Poetry Review, Albert Goldbarth “The Theory of Absolute Forms”

5 Aug

I’ve been in a Goldbarth phase, so I see no reason but to continue him for our little readings.  This time a short one from a man who so loves long poems.

For those  not in the know, Plato’s theory of absolute forms is that ideas exist independently of matter, that all matter is just an imperfect expression of a perfect idea.   Whether you think it’s true or not is immaterial (HAH!  Philosophy jokes, gotta love em!)   I know very few people who completely believe in Plato’s idea, however it’s surprisingly difficult to argue against.     His most interesting expansion of his Absolute Forms is that any form of pain (whether physical or emotional) comes from an awareness that a temporary form is losing its definition.  In other words pain is not a thing, it is the loss of a thing.

Goldbarth’s poetry starts with the line “it isn’t easy to picture an infinite  universe/a star that’s travelling through infinite universe” Goldbarth starts from a very un-Platonic idea, that our ideas are not based on some ideal proto-ideas, but on comparisons.  The reason it isn’t easy to picture infinite space or travel in it, is the lack of boundaries, our minds know no places that have no boundaries so it’s difficult to picture.  However it’s not impossible to imagine.

“…but think of how far pain can go into your bone,/–forever I think.”  What’s surprising here is Goldbarth comparing infinite space to pain in our bodies–such an intimate small thing, but aren’t there pains that seem to go forever, even when they don’t really?  So does a star move through space like pain does through a bone?  Perhaps so, in a purely subjective way.

“When Plato/clutched his side and moaned, he knew that this world’s/hurt is only light from the star Generic Hurt.”   I sense a little sarcasm here, for if Plato had pain, he would experience the pain the same as us and all the philosophizing in the world would not make it a jot less.

Then we get the counter argument–“Say I have a wound like a flamenco beauty’s horrible/red camelia set in my flesh. I think the doctor’s/ whole career has been for this moment.”   An interesting idea–first the vividness of the wound (how would one get that?  A gunshot?)  and how the doctor would have lived for that moment.  Of course he did not set his career on this specific wound, he studied general wounds and so knows what to do with this one.  How can we study the generic in order to know what to do with the specific?  The very idea seems to jive with Platonic thought.  Also, subjectively for the patient, the doctor is there exclusively for their problem, nothing else.

“The wound,/my wound it’s only been with me for an hour./ His hands are exact.  They lift it and dance./ He’s been intimate with this wound for years.”

So for the patient the wound is a once in a lifetime event, original for him, but for the Doctor, this is a familiar thing, and in being objective is able to interact with it.  Goldbarth seems to be dealing with a Platonic contradiction, for subjectively the wound is an event that starts specifically in that situation, however for the doctor wounds are all expressions of one universal “wound” which allows her to heal.  How does this work?  That’s Goldbarth’s question, though subjectivity seems to be part of the answer.  Experience is specific while facts are general.

An interesting little puzzle poem that just opens up more questions, and provides few answers.  A very impressive feat.


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