The first thing a reader is likely to notice when picking up this book is that, at 165 pages, Albert Goldbarth’s Selfish is lengthy for a collection of poetry. Don’t get me wrong—nothing contained within is unnecessary. But unlike some collections that we might inhale in a single session on the couch, Selfish will likely be read in a few sittings: the poems require of the reader a fair amount of mental focus, and it’s best to let them sit, a handful of poems at a time, percolating, their themes and images and numerous connective threads running their course in a reader's mind before moving on. This is, of course, easier said than done, because the poems are so engaging that they’re compulsively readable.
The collection's first poem, entitled “Snow,” challenges the assumption of the world as a static place by calling into question the very tools we rely on to make sense of it: language itself. “Language is ever being born, is struggling out / of some cultural pupal case and drying its wings,” the poem asserts, offering that its author has witnessed a number of these linguistic life cycles (“Hey, I was there to witness when 'shizzle' and 'phat' / undertook their initial flights”). While the concept that our language evolves over time is not particularly novel on its own, what happens at the end of the poem shows off Goldbarth’s knack for knocking down the pins the reader didn’t even notice him setting up:
This is a pattern that recurs a fair amount in the collection: Goldbarth takes a lighter, thought-experiment setup and slowly, expertly, tilts it into moments of human recognition. He introduces a concept and explores it with equal parts curiosity, cutting insight, and good humor, only to have the poem’s later movements curl inward and puncture the idea with genuine, unmasked emotion. Another example of this is found in “Summary: Kinetic vs. Potential,” where Golbarth lays the foundation for metaphoric work by exploring the poem’s initial conceit, that of the reported instances in history in which persons spontaneously combusted into flame.
The speaker then moves to other things reported but never seen (or believed) by most—UFOs, ghosts, yetis—and posits that,
From there, the poem swings around to the personal—less philosophical and more physiological, returning to flesh out moments set up earlier in the poem that started as hypothetical, conceptual, and without shedding that dimension now take on aspects of serious emotion:
The poem “Being Norman Dubie,” meanwhile, tackles how we identify ourselves during the act of posing as others, with a kind of winking vernacular that I’d be surprised to discover isn’t already trademarked in Goldbarth’s name:
Worth noting at this point is that the persona poem does have a place in this collection, appearing a handful of times. The idea of feigned, borrowed, or stolen identity is presented via a few angles in “Being Norman Dubie”: through the speaker’s accepting an award on behalf of Norman Dubie, the salespersonship of politicians, as well as the fallout of “Nigerian Prince” email scams. All of this crystallizes in the last stanza:
In fact, the above passage is a good example of what makes these poems and Albert Goldbarth quite so remarkable and generous. Whereas other poets might see this stanza as a solid, pithy poem all by itself, and perhaps would have left it that way (wouldn’t be a bad poem by any means, I feel), Goldbarth develops a more complete universe within which to appreciate that final stanza, and the poem is more powerful and affecting for this effort.
The poems and language in Selfish are exuberant, overflowing with vim and wit. Indeed, the playfulness of many of these poems might come to be a detriment in a different writer’s grasp, but Goldbarth is able to ground them by instilling them with precision and genuine feeling. He uses an astounding breadth of vocabulary without alienating the reader, as well—a hard thing to do, but it helps that that genuineness and humor make the relative abundance of five-dollar words seem generous and specific, not sneering and pedantic.
A number of the early poems in the collection focus heavily on his parents and their deaths, which he mourns for and thinks on, and which regularly lead him back to the question of self. In “On the Way,” which is in part a meditation on the way self is informed by the American Dream (Goldbarth calls all the way back his grandparents at Ellis Island and the Westward expansion that led to the settling of his Kansas), the immediate focus is on a cancer scare, which, in the week before a benign diagnosis, put the speaker “on loan to the country of death.” He concludes:
One of Selfish’s largest strengths is the wealth of means by which it can frame the search for self. In “Our Reference,” Goldbarth literally plays with the idea of framing and perspective as a component of reality (“God’s grace is a picture frame // we place around our disappointed hopes. / He’s mysterious, God is.”). “The Neutron Bomb” explores the self through the ephemera we leave behind (“In the Goldbarth Museum / [. . .] / These artifacts are, for those who have studied the cultures, / emotional triggers”). One remarkable moment in “Smith’s Cloud” perfectly encapsulates that poem’s concern with the existence of two separate orders, ways of operating, and the impact on the self’s frame of reference when a second one is introduced:
This is not to say that all the poems in Selfish are just variations on the same theme—in fact, a few poems diverge quite a bit, particularly in the latter portion of the book. “The Clothes” is a heaving, four-page monologue in a voice Goldbarth doesn’t employ elsewhere in the collection: eccentric, breathless, riled, a little bit loony. The poem has a wonderful rhythm to it, even if the reader doesn’t know quite how to feel about, or how to place, the speaker. Another poem, “1,000 (Exactly),” pontificates on the creation of art as a means of distracting you from its main conceit, which, while right in the title, still sneaks up on the reader by the end. And speaking of sneaking up on the reader, “We Focus on Love, When It’s Death; We Focus on Death, When It’s Love; Etc.” is a wonderful example of misdirection, something not often seen or done well in poetry. The poem feels like a satisfying sleight-of-hand trick. I won’t ruin how it is pulled off for others, but the poem’s concept is quite clever, the overarching theme is interesting, and the ending is sublime.
Spanning the above-mentioned 165 pages, opening with over a dozen epigraphs at the beginning (not to mention plenty more that begin individual poems, or titles in the form of quotes), and filled with long lines of flowing verse that regularly stretch into three or more pages, restraint is not one of the first qualities with which we would adorn Selfish—at least, not in the way we usually would think of the word. The collection may be long, but there’s little if any parts that would be better cut. Yes, the poems may skew longer than average for a contemporary poetry collection, but they are remarkably compact for their length—there’s just that much packed into each poem, into each line and image and choice of diction. Even when the poem is exceptionally short, it echoes: the poem “Noon,” in its entirety, reads: “The shadow completely / reenters its barn.” Talk about a six-word story, an impeccable image.
In both the long poems and the shorter ones, in the moments of unabashed emotion as well as those of wry humor, Goldbarth seems to be acknowledging, and granting, the reader that urge to indulge, to not have to compromise or choose certain things at the expense of others. Impressively, many of the poems touch upon a number of themes and use multiple tactics or styles described throughout this review. They pull from Goldbarth’s entire bag of tricks and quiver of concerns, without restraint. Says the speaker of the poem “Try the Selfish": “Like I care [. . .] I wrote this for me.” I can practically hear him say further: It’s okay to have your cake and eat it too. Who would get a cake and then not eat it? Go ahead, be selfish.
Selfish. By Albert Goldbarth. Graywolf Press, 2015.