Other Worlds – A Review

Other Worlds. Albert Goldbarth. (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021) 115 pp. $18. https://upittpress.org/books/9780

Review by Thomas E. Simmons

Albert Goldbarth is a prolific and recognized poet as well as a well-respected essayist. He is erudite and never obscure. His style is frequently playful and insistently gregarious. He manages to convey an authentic affection for the reader.   

Other Worlds is comprised of 39 poems arranged in three sections (plus a fourth – “Stories” which contains only a single five-stanza poem centered upon Fay Wray’s scream). Many of the poems are topical and some are autobiographical. All of them are restrained; mature. I preferred the poems in the third section – “Amazing Stories” – which are more focused on cosmological questions of space, time, and invention. There is even an alien-abduction poem.

Some of the poems remind me of Connections – that 1970s BBC documentary series created by science-historian James Burke – jumping, somehow logically, from topic to topic with a linearity twisted into tapestry. Goldbarth leaps from Bruce Banner’s anger issues to a 19th century wolf-girl raised by a priest. He transitions from Charles Lindbergh to Rosa Parks. He skips from a 13th century B.C. Cypriot vase to the huge plastic chicken atop a Chicken-n-Biscuit Inn.

My favorite lines are from the poem “Ecstasy!” It examines the nature of photography intercut with memory, and, in the process, Goldbarth summons another scream:

… There’s a researcher with an archive
of thousands of photographs snapped at the pinpoint of disaster
 – say, a red-scrolled roller coaster car
uncoupling, and a second, see-through rider is fissioned
out of the panicked corporeal one. It looks like a trick of the light
at first: if the light had a mouth, and was screaming.

These poems are not sappy. But they are inclined toward hope. Even when Goldbarth writes of “the stopped-clock rot and oblivion that wears our names like a pageant ribbon” and considers a planet from which his friends have departed, he imagines a floating “blink-blink in and / blink-blink out of them.”

Even when the Pequod sinks, a patch of light remains:

… a final note still lingers,
clings like a barnacle to its rolling spar
– a persistence that carries a novel inside.

When Goldbarth writes, “The entire / vast tree of our ancestry is shot through with the itchy juice / of dreaming of improvement” he is not being sarcastic. Nor cynical. He likes us, a rare fondness for a modern poet. He even admires technology (“how cool is the ‘invisibility cloak’” (!)). It is this infectious optimism that makes his poems really sing.

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Thomas E. Simmons is a professor at the University of South Dakota’s Knudson School of Law where he teaches courses on topics ranging from inheritance and equity to ethics. He is the author of two collections of poetry, the experimental S is for Sentence and the biographical Tod Browning Loose-Leaf Encyclopedia. He enjoys Piedmont blues, model rocketry, analog photography, and beets.

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