The Pack Rat Poet | Book Review | Chicago Reader

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The Pack Rat Poet

Albert Goldbarth's poetry teems with images from pop culture, history, literature, his Chicago childhood, and more.



A few years back poet Albert Goldbarth heard that Wichita State University was scrapping its card catalog. He pleaded with the librarian to save it. "I said, 'Look, 200 years from now you're going to have some kind of exhibit here about the library 200 years ago, and you're going to pay somebody to make a mock-up of a card catalog,'" he says. "But it was already on the books to go to the state dump, and nothing would change his mind. I even suggested he sell it to some preppy couples to keep the thing intact, and he wouldn't budge."

So over the weekend Goldbarth and a friend made off with six drawers and their contents, stuffing them into gym bags. "He took the Melville," he says. "I kept the G drawer for myself. It was pathetic to see how easy it was."

The madcap adventure could have come right out of Goldbarth's poetry. "Each one of those drawers has poetically rich detail in it," he says. "Hundreds of cards per drawer are steeped in the finger oils of generations of people who were looking for something, some of them looking under duress for something that was meant to keep them alive that night."

Goldbarth is the author of some 30 books of poetry, prose, and essays--and the only poet to have received the National Book Critics Circle Award twice. He remains obscure to the mainstream--his books rarely sell more than a few thousand copies each--but he's well regarded in that small circle of people who read serious poetry.

"Goldbarth's amazing for the way he can bring absolutely anything into a poem and make it seem organic and necessary," says Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine.

"I love his poems for the stories they tell, the distances they travel, their humor, their seriousness, their irreverence for decorum or rules, and--this most of all--their reverence for genuine human emotion."

Tucked into little-known journals are poems like "The World Trade Center," which was written before 9/11. It gleefully catalogs the beauty queens who work the trade shows and is immediately engaging, despite its leaps of logic and linguistic density. "Miss Cherry Harvest of 1954 is savvily bing-bedecked in snug red mounds of endorsement," it begins. "Miss Home Hardware overflows a gray bikini-top (done as a wingnut)....We must look at them closely, every lipsticked mouth a beet-red butterfly quivering over hilly fields of decolletage." Elsewhere he journeys into the mind of doomed scientist Tycho Brahe as he tries not to take a whiz in the king's court and describes the "miraculous green vitriol" of medieval scholars bumping up against "Amazo the Grandiloquent's" magic performance at the "Synagogue Social Society of NW Chicago."

Goldbarth now lives and teaches in Wichita, but he grew up in Chicago, first above a butcher shop on Division Street. "The clatter of the el going past filled the apartment," he says, "and that's been a standard part of my dreams since." Later the family moved to Whipple Street in Albany Park. "I still love the look of those three- and four-story red or deeply yellow brick courtyard buildings we would have been living in. Buildings once classy and desirable that were starting on the slide downward."

As a small boy Goldbarth and his father, a small-time insurance salesman, frequently visited Maxwell Street. "I remember going up to a table of socks for sale, all-rolled-up pairs of socks, like little mice sleeping in a row," he says. "My father picked one up and unrolled it for me, and there was a little hole in one of the socks. He said, 'See? Always unroll before you buy.'"

Goldbarth's love of language came early. "On the way to school I was robbed of my milk money by kids of all different kinds of dialects," he says. His parents had trouble figuring out what to do with their son's literary promise. "My father was always trying to hook me up with a rabbi who used to write a column for a little neighborhood newspaper," he says.

Goldbarth found a mentor in Paul Carroll, who taught at the University of Illinois' Circle campus in the late 60s. "He was a poet and somebody who loved poetry very, very deeply," says Goldbarth. "A sweet-natured but very disturbed and conflicted Catholic man for whom poetry saved his life early on." Carroll shepherded Goldbarth to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he became Richard Hugo's graduate assistant. "All I did was type up the poems for his weekly workshop," he says. "That was the semester he kind of had a nervous breakdown. He was a big, radiatingly warm, sweet, and hurtable person."

If Chicago isn't mentioned by name in Goldbarth's later work--he hasn't lived here for 20 years, after all--a sense of the city remains in the details. "The man is a genius the way he absorbs material," says Jeff Shotts, Goldbarth's editor at Graywolf Press. "From National Geographic to Donald Duck comic books to 1950s Buck Rogers episodes to great classics of literature like Moby-Dick. He is an introvert in the way he takes in all this disparate strange material, and an extrovert in his extraordinary need to divulge this information in his writing."

Maybe Goldbarth isn't better known because he's not a self-promoter. Or maybe if he'd been more selective about what he published readers wouldn't have to wade through the lesser works to get to the best stuff. Shotts says that when he began working with Goldbarth around 1998, "I thought, this guy is putting out more than anyone can really keep up with." He realized Goldbarth hadn't had an editor who pushed him much, who'd only questioned the occasional word choice or comma. "I don't want to get in the way of his writing, but I do want to suggest to him the more judicious he is book by book, the better those books will be."

Goldbarth's next book, Budget Travel Through Space and Time, is due out in late February. On the cover is a 16th-century print of a man flying to the moon in a litter drawn by chickens. Goldbarth says the collection explores the notion "that eight hours of sleep is a kind of everyday time travel. Or that moving from one lover to another is as vast travel as going through a science fiction wormhole." Buckle up those gravity boots.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Filbert.

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