Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College Press, 2013. 75 pages. $15.95.
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“Let’s not bring out memory’s erotica,” writes Beckian Fritz Goldberg, “the negligées whose silk thrills it like ice dropped right where, right where. I don’t have to say.” Taken out of context, these sentences from her prose poem “Screamer” can seem coy or employed for their shock value (ice dropping you know where!). And just look to the marauding flamboyance of Goldberg’s titles, many of which rival those of the Grand Poobah of the Weird and Serpentine Title, Wallace Stevens, and, I would add, more recently, Larry Levis: “Poem with Competing Theories of Pomegranate,” “From Ancient Legends and Infidelities, Ch. 2, ‘Sexual Shamans,’” and “Tonight I Will Execute All the Falcons of the Old Regime.” It’s precisely Goldberg’s stylistic trademark, however—her extravagant, sensual fabulations of obsessive memory and the longing it inspires—that slyly defies her proposition in “Screamer” and informs her seventh collection, Egypt from Space. Goldberg’s poems embody not the merely titillating erotica her speaker protests in “Screamer” but the deeply wounded bittersweetness of Eros: that classic, if endlessly befuddling, concept Anne Carson explores in Eros the Bittersweet. Carson reminds us that the erotic situation is fundamentally paradoxical, one that, in its ambivalence, holds both pleasure and pain, love and hate, tastes of the sweet and the bitter.
Goldberg understands the erotic condition well, which is why so many of her poems occupy themselves with longing: the desire for a vanished past or person, a mysterious and now cryptic childhood, a once-fiery love that’s receded into the coolness of routine. Goldberg’s abiding subjects, as in her six previous books, are memory and forgetting, mortality, desire, the passage of time, and the relationship between body and spirit. Although Goldberg is no stranger to the prose poem, her seventh collection is her first book comprised entirely of prose poems, and the works here—written and compiled over the past decade—can be understood as lyric fables of wounded memory.
Goldberg is one of our most accomplished and original contemporary fabulists. Like the work of Thomas Lux, Goldberg’s poems often evoke a lush musicality and the apocalyptic atmosphere of an Eastern European folktale (as when Goldberg describes a scene after a bombing where the single disembodied cheek of a buttock lies in the grass, being sniffed at by a dog, and a man “knelt, weak suddenly, appointed to protect this great bite from the dog”). Like Russell Edson’s prose poems, Goldberg’s contain peculiar characters and a cinematic strangeness (as in her poem in which a little girl tapes a letter to the inside of a motel’s lampshade—its content invisible until someone switches on a light—and receives a reply from two strangers). And like Mary Ruefle’s work, Goldberg’s often cultivates surprise through bravura (“Tonight I shall rewrite the Odyssey”) or the odd declarative (“I like to imagine that factory in Mexico, run by an old man with a long toenail that begun to curl as it extended as far as a tongue”).
Before discussing two full poems of Goldberg’s, I’d like to offer a few excerpts that exhibit her remarkably original metaphors and arresting turns of phrase: in “Red Monsoon,” two red-lipsticked lips of a woman “glow like perfect alibi”; in “Past Immaculate,” there’s “A regret as hard as bleach”; in “Boywatching with Lydia,” surfers peel themselves from their wetsuits “beautiful and sequential as time-lapse lilies”; in “Hothouse No. 7,” “the lightning changes sex, suddenly, like a zipper”; in “A View of Popocatepetl,” “Geography began to wander the house”; in “I Wish I Were Mexico,” a dead father returns as “the great parlor of fragrance thrown open by coconut”; in “Far Demon Apple Body,” “You think of how a breath runs at night.” After such a list, one’s tempted to think of Goldberg as a neo-surrealist. Although an associative logic governs Goldberg’s poems, her loyalties lie in assembling fragments of personal history or myth in surprising ways rather than in violently yoking together elements of the absurd.
Goldberg begins Egypt from Space with a prologue, “From Ancient Legends and Infidelities, Ch. 12, ‘The Bird That Came with Memory.’” The first stanza of the prose poem contains a singular sentence that adapts the simple syntax, plain diction, and universality of fairy tale: “When the nightingale died the Emperor wept.” Goldberg explicitly conjures Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale, “The Nightingale,” in which a Chinese emperor forsakes the enchanting songs of his little grey bird for the artificial melodies of a bejeweled, mechanical bird. Her avian selection also recalls Keats’s famous bird in “Ode to a Nightingale,” the prototype for the modern lyric of symbolic debate in which the drama of the poem concerns a speaker’s changing response to a symbol. After Goldberg introduces her nightingale, whose demise leaves the emperor shaken, she develops her speaker’s associative reactions to the bird through richer, more particular imagery and odder syntax in the second stanza:
The bird that came with memory came with a schoolbus and a ball of snow. The bird that came with memory came with a cassia bush and a small green house. The bird that came with memory came with a big Lincoln Continental, came with a swimming pool. It said eucalyptus trees grow well in the desert. The bird that came with memory came with a man named Ed.
Goldberg’s use of anaphora (the hypnotic phrase “The bird that came with memory”) and the breathless repetition of the subtly sexualized word “came” enact the obsessive nature of longing and link her associations with a speedy velocity. Goldberg soon shifts from this Proustian onslaught of triggered detail, however, to a more abstract, reflective set of associations in the third stanza:
When memory dies the bird goes on, no longer a beast of burden. It goes on in the infinite dark you can never contemplate without growing blank and falling back into the world again. After memory there is no motel.
If the bird “goes on” after memory is extinguished, Goldberg’s metaphor implicates the physical body, how we continue to breathe even after we’ve forgotten the precise look of a childhood house or a particular flowering bush or a man’s name. Because of forgetting, then, Goldberg suggests, the songbird is “no longer a beast of burden.” Goldberg’s metaphor echoes the bluesy crooning of another distinguished warbler, Mick Jagger (in The Rolling Stones’ famous tune, “Beast of Burden”), and defamiliarizes the conceit: we’re used to thinking of mules and oxen as the animals that usually do the heavy lifting, not our feathered friends. But if Goldberg’s nightingale “came with memory,” then it is indeed “a beast of burden,” as the act of remembering requires that we carry a heavy (metaphysical) load. In another nod to The Rolling Stones (their lengthy ballad on the subject of fading love, “Memory Motel”), Goldberg declares, “After memory there is no motel,” implying that forgetfulness, and perhaps also death, provides no such site of temporary rest, no room in which to lay down the burdens of a life. What’s left is the world into which one falls back when the absolute remains unreachable “in the infinite dark.”
In the poem’s fourth and penultimate stanza, Goldberg describes the death of the nightingale (who, in Andersen’s classic tale, enjoys freedom from captivity after reviving the emperor on his death bed through the power of song):
The nightingale had died neglected and alone. Its small stick cage swinging from the pine. I could see the blue oriental twilight sharpen each separate thing. After memory there is now.
After the nightingale dies, in Goldberg’s version of the tale, the speaker loses access to her memories and she sees the world around her in sharp relief, without the nuances that shade and complicate perception. “After memory,” Goldberg observes, with the ring of a fable’s moral, “there is now”: the present moment’s blunt, visceral immediacy.
Faithful to the magical implications of the nightingale—that bird who bears our accumulated wisdoms, loves, and fears—Goldberg ends the poem with her speaker’s jarring imperative:
Say this over my death bed. All the stories you heard as a child have become birds and migrating wolves and strange countries which ignore tenderness, even as this delicate branch sweeps your window.
Goldberg’s poem rails against forgetfulness, against the cynical unraveling of a past and its tender recollections. Even as the enchanted nightingale of the Danish fairy tale is capable of fending off the emperor’s death, whereas Goldberg’s bird has died (and with it the remedy for mortality), the speaker still manages to focus her faithful gaze on “this delicate branch” that “sweeps your window,” as if a ghostly bird might alight there, against all rational expectations, to save her. It’s as if through the feral potency of stories—those “birds and migrating wolves” of childhood—one could recover a lost realm, even though a recollected past can seem as distant and foreign as a satellite picture of Egypt taken from space. Goldberg’s choice to begin Egypt from Space with—what shall we call it?—a fable for a death bed prepares the reader for other surprises to come in these extraordinary, often magical, lyric fables.
In the poem “My Descent,” for example, Goldberg’s speaker recalls a practical joke her father used to play at the dinner table:
Furtively my father would slip a hand under the table and knock. I was three so I’d look around and look under the table wanting to know where it came from and how and that’s when father would drink my milk. I’d sit back up to a drained glass. What happened to my milk? My father would tell me it was the little girls who lived under the floor. They were hungry and wanted my milk. They might want my peas. I knew enough to sense it was a game, to half-believe there weren’t really girls living below us. But I had a vision of them anyway, all blonde with long straight hair, dressed in chambray smocks with frilled white aprons, reaching up, up toward my floor. Otherwise, they seemed to accept their world which must be dark and musty. They’d knock. A chicken wing would disappear.
Domestic and Dantescan, “My Descent” opens into an underworld of ghoulish milk-and-pea-thieves dressed in old-fashioned garb—a realm that is simultaneously untrustworthy and awe-inspiring (like memory, Goldberg insinuates). The poem is both a haunting fable about the loss of an imagination and a tender poem about the playful dynamic between a child and her father. Similarly to her tenuously hopeful nightingale fable, Goldberg ends “My Descent” with an affirmation of the fantastical as she declares, “They’d knock. A chicken wing would disappear.” Through this final juxtaposition, and through omitting the speaker’s recognition of her father’s actions, we’re left to accept the cause and effect scenario in which magic does happen, in which an imagination can “half-believe” in the girls beneath the floorboard. And as a poet at home in paradoxical space of desire and lack—those ambiguities of Eros—Goldberg wouldn’t have it any other way.