BY ALBERT GOLDBARTH
When the surgeons slit into my father they went to Jupiter
they went so far, to a barren red moon of Jupiter’s.
I’d never been there. My mother had never been there
in him, to a cave on that moon, to the runaway vein
that snaked some inner wall. And even this they slit
and entered, with their geiger counters that fit in a pore.
They needed to hear its half-life keening wildly. There’s
one red anti-meson in everyone — here, at this, even
they stopped. Here, at this, my father turned them back,
as all of us were turned back, and he stayed
— as everybody stays, no matter the opening up —
alone in his pain. The microlasers won’t usher you there;
or love. In everybody, there’s this final landscape
only capable of supporting a population of one.
I was thinking of this as the bus pulled up,
the last bus of the night, at the hospital stop.
It must have been the amber window squares of buslight
in the 3 a.m. pit-dark — I saw that painting of the 18th century
doctorpharmacist Michael Shuppach, studying
a beaker of a patient’s urine, meditating, empathizing,
making the late Swiss afternoon light do great
disclosing swirls around that honey and its sediment,
more intimate in ways with this woman than any
deep sexual splitting-apart or any kneeled confessional
admission . . . down to the single citron valence-of-her,
in its nakedness, in his crystal. There’s
one golden anti-meson in a life; and here, even he stopped.
There was only one passenger riding the bus: one face
staring out of a window. Someone
needing a bus at 3 a.m. with a story of why
— for a second, before I stood to board and then
decided not to board, our eyes met,
starting a common exchange. — Then
the face shut like a change purse, over
its single coin minted on Jupiter.
—from Heaven and Earth: A Cosmology University of Georgia Press (1991)
Albert Goldbarth’s poems hurt me. More than any other living American poet, he has a way of getting to me through his intellect, his language, his amazing polymathic ways. And then, once in, he deals a hammer blow — some connection, some bald moment of feeling — that leaves me awestruck. In Coin , he explores (weaves in and out of, riffs to, satirizes) the essential aloneness of human beings. He starts with his father — smart enough not to talk about his father’s unknowable heart in any metaphoric way — this is the raw body: we see its red hallways, its filaments being parted and still refusing to give up its secrets. Not to doctors, not to loved ones. Because there is a “red anti-meson” in all of us (a meson is a tiny unstable particle made of one quark and one antiquark); something unseeable, unmeasurable and yet extant at the centre of us all.
Goldbarth’s wide-ranging mind keeps pace with his language. His images dazzle. A buslight segues into early science practice, a beaker of urine distilled into “the single citron valence-of-her.” Through glass, an early doctor sees into this “golden anti-meson,” then the poet views a yellowy face through a window. The quick-change of Goldbarth’s mind gives us a poem of such lexical vigour that it stuns. Red and gold, blood and skin, the surface of Jupiter. One poem is not enough to show this poet’s range. I could fill a page with lines from other poems that leave me gasping: “Plate tectonics: like blackened pieces/ of sweet pork crackling, the continents slide/ on their underside greases,” and “Keats: in a little diorama-box I keep in my head,/ he’s writing. London’s summer light is made a firm oar-handle/ through the shutters, and its paddle-end is dazzlingly lifting/ words to the white page surface.” A similar process must enact itself on Goldbarth. A poem like Coin has no antecedent. Bursting from some place only the poet can get to, it gathers up an armful of familiars and renders them into something utterly unique.