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November 8, 2001 Wacky wordsmith wows with wit and woe



Albert Goldbarth

Poet Albert Goldbarth

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.” Goldbarth’s spirits visibly lifted. Then a woman admitted to reading the work of Daniel Clowes, the writer-illustrator behind the Eightball comic and this summer’s Ghost World film. The poet perked up, brightly noting, “Clowes is from my hometown, Chicago!”

“So that’s 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 Goldbarth’s 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 peddler’s stratagem he had.”

Fantasy and reality merged as Goldbarth deftly pinpointed small heroics in his father’s 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 didn’t come up during the evening’s 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 Ware’s 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 didn’t need technology’s 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.”