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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Albert Goldbarth's _ Griffin _, reviewed by Katie Eberhart

Albert Goldbarth
ISBN 9780979118906
Essay Press, 2007
Paperback, 84 pages

Reviewed by Katie Eberhart

Griffin begins “This seems to be the summer of com-, recom-, and uncombining.” (1) and so a breaking marriage (Martha and Arthur's) becomes the backbone of a structure of relationships and ideas. Only Goldbarth would think to explore the poetry of Catullus in conjunction with a hoped-for romance between two people who barely notice each other (Sweet and Danny), an impending divorce, and myriad other relationship waypoints. Goldbarth has pockets full of techniques—one is shifting point-of-view where the narrator steps in, saying : “I'm telling you now what I hope to do in the sections that follow: simply show how friends of mine have often inspired long thought on the subject of sexual pairing; ...” (3) but nothing is simple and the urge for context is strong, which in this case begins with DNA, not as a dry scientific accounting but in a literary sense and we're hustled back to Roman times, to Catullus and the question “So: what is and what isn't a proper coupling?” (5)

I wondered what exactly I'd gotten into when I saw the title of the first essay—“Roman Erotic Poetry.” How indeed are titles chosen? The title seems to hover cloudlike above the “pairing” and “unpairing” and mystery of why anything is like it is—and the people are specific, as are the actions:
Once a week I do (or “undergo,” if she's steaming away her angst at some ferocious power speed) a walk around (and around and around) Hill Park with Martha. Arthur's just moved out of the house this month, supposedly to “reconnect with himself” and reconsider the marriage. (1)
The not uninteresting question is why do some relationships stay strong and others fail? But what really interests me are the complicated traipsings (toward answers, if there are any), and context that might mean something or might not, but is nevertheless needed, as are the musings.
And then again there's Sweet and Danny. Can't they see it? Everyone else can see it. Every day he passes her desk, and she passes his desk, and they pass by “chance” in the mailroom, and the building—all ten stories of it—seems to realign itself in generous accord to the complicated physics of human attraction. (2)
And Ed, and Mister J and George, and in the first three pages this essay has been populated by people who need or want or don't have or couldn't care less apparently about their relationships, but what comes across is how much the narrator cares about these people, the characters who share the pages, his friends. And the book takes off and you begin to see the total delight of how Goldbarth manages, with grace and alacrity, to cover what seem to be terribly big and modern problems as if on a paradigm-shifting journey someplace where history, experience, pop-culture, and friends co-mingle.

And in the manner of turning a crystal over so the sun hits each facet, you learn (you must know) “It's not proper for a mortal to mate with a god (and still, it's possible in ancient Greece:...” (5) but then there is the long diatribe (digression?) and really I didn't know that Venus was married to Vulcan when she seduced Mars, or centuries later
In Shakespeare too: between the tangled worlds of Montague and Capulet, a chasm intervenes, so deep and wide across that the bodies of both sides' children will plummet helplessly into its shadows and be broken on the rocks at the bottom. (6)
And it goes on from theoretical, literary, or quaintly mythological, somehow slipping into a lot of puzzling and ruminating about why who gets together with who but then there is a contemporary and recognizable present (now) where Albert and Arthur are drinking beer
… in the backyard of [Arthur's] new place. Two or three beers each. Some lazy, cagey chitchat . . . chummy, but always carefully easing away from the raw lip of the troublous spot. So long as we don't stray over that line, everything is up-tempo from him. I've seen his new bed and his new bold, floral shirt and his new bold, floral acrylic painting, and in sixty minutes I've heard his cell phone beep him into seven brief but mysterious and smile-making conversations carried out in a hushed voice in the next room, ... (13)
And the poems of Catullus are indeed woven through this essay, as if to say: 'see how long this has been going on' (a way to check how little anything has changed in a couple thousand years), as is the griffin and theories of the griffin—“Classicist Adrienne Mayor posits that belief in the griffin was fueled by protoceratops remains, ...” (21)

Another thing that appeals to me about Griffin is how the narrative is explosively aural when read-aloud—like “often gusted by lust into treachery” (16) or “... sing-the-blues conflicted over being so pied a beauty in a world of so many similar pinto-spotted, checkered, and mongrel attempts to be life-long wedded for better or worse.” (16) It's as if there's a pace of reading required (not rushing) and sometimes you have to stop, take a time-out, and just listen to the power of a few words or a sentence to encompass time and space, and the size and proportionality of the universe like “On the scale of deltas being accreted grain-of-silt by grain-of-silt, on the scale of meteor showers and of zephyrs, ...” (71) but the deep seriousness drifts away and the cosmic list is knocked down so that “..none of this is any more implausible than a day at the NASCAR track...” (71)

Goldbarth's literary palette shimmers and shifts, from a rich, earth-based poetry “THE HOOFPRINT OF A DEER in the snow: a perfect kiss.” (20) to sketches about relationships, not in a dry way but somehow connecting what comes from the past like “'SHOTGUN WEDDING': ...” (33) or “In the village of Elton in 1300, it would have been, I guess, a 'pitchfork wedding'.” (33) to “Springsteen has it just right in his song 'The River': 'Then I got Mary pregnant/...'” (33) to “But the genes don't care if we're miserable: the genes want more and better genes, ...” (33)

The second essay, “Wuramon,” chews on the big idea of what is life, more particularly “... on the scale of one life...” (59) and that becomes a panorama in every possible sense of the word or maybe IMAX, but also microscopic, and what you learn is that words are treated as things or body parts that must be loved and nurtured, just as so much from any life. And the connections come from “meteorology” or “musicology” or
'Economics,' we say—abstract and gassy. Of course it's also a woman, actually, heavy—with hunger; hair unrooted and drifting away from her scalp—with hunger, here in a daub-wattle hut on an otherwise clement day in 1828 in an uplands valley. If we were there, we could smell the sourness flimmering off her skin.” (60-61)
And Goldbarth has brought the reader into his fold, rather than separating us out, to be part of his pack, smelling “sourness flimmering” and sharing his imagination, peering into the scene from 200 years ago, but also perhaps wondering what is “flimmering” which is not that easy to determine except perhaps by reading poems by Carl Sandburg.

And what matters is the big question—like Annie Dillard asked in For the Time Being, and countless others, both theologically and secularly, have asked pretty much since the beginning of human time: What is a soul? Why are we here? Where do we go? And Goldbarth is at risk of losing a friend (the specter so many of us have faced one way or another).

I am the last one to want to read books about broken relationships or catastrophic illness because so often they are insipid and self-serving but in Griffin there is a passage
But the griffin?—leaves the talon marks of an eagle, bears the hooked beak of an eagle...has massively large, strong-tendoned wings; is partially feathered, black and cobalt and crimson—warrior colors, ...” (20)
and the griffin has lion parts, too, making it “... altogether an overpowering hodgepodge of an animal, ...” (20) but also “It lays eggs. It constructs nests laced with threads of gold, ... It confounds and beguiles and terrorizes: ...” (20) And whether by design or not, the ideas of this creature have been planted in my imagination so that I keep seeing the male and the female, ying and yang, eggs and warrior, and all the pieces-parts in the stories beginning with the statement that archaeological evidence of a “Neolithic village” is “... a line of rubble, layers deep in the earth, that … seems over millennia to have been compacted down to an even thinness, a horizontal quarter-mile of pencil line....” (59) to the “soul ship” (wuramon) of the Asmat people that is in a museum display—all of this, metaphoric or enigmatic, perception-pushing opportunities, really.

Goldbarth is a narrative chef with a knack for blending, like W. G. Sebald, but without the heavy melancholy. He explores the nature of truth, of illness, and relationships, deftly hooking together information and experience in a shape-shifting narrative that moves forward, reverses, follows surprising detours and tangents, settling for truth that resides in the complicated messiness somewhere between a carnival ride and a Carl Sagan lecture. The narratives tackle tricky topics like failing relationships, illness and mortality with the grace of a poet, the thoroughness of a historian (and student of “the contemporary”), sensitivity, and humor. In Griffin, the people inhabit a personal narrative vibrant with life, love, and respect. At 84 pages, Griffin is a slim book thick with ideas. It is poetically written and would indeed be an excellent choice for the “desert island” survival bag.


Katie Eberhart has a B.A. in Economics and Geography, M.A. in Agricultural Economics, and is working on an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. She was selected as an Artsmith Artist Resident in 2009 and was a “street reader” for the Palmer, Alaska Poetry Walkabout.