by James Martin
Originally scheduled to appear in September as part of the Writers Read
At Concordia series, U.S. poet-essayist Albert Goldbarth made good on
his raincheck with a high-energy poetry reading on Oct. 22.
Fresh from giving an afternoon talk to grad students, Goldbarth took to
the D.B. Clarke Theatre stage and proved to be at once transcendent
and downright wacky to quote the elegantly enthusiastic introduction
given by readings coordinator Stephanie Bolster.
Does anyone in the audience still read comic books? asked
the jovial Guggenheim fellowship recipient. He scanned the silent theatre
for a few painful seconds before jokingly admonishing the crowd: This
is supposed to be rapport!
Finally, a man in the crowd copped to a vague interest in detective
comics. Goldbarths spirits visibly lifted. Then a woman admitted
to reading the work of Daniel Clowes, the writer-illustrator behind the
Eightball comic and this summers Ghost World film.
The poet perked up, brightly noting, Clowes is from my hometown,
So thats it? he asked, laughing. Two people here
read comic books? And with that Goldbarth set up his first, and
longest, poem of the evening.
Originally published in his 1990 collection Popular Culture, Powers
subverts the golden-age comic-book superheroes of the 1940s and 50s into
an elegy for Goldbarths late father, a low-level insurance agent
who invested his life in dead-end but perfectly honest energies.
As additional pre-poem preparation, Goldbarth walked the crowd through
a mini-glossary of possibly unfamiliar vocabulary: inchoate, benignity,
nacreous, cowls. (By way of illustrating the latter, he raised his arms
into a peak over his head. The Jawas in Star Wars wear cowls,
he added, his Chicago accent twisting the phrase into unlikely rhyme.)
Then he began to read.
Whizzer! he exclaimed, drawing out each syllable in pitch-perfect
parody of a 1940s radio announcer. The Top! Phantasmo! Goldbarth
spun two narratives, contrasting the biff-bang-pow crimefighting
exploits of various costumed do-gooders (Captain Invincible! Mistress
Miracle! The Streak!) with the glum quotidian existence of his father,
a mere mortal who tried to fight [his] vague opponent with every
poor persuasive scrappy peddlers stratagem he had.
Fantasy and reality merged as Goldbarth deftly pinpointed small heroics
in his fathers daily battles and found a downside to secret
identities. Celestia is a bosomy, ill-paid secretary, he soberly
noted. The Rocket Avenger parks cars.
Although his name didnt come up during the evenings earlier
rapport component, there are striking similarities between
Goldbarth and the cartoonist Chris Ware: both men live in Chicago, both
are darlings of the New Yorker literary set, and both reshape traditional
superhero iconography in sad, poignant ways. (The title of Wares
acclaimed comic series, Acme Novelty Library, even bears a resemblance
to the Goldbarth poem Elbee Novelty Company Inc.)
Further and this is no small feat both Ware and Goldbarth
manage to wring laughter from their often bleak musings.
Spectral Boy is, in reality, Matt Poindexter! shouted Goldbarth
midway thru Powers. (Working without a microphone, the mild-mannered
poet clearly didnt need technologys super-assistance.) Dropping
his voice for full radio-serial effect, Goldbarth added a masterful comic
stroke: Matt Poindexter, polo-playing dandy!
Powers was only the beginning of a set that was, indeed, transcendent
yet wacky. Mixing profundity and pop icons (Ivana Trump?!) with soft
little dollops of presumed wit, Goldbarth read from a cross-section
of his 20-plus books. He spoke of the invisible things that
colour and shape day-to-day life and somehow even managed to work
a poem titled Rembrandt/Panties into the mix.
Taking one more crack at establishing rapport, Goldbarth again
posed a question to the audience: Is anyone here divorced?
Amid the nervous shuffle of feet, a few dozen hands poked into the air.
Well, the poet quipped, drawing more laughter, this
next poem explains why.