Everyday People is Albert Goldbarth’s twenty-sixth book of poetry (in addition to seventeen chapbooks) and its heft suggests an anthology rather than an individual collection. A similar abundance plumps the poems: they fill the page, with lines frequently reaching the margin and occasionally collapsing into prose. Poem titles often spill onto a second line, and in the table of contents the name of one section—“The Severed Stone Head of Shiva’s Wife, and the Bionic Stripper, and Thoreau, and the Cabin Boy in Tahiti, and the Pearl Diver Ravished by Octopi (and Others)”— barely uses less space than the list of poems beneath it. This isn’t the work, we sense, of a desk-hunched obsessive handling each word with tweezers, but of someone easily chatty, as ready to share his perceptions on a bus as in a poem. Such ease engenders a kind of sloppiness of tone, but there’s delight in this approach, too: the severed stone head of Shiva’s wife leads effortlessly to the severed marriage of Jill and Ray: Ray “found with a whore / he’d dressed up in Jill’s clothing” and Jill “with his name in her throat / and her hand on a knife.” It’s the “bathetically gold” that drives these poems, as Goldbarth claims at the end of “Photographs of the Interiors of Dictators’ Houses”: the gold of American cheese on a drive-thru burger rather than the gold of a dictator’s chandelier. Glamour mixes with boredom here, instructive wonder with the daily humdrum. As in life.
So we’re willing enough to accept that a seventh grader learns Shakespeare’s sonnets “the way the planet itself millennially repeats its several stories,” and that what we call bed sheets “the experts . . . can recognize. . . for a fossil.” It makes sense that a section of the book draws from the life of Darwin: the wonder and the humdrum meshed as the barnacles under his microscope. And even the barnacles are a step up on the poetical ladder from which Goldbarth wants to linger: he’s more interested in the Darwin’s kitchen utensils. This book is everywhere devoted to the everyday people of its title, and while its striking lyric turns are not infrequent, they’re consistently—even belligerently—blunted by the prosaic. In the poem “Emma (Mrs. Charles Darwin),” for instance, a stanza that begins with the underworld’s “secret Persephone sadness” ends on “My friend Joellen,” the awkwardness of the juxtaposition reminding us that this is a poet who—adept though he may be at conjuring the underworld—wants to be sure we know he’s in this one.
Such juxtapositions are charming, though they also read as a fear of pathos. Goldbarth skips over vulnerability almost in the same instant he reveals it, bullying it with an armory of trivia or inflating it into stand-up comedy, the narrator “in his undershorts yukking it up to hold / the thousand fears of our two-bit existence at bay,” as he writes in the poem (take a breath), “With Quotes from William Irvine’s Account of the 19th Century Scientist-Explorer Thomas Huxley’s Life.” In fact the narrator is remembering his father here, but the description suits Goldbarth himself. His sense of humor fluctuates between the profundity that “his talky subconscious has stumbled upon,” as he admits, to “easy bumperstickerisms.” Though his bumperstickerisms get tiring, the humor is often wonderfully inventive. In “A Great Volume,” the poet riffs on Darwin’s assertion that “A great volume might be written, describing the inhabitants of one of these beds of seaweed” to give us “a seaweed city of windmills / tilted at, and charged, by a doofus platoon / of seaweed Don Quixotes.” The riff goes on, however, and by the time we read about Uncle Tom’s Seaweed and Seaweed Dick at the bottom of the second page, we’re less convinced by the yukking it up than by the thousand fears it’s trying to hold at bay.
“A Great Volume” seems a particularly telling example of Everyday People’s happy war between the pathos-welcoming realm of lyric poetry and the prose-blunted blah and bluster of the mundane. Over a stretch of four crammed pages, we move from Darwin’s epigraph to a spate of seaweed jokes to stories about the narrator’s friends—packing their children’s lunches or opening an “attaché case / at the sales division’s profit assessment meeting”—and from that attaché case to his father’s synagogue bag weighed with “millennia of suffering . . . / in ingots the size of caskets; and a trove / of bars of gold for the lions and cherubim over the altars; / and a wind that begins at the pit of the earth / and carries the song of the people.” From an attaché case to the song of the people. And here the poem opens to pure lyrical anaphora: a catalogue of seaweeds lovely enough to sing us to sleep, though just as we drift off into “sea tangle, winged kelp, and devil’s aprons,” we’re shaken awake by more jokes, told on “One of those nights with good wine and companionship / where the high-minded bullshit accumulates.” And from the bullshit we descend into the straight prose of what seems a mildly autistic and very talented marine biologist’s report on the growth patterns of various sea plants. By this point (page three) we’re under Darwin’s microscope with the barnacles, not quite sure of anything’s size or importance in relation to anything else, though aware of a certain tendency in our observing scientist to peer indefinitely.
The poem’s last movement returns to the image of parents sending their kids to school (ready resource as it is of humdrum and wonder), but abruptly the stanza changes track. We arrive at pathos and stay there: “The afternoon / my mother said the cancer had metastasized . . . / I put my ear against her shoulder … and I heard the clash of swords, / and the screams of the pierced, and the quiet infrequent / moments of dignity speckled throughout that melee . . . / She was so small. How could the entire / Iliad have been fit in there?” This perfectly enjambed last question scoops each seaweed joke and lullaby into a single, steady hand, and we wonder why it didn’t do so sooner.
Goldbarth asks satisfyingly fat questions: about the universe’s impulse to disguise itself as the house next door, about the capacity of the interior life to wreak havoc, about the misunderstanding of chance as fate, with its attendant mysteries of cause and effect, nature and nurture. A few of the more compelling pieces cull from his experience working with underprivileged kids, such as “Zones.” This is a short, tough burst of a poem, and we see how the combination of a greedy intelligence and a pathological need to entertain can work together when the associative loquacity of Goldbarth’s persona doesn’t get in the way.
And when it does, well . . . Everyday People might be the only book of poetry I’d think to bring on an airplane. Its poems are littered with trivia, and while the trivia do not always serve the poems, they are often fun. Goldbarth is hands-down the person you hope to sit beside at a dinner party: his knowledge spans geographies, histories, and emotional registers, and before the appetizer you will have learned about Rothschild’s 28,000 stuffed birds, about the man who thought his wife was a twig, about the worship of a particular kind of frog in India, and that Robert Lowell once mounted every equestrian statue in Buenos Aires. I feel unjust pulling these facts out of context and into an imaginary dinner party, but there’s the sense in this book that Goldbarth has just read something marvelous and is using his poem—curious, patient, and open-minded dinner guest that his poem is—as an excuse to tell it.