To Be Read in 500 Years, by Albert Goldbarth

04/29/2009 4:00 AM |

Graywolf Press
Available now

It seems unavoidable that the assemblage of a time capsule would
release a sense of unabashed sentimentality and nostalgia in its
creator. Poet Albert Goldbarth has not been spared this fate with To
Be Read in 500 Years
, his take on the Golden Records that were
blasted into space aboard the Voyager spacecrafts in 1977. This lengthy
collection surely displays a whole-hearted attempt to distill the
intangibles in which human joy resides. However, with so much attention
paid to the largeness of his self-assigned task, Goldbarth neglects to
provide engaging analysis of what he’s collected.

Goldbarth’s ponderings resonate like guest lectures practiced in the
shower; at best, they’re quirky — a happy reminder of comfortable
memories and the potential for goodness to come — and at worst,
they’re self-important. His observations run a well-trodden path of
everyday experience, yet his conclusions rarely scratch the surface. A
particularly egregious example of this comes in a lengthy poem in which
Goldbarth (amidst all his playful diction, enthusiastic scare quotes
and historical digressions) repeatedly implores creative writing
students to “keep a dream journal” to “battle against
ephemerality.”

“Rereading Attempts at Poetry from My Earliest Teenage Years”
presents a self-deprecating yet sentimental review of young work. While
the poem attempts to pass older-wiser judgment on the topics of
childhood poetic musings — noting that “only great ignorance”
tackles the grand themes that young poetry often takes on — the
poem is simply too pleased with itself. Referring to the younger self,
it begins, “Frankly it amazes me/—how urgently he talked about
death,/this sweet blank flan of a boy.” But is that really an amazing
revelation, or just the ordinary stuff of teenage musing?

In the end, the problem with To Be Read is not that it
attempts to draw everyone together through shared experience, but that
it does so in isolation from meaningful conversation. If Goldbarth’s
poems entered a dialogue with outside ideas, the result could be
something that pushes our understanding of humankind further rather
than simply pointing, albeit enthusiastically, at what we already know.