Poetry Review: Albert Goldbarth “Library”

22 Jul

I cannot even begin to go into the scope and beauty that is Albert Goldbarth’s “Library.”   The tone is going into Goldbarth’s personal library from item to item books real and imaginary.  Most of the lines start with “This book….”  many of the lines pop open like hickory nuts, just flashing an image of essence, and we get the impression of being in this marvelous buffet of knowledge of the whole world, from a simple shelf.

Here’s some of my favorite lines:

There are stains in this book that carry greater narrative than the text.

This book is austere:  it is like holding a block of dry ice.

This book was smuggled into the country one page at a time, in tiny pill containers, in hatbands, in the cracks of asses; sixty people risked their lives repeatedly over this book.

This “book” is made of knotted string; and this, of stone; and this the gut of a sheep.

This book is filled with sheep and rabbits, calmly promenading in their tartan vests and bowties, with their clay pipes, in their Easter Sunday salad-like hats. The hills are gently rounded. The sun is a clear firm yolk. The world will never be this sweetly welcoming again.

This book hangs from a string in an outhouse and every day it gets thinner. 

This book set its mouth on my heart, and sucked a mottled tangle of blood to the surface.

There’s dozens more, the lines growing like some strange chant, filled with the books he got spanked for, the books of the holy, the books used as crutches and as attempts to have poise, the good books and godawful ones.  The power to this poem grows and grows.  It’s one of my favorite poems to hand to someone and have them read, just to see what happens.

The best parts are the opening and the closing (though having them without the middle is like frosting without the cake).  The first line This book saved my life.  If you stopped there, you’d think that the poem was going on to explain about this life-saving book, but it goes in another direction entirely–the books not only save life, they ARE life–in each and every form, all representing something bigger than just a simple book.  As all the images pass by, Goldbarth–one of my favorite poets–has a firm hand on the tone, mixing the high art with everyday life to just the right balance, he’s like that friend who always knows when to crack a joke, and when not to.

And then he whips the poem into ascendance, climbing up and up, after all the power of “This book” over and over again, like we really are in a sort of idea library thumbing through books all higgeldy piggeldy.  And here is where he socks you:

I open this book and smoke pours out, I open this book and a bad sleet
    slices my face, I open this book: brass knuckles, I open this book: the
    spiky scent of curry, I open this book and hands grab forcefully onto my
    hair as if in violent sex, I open this book: the wingbeat of a seraph, I
    open this book: the edgy cat-pain wailing of the damned thrusts up in a
    column as sturdy around as a giant redwood, I open this book: the travel
    of light, I open this book and it’s as damp as a wound, I open this book
    and I fall inside it farther than any physics, stickier than the jelly we
    scrape from cracked bones, cleaner than what we tell our children in the
    dark when they’re afraid to close their eyes at night.

It’s as if all boundaries have finally fallen, the edge between books and ideas and us are completely gone, just in that amazing tumble of lines.   But that’s not all.  He ends quietly after all that with two simple lines.

 And this book can’t be written yet; its author is not even born yet.

This book is going to save the world.

Goldbarth’s “Library” is an example of what a poem can be–a huge idea that comes down and almost possesses the reader, words that cannot be shortened or altered in any way, a spell of thought so rich it’s almost painful.  And yes, books can save lives and books can save the world.

I want you to know that.

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