.-inflicted husband, demonstrating that love comes "Not in miles; but in deepness / over time." In the poem "In," the scientist Wilhelm Röntgen first discovers the X-ray, photographing the bone structure of his wife Bertha's hand, then shows how to diagnose and heal Goldbarth's hospitalized father and his own troubled marriage. In the long sequence "***!!!The Battle of the Century!!!***," the early 19th-century sideshow wrestlers "Dragon Sam, the Great Exhaler" and "Liquid Dan, the Living Geyser" and 1939 Marvel Comics superheroes The Human Torch and The Sub-Mariner engage in hyperbolic battle, revealing the conflicts against death engaged by Goldbarth's inevitably dying mother and even by "two sixteen-year-old lovers / screwing madly, for the contrast, on top of a grave."

If not for Goldbarth's sometimes-wild references and ability to push the historical parallels with contemporary situations to their utmost, the collection would be in danger of becoming repetitive. But the poems in Troubled Lovers in History don't just dazzle the reader with a barrage of historical, scientific, and pop cultural references. Goldbarth often lifts the veil of allusions and lets down the defenses of humor to reveal himself as a poet who is as self-deprecatingly honest as he is wryly intelligent. In the best poem of the collection, "Complete with Starry Night and Bourbon Shots," Goldbarth mourns the death of his ex-wife's father, the drinking man Bob Potts, and shows a rare and surprisingly gracious tenderness: "But since you've asked for a poem, / my ex, my sweet and troubled one, I'll give you this / attempt, complete with starry night and bourbon shots: / Here, / I'm lifting a beer / for Bob Potts." The poem doesn't overtly suggest a historical parallel or allusion, but uses Goldbarth's own relationship with his ex-wife as history--as something past, but still attended to. The collection, despite its ambivalence toward autobiography and its insistence on creating fiction disguised as truth, has an exceedingly personal depth.

Goldbarth, whose Heaven and Earth: A Cosmology won the National Book Critics Circle Award, is a prolific writer; this is his second collection of poems published in six months, and a new book of essays is due in August. While Troubled Lovers approaches some of the same territory as Marriage, and Other Science Fiction, this latest collection is one of the most inclusive and ambitious to appear in recent poetry. In Troubled Lovers in History, Goldbarth's imagination is still ablaze, even after three decades of furious writing, and shows no sign of wavering.

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Summer 1999 Table of Contents