Cover image for Many Circles : new & selected essays
Many Circles : new & selected essays
Goldbarth, Albert.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Saint Paul, Minn. : Graywolf Press, 2001.
Physical Description:
310 pages ; 23 cm
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PS3557.O354 M36 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Many Circles collects the best of Goldbarth's three earlier essay collections, along with several new pieces. Goldbarth, whom Joyce Carol Oates has called "a dazzling virtuoso who can break your heart," weaves through an array of fascinating topics (including alien life, Jewish history, pop culture, ancient and recent events, and quantum physics) to explore the greater questions of our existence and our universe. Each essay, in language and topic, is a rich and extraordinary adventure, full of surpriseand epiphany. As Robert Atwan, editor of The Best American Essays series, has noted: "Theses essays are a whole new breed . . . Goldbarth has spliced strands of the old genre with a powerful new gene--and the results are miraculous."

Author Notes

Born in Chicago and educated at the University of Illinois and University of Iowa, Goldbarth has taught at various schools, including the University of Texas. Prolific and wide-ranging in content, Goldbarth writes against the grain of much contemporary poetry, which aims to strip language to its barest essentials. His verse, by contrast, is baroque, florid, even---as his critics would have it---cluttered. The effect of his virtuoso verbal performance is to suggest how intensely is the human need for explanation and connection with the vast storehouse of culture within which we live. In his recent works, Goldbarth has pursued his theory that life is a Moebius strip, continually repeating itself, with no discernible beginning or end.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Goldbarth brings the head-over-heels energy of his poetry to his essays, thus creating a style even he concedes is "hyperimaginative." To anchor himself, Goldbarth sets his think pieces within an autobiographical setting, preferably by his wife's side either in bed or sitting together, she reading up on Western civilization, he poring over 1950s sci-fi comics. From there, he can end up anywhere as he contemplates figures from history and the interface between science and art. A free-form appreciation of the photographs of Diane Arbus encompasses thoughts about twins and memories of his father and prompts the observation, "Nothing is one thing." In "Calling Up," he considers our penchant for commemoration, juxtaposing the site of the first Pizza Hut with that of the first nuclear chain reaction, then abruptly turns to John Donne. Past lives, false memories, a stripper, and an archaeologist all engage his avid attention and agile interpretative skills. And not only is Goldbarth inventive, he's prolific: see p.1724 for a review of his newest collection of poems. Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Goldbarth's virtuosic essays bob and weave throughout this delightful, even brilliant, collection. Well worth reading and rereading, some of these pieces from the past 21 years were published in journals such as the Georgia Review and Parnassus and in previous books. Goldbarth (Dark Waves and Light Matter), also a National Book Critics Circle Award-winning poet, synthesizes isolated facts and sweeping concepts, locating himself within the general "we" even as he writes in first person and discusses exceptional individuals. In the title essay, the author circles around several topicsincluding Mayan archaeologist John Lloyd Stephens's troubles at an excavation and the dissolution of Goldbarth's friends' marriage in the face of repressed memory treatmentexploring accidental, analytic and associative connections. Goldbarth's playful and dissonant style ranges in one essay from witty ("But if the subject is shaky footing, let's make it literal for a while") to abrupt ("He caught her with her tongue up her therapist's ass, he said") to florid ("So tell me: who is this man here, doing a whoop-whoop whirl of dervish dance steps in that tumble of fretwork stone?") to critical ("A lesson: the authority of two-bit village big shots is as fervent to keep itself whole and unchallenged as is, for example, that of reigning academic theorists"). No subject falls outside Goldbarth's interest, from the planet Mars to Marie Curie to his own grandfather. While many of these essays aren't autobiographical, they are nonetheless deeply felt. Goldbarth's fresh prose and expansive content are helping reconfigure the essay as a form. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Poet and essayist Goldbarth (Troubled Lovers in History: A Sequence of Poems; Beyond: Poems) is known for his eclectic, circuitous style. In one essay, you may find his father painting a paint-by-number scene, exotic dancers spinning on a wheel, Jesus acting as the son of man, cave art found in Argentina, walking to Hebrew school, and recollections of a Jorge Luis Borges story. This anthology collects 12 essays from the past 21 years of his work, augmented by some new material. Always concerned with the human condition, the author interweaves personal experiences with intellectual ideas and current events with esoteric references to the past making love, the necessity of history, a gang member forced into a boiling bath, or Leonardo da Vinci waiting at the hospital for a centenarian to die, all find their way into Goldbarth's ranging perspective. A rich and intriguing mix for public and academic libraries with strong literary collections. Nancy P. Shires, East Carolina Univ., Greenville, NC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One After Yitzl It is not for nothing that a Soviet historian once remarked that the most difficult of a historian's tasks is to predict the past. --Bernard Lewis, History 1. This story begins in bed, in one of those sleepy troughs between the crests of sex. I stroke the crests of you. The night is a gray permissive color.     "Who do you think you were--do you think you were anyone, in an earlier life?"     In an earlier life, I think, though chance and bombs and the salt-grain teeth in ocean air have destroyed all documents, I farmed black bent-backed turnips in the hardpan of a shtetl compound of equally black-garbed bent-backed grandmama and rabbinic Jews.     My best friend there shoed horses. He had ribs like barrel staves, his sweat was miniature glass pears. (I'm enjoying this now.) On Saturday nights, when the Sabbath was folded back with its pristine linens into drawers for another week, this Yitzl played accordion at the schnapps-house. He was in love with a woman, a counter girl, there. She kept to herself. She folded paper roses in between serving; she never looked up. But Yitzl could tell: she tapped her foot. One day the cousin from Milano, who sent the accordion, sent new music to play--a little sheaf with American writing on it. Hot polka. Yitzl took a break with me in the corner--I was sipping sweet wine as dark as my turnips and trying to write a poem--and when he returned to his little grocer's crate of a stand, there was an open paper rose on his accordion. So he knew, then.     In this story- in -my-story they say, "I love you," and now I say it in the external story, too: I stroke you slightly rougher as I say it, as if underlining the words, or reaffirming you're here, and I'm here, since the gray in the air is darker, and sight insufficient. You murmur it back. We say it like anyone else--in part because our death is bonded into us meiotically, from before there was marrow or myelin, and we know it, even as infants our scream is for more than the teat. We understand the wood smoke in a tree is aching to rise from the tree in its shape, its green and nutritive damps are readying always for joining the ether around it--any affirming clench of the roots in soil, physical and deeper, is preventive for its partial inch of a while.     So: genealogy. The family tree. Its roots. Its urgent suckings among the cemeterial layers. The backsweep of teat under teat. The way, once known, it orders the Present. A chief on the island of Nios, off Sumatra, could stand in the kerosene light of his plank hut and (this is on tape) recite--in a chant, the names sung out between his betel-reddened teeth like ghosts still shackled by hazy responsibility to the living--his ancestral linkup, seventy generations deep; it took over an hour. The genealogical record banks of the Mormon Church contain the names and relationship data of 11/2 to 2 billion of the planet's dead, "in a climate-controlled and nuclear-bomb-proof repository" called Granite Mountain Vault, and these have been processed through the Church's IBM computer system, the Genealogical Information and Names Tabulation, acronymed GIANT.     Where we come from. How we need to know.     If necessary, we'll steal it--those dinosaur tracks two men removed from the bed of Cub Creek in Hays County, using a masonry saw, a jackhammer, and a truck disguised as an ice-cream vendor's.     If necessary (two years after Yitzl died, I married his schnapps-house sweetie: it was mourning him that initially drew us together; and later, the intimacy of hiding from the Secret Police in the burlap-draped back corner of a fishmonger's van. The guts were heaped to our ankles and our first true sex in there, as we rattled like bagged bones over the countryside, was lubricated--for fear kept her dry--with fishes' slime: and, after ... but that's another story) we'll make it up. 2. Which is what we did with love, you and I: invented it. We needed it, it wasn't here, and out of nothing in common we hammered a tree house into the vee of a family tree, from zero, bogus planks, the bright but invisible nailheads of pure will. Some nights a passerby might spy us, while I was lazily flicking your nipple awake with my tongue, or you were fondling me into alertness, pleased in what we called bed, by the hue of an apricot moon, in what we called our life, by TV'S dry-blue arctic light, two black silhouettes communing: and we were suspended in air. If the passerby yelled, we'd plummet.     Because each midnight the shears on the clock snip off another twenty-four hours. We're frightened, and rightfully so. Because glass is, we now know, a "slow liquid"; and we're slow dust. I've hear the universe howling--a conch from the beach is proof, but there are Ears Above for which the spiral nebulae must twist the same harrowing sound. Because pain, in even one cell, is an ant: it will bear a whole organ away. And a day is so huge--a Goliath; the tiny stones our eyes pick up in sleeping aren't enough to confront it. The marrow gives up. We have a spine, like a book's, and are also on loan with a due date. And the night is even more huge; what we call a day is only one struck match in an infinite darkness. This is knowledge we're born with, this is in the first cry. I've seen each friend I have, at one time or another, shake at thinking how susceptible and brief a person is: and whatever touching we do, whatever small narrative starring ourselves can bridge that unit of emptiness, is a triumph. "Tell me another story," you say with a yawn, "of life back then, with--what was her name?" "With Misheleh?" "Yes, with Misheleh." As if I can marry us backward in time that way. As if it makes our own invented love more durable.     The Mormons marry backward. "Sealing," they call it. In the sanctum of the temple, with permission called a "temple recommend," a Mormon of pious state may bind somebody long dead (perhaps an ancestor of his own, perhaps a name provided by chance from a list of cleared names in the computer)--bind that person to the Mormon faith, and to the flow of Mormon generations, in a retroactive conversion good "for time and all eternity." (Though the dead, they add, have "free agency" up in Heaven to accept this or not.) A husband and wife might be "celestially married" this way, from out of their graves and into the spun-sugar clouds of a Mormon Foreverness ... from out of the Old World sod ... from sand, from swamp water.... Where does ancestry stop ?     To pattern the present we'll fabricate the past from before there was fabric. Piltdown Man. On display in the British Museum. From 65 million years back--and later shown to be some forgery of human and orangutan lockings, the jawbone stained and abraded. Or, more openly and jubilant, the Civilization of Llhuros "from the recent excavations of Vanibo, Houndee, Draikum, and other sites"--in Ithaca, New York. Norman Daly, professor of art at Cornell and current "Director of Llhurosian Studies," has birthed an entire culture: its creatures (the Pruii bird, described in the article "Miticides of Coastal Llhuros"), its rites ("the Tokens of Holmeek are lowered into the Sacred Fires, and burned with the month-cloths of the Holy Whores"), its plaques and weapons and votive figurines, its myths and water clocks, its poems and urns and a "nasal flute." An elephant mask. An "early icon of Tal-Hax." Wall paintings. "Oxen bells." Maps. The catalogue I have is 48 pages--135 entries. Some of the Llhuros artifacts are paintings or sculpture. Some are anachronismed, a five-and-dime on-sale orange juicer becomes a trallib , an "oil container ... Middle Period, found at Draikum." A clothes iron: "Late Archaic ... that it may be a votive of the anchorite Ur Ur cannot be disregarded." Famous athletes. Textiles. "Fornicating gods."     Just open the mind, and the past it requires will surface. "Psychic archaeologists" have tranced themselves to the living worlds of the pyramids or the caves--one chipped flint scraper can be connection enough. When Edgar Cayce closed his eyes he opened them (inside his head, which had its eyes closed) in the undiluted afternoon light of dynastic Egypt: wind was playing a chafing song in the leaves of the palm and the persea, fishers were casting their nets. "His findings and methods tend to be dismissed by the orthodox scientific community," but Jeffrey Goodman meditates, and something--an invisible terra-form diving bell of sorts--descends with his eyes to fully twenty feet below the sands of Flagstaff, Arizona, 100,000 B.C., his vision Brailling happily as a mole's nose through the bones set in the darkness there like accent marks and commas.     Going back ... the darkness ... closing your lids....     A wheel shocked into a pothole. Misheleh waking up, wild-eyed. Torches.     "We needed certain papers, proof that we were Jews, to be admitted to America. To pass the inspectors there. And yet if our van was stopped by the Secret Police and we were discovered in back, those papers would be our death warrant. Such a goat's dessert!--that's the expression we used then."     "And ...?"     "It comes from when two goats will fight for the same sweet morsel--each pulls a different direction."     "No, I mean that night, the escape--what happened ?"     "The Secret Police stopped the van." 3. Earlier, I said, "in a trough between crests"--sea imagery. I mean in part that dark, as it grows deeper, takes the world away, and a sleepless body will float all night in horrible separation from what it knows and where it's nurtured. Freedom is sweet; but nobody wants to be flotsam.     Ruth Norman, the eighty-two-year-old widow of Ernest L. Norman, is Uriel, an Archangel, to her fellow Unarian members and is, in fact, the "Cosmic Generator," and head of all Unarius activities on Earth (which is an applicant for the "Intergalactic Confederation" of thirty-two other planets--but we need to pass a global test of "consciousness vibration"). In past lives, Uriel has been Socrates, Confucius, Henry VIII, and Benjamin Franklin--and has adventured on Vidus, Janus, Vulna, and other planets. All Unarians know their former lives. Vaughn Spaegel has been Charlemagne. And Ernest L. himself has been Jesus (as proved by a pamphlet, The Little Red Box ) and currently is Alta; from his ankh-shaped chair on Mars he communicates psychically and through a bank of jeweled buttons with all the Confederation. Everyone works toward the day Earth can join. The 1981 Conclave of Light, at the Town and Country Convention Center in El Cajon, California, attracted over 400 Unarians, some from as far as New York and Toronto. Neosha Mandragos, formerly a nun for twenty-seven years, was there; and George, the shoe-store clerk, and Dan, assistant manager of an ice-cream parlor.     Uriel makes her long-awaited entrance following the Bolero -backed procession of two girls dressed as peacocks, led by golden chains, then two nymphs scattering petals from cornucopias, someone wearing a feathered bird's head, and various sages. Four "Nubian slaves ... wearing skin bronzer, headdresses, loincloths and gilded beach thongs" carry a palanquin adorned with enormous white swans, atop which ... Uriel! In a black velvet gown falling eight feet wide at the hem, with a wired-up universe of painted rubber balls representing the thirty-two worlds and dangling out to her skirt's edge. According to Douglas Curran, "the gown, the painted golden `vortex' headdress, and the translucent elbow-length gloves with rapier nails have tiny light bulbs snaked through the fabric. The bulbs explode into volleys of winking. Waves of light roll from bodice to fingertips, Infinite Mind to planets." People weep. Their rich remembered lives are a sudden brilliance over their nerves, like ambulance flashers on chicken wire, like ... like fire approaching divinity. Nobody's worrying here over last week's sales of butter-pecan parfait.     We'll sham it. We need it. It's not that we lie. It's that we make the truth. The Japanese have a word especially for it: nisekeizu , false genealogies. Ruling-class Japan was obsessed with lineage and descent, and these connived links to the Sewangezi line of the Fujiwaras qualified one--were indeed the only qualification at the time--for holding office. "High birth." "Pedigree." It's no less likely in Europe. In the seventeenth century, Countess Alexandrine von Taxis "hired genealogists to fabricate a descent from the Torriani, a clan of warriors who ruled Lombardy until 1311."     European Jews, who by late in the 1700s needed to take on surnames in order to cross a national border, often invented family names that spoke of lush green woods and open fields--this from a people traipsing from one cramped dingy urban ghetto to another. Greenblatt. Tannenbaum. Now a child born choking on soot could be heir to a name saying miles of mild air across meadows. Flowers. Mossy knolls.     Misheleh's name was Rosenblum. I never asked but always imagined this explained the trail of paper roses she'd left through Yitzl's life. My name then was Schvartzeit, reference to my many-thousand-year heritage of black beets. The name on our papers, though, was Kaufman--"merchant." This is what you had to do, to survive.     I remember: they were rough with us, also with the driver of the van. But we pretended being offended, like any good citizens. It could have gone worse. This was luckily early in the times of the atrocities, and these officers--they were hounds set out to kill, but they went by the book. A hound is honest in his pursuit. The rat and the slippery eel--later on, more officers were like that.     They might have dragged us away just for being in back of the van at all. But we said we were workers. In this, the driver backed us up. And the papers that shouted out Jew ? My Misheleh stuffed them up a salmon. Later, after the Secret Police were gone and we had clumped across the border, we were on our knees with a child's doll's knife slicing the bellies of maybe a hundred fish until we found it! Covered in pearly offal and roe. We had it framed when we came to America. Pretty. A little cherrywood frame with cherubim puffing a trump in each corner. We were happy, then. A very lovely frame around an ugliness.     "And you loved each other."     Every day, in our hearts. Some nights, in our bodies. I'll tell you this about sex: it's like genealogy. Yes. It takes you back, to the source. That's one small bit of why some people relish wallowing there. A burrowing, completely and beastly, back to where we came from. It tastes and smells "fishy" in every language I know. It takes us down to when the blood was the ocean, down the rivers of the live flesh to the ocean, to the original beating fecundity. It's as close as we'll ever get.     And this I'll tell you, about the smell of fish: for our earliest years, when I was starting the dry-goods store and worrying every bolt of gabardine or every bucket of nails was eating another poem out of my soul--which I think is true--we lived over a fish store. Kipper, flounder, herring, the odors reached up like great gray leaves through our floorboards. And every night we lived there, Misheleh cried for a while. After the van, you see? She could never be around raw fish again, without panic.     But on the whole we were happy. There was security of a kind, and friends--even a social club in a patchy back room near the train tracks, that we decorated once a month with red and yellow crepe festoons and paper lanterns pouring out a buttery light.     Once every year she and I, we visited the cemetery. A private ritual: we pretended Yitzl was buried there. Because he'd brought us together, and we wanted him with us yet. For the hour it took, we always hired a street accordionist--it wasn't an uncommon instrument then. Like guitar now. Play a polka, we told him-- hot . It drove the other cemetery visitors crazy! And always, Misheleh left a paper rose at the cemetery gates.     We heard that accordion music and a whole world came back, already better and worse than it was in its own time. Harsher. Gentler. Coarser. Little things--our shtetl dogs. Or big things too, the way we floated our sins away on toy-sized cork rafts once each spring, and everybody walking home singing.... All of that world was keeping its shape but growing more and more transparent for us. Like the glass slipper in the fairy tale. The past was becoming a fairy tale. In it, the slipper predicates a certain foot and, so, a certain future.     At night I'd walk in my store. The moon like a dew on the barrel heaped with bolts, and the milky bodies of lamps, and the pen nibs, and shovels ... Kaufman. Merchant. 4. Within a year after death we have what Jewish tradition calls "the unveiling"--the gravestone dedication ceremony. September 14, 1986: I arrived in Chicago, joining my mother, sister, two aunts, and perhaps thirty others, including the rabbi, at the grave of my father Irving Goldbarth, his stone wrapped in a foolish square of cheesecloth. A stingy fringe of grass around the fresh mound. The burial had taken place in bitter city winter, the earth (in my memory) opening with the crack of axed oak. Now it was warmer, blurrier, everything soft. My mother's tears.     The rabbi spoke, his voice soft: to the Jews a cemetery is "a house of graves" ... but also a "house of eternal life." The same in other faiths, I thought. There are as many dead now as alive. A kind of balance along the ground's two sides. That permeable membrane. Always new dead in the making, and always the long dead reappearing over our shoulders and in our dreams. Sometimes a face, like a coin rubbed nearly smooth, in a photo. We're supposed to be afraid of ghosts but every culture has them, conjures them, won't let go. Our smoky ropes of attachment to the past. Our anti-umbilici.... My mind wandering. Then, the eldest and only son, I'm reciting the Kaddish. " Yisgadahl v'yisgadosh sh'may rahbbo ...." In back, my father's father's grave, the man I'm named for. Staring hard and lost at the chiseling, ALBERT GOLDBARTH. My name. His dates.     In 1893 "Albert Goldbarth An Alien personally appeared in open Court and prayed to be admitted to become a Citizen of the United States...."--I have that paper, that and a sad, saved handful of others: September 15, 1904, he "attained the third degree" in the "Treue Bruder Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows." Five days after, J. B. Johnson, General Sales Agent of the Southern Cotton Oil Company, wrote a letter recommending "Mr. Goldbarth to whomsoever he may apply, as an honest and hardworking Salesman, leaving us of his own accord." That was 24 Broad Street, New York. In two years, in Cleveland, Ohio, John H. Silliman, Secretary, was signing a notice certifying Mr. Albert Goldbarth as an agent of The American Accident Insurance Company. And, from 1924, "$55 Dollars, in hand paid," purchasing Lot Number 703--this, from the envelope he labeled in pencil, "Paid Deed from Semetery Lot from Hibrew Progresif Benefit Sociaty." I'm standing there now. I'm reading this stone that's the absolute last of his documents.     There aren't many stories. Just two photographs. And he was dead before I was born. A hundred times, I've tried inventing the calluses, small betrayals, tasseled mantel lamps, day-shaping waves of anger, flicked switches, impossible givings of love in the face of no love, dirty jokes, shirked burdens, flowerpots, loyalties, gold-shot silk page markers for the family Bible, violin strings, sweet body stinks from the creases, knickknacks, lees of tea, and morning-alchemized trolley tracks declaring themselves as bright script in the sooted-over paving bricks--everything that makes a life, which is his life, and buried.     And why am I busy repeating that fantastical list ...? We're "mountain gorillas" (this is from Alex Shoumatoff's wonderful study of kinship, The Mountain of Names ) who "drag around moribund members of their troop and try to get them to stand, and after they have died" (above my grandfather's grave, imagining bouts of passion with imaginary Misheleh over my grandfather's grave now) "masturbate on them and try to get some reaction from them." An offering, maybe. A trying to read life backward into that text of dead tongues. Give us any fabric scrap, we'll dream the prayer shawl it came from. Give us any worthless handful of excavated soil, we'll dream the scrap. The prayer. The loom the shawl took fragile shape on, in the setting shtetl hill-light. The immigrant ships they arrived in, the port, the year. We'll give that year whatever version of semen is appropriate, in homage and resuscitative ritual. We'll breathe into, rub, and luster that year.     1641: on a journey in Ecuador, a Portuguese Jew, Antonio de Montezinos, discovered--after a weeklong, brush-clogged hell trek through the hinterlands--a hidden Jewish colony, and heard them wailing holy writ in Hebrew. Yes, there in the wild domain of anaconda and peccary--or so he told the Jewish scholar and eminent friend of Rembrandt, Menasseh ben Israel. Or so Menasseh claimed, who had his own damn savvy purposes; and based on his claim that the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel were now found in the New World, and their global equidispersion near complete--as the Bible foretells will usher in an Age of Salvation--Britain's Puritan leaders readmitted their country's exiled Jews, the better to speed the whole world on its prophesied way to Redemption. (Maybe Rembrandt was an earlier body of Ernest L. Norman? Maybe the massed Confederation planets were holding their astro-collective breath even then, as destiny wound like spool thread on the windmills. And maybe, in the same Dutch-sunset oranges and mauves he let collect like puddled honey in his painted-dusk skies, Rembrandt helped Menasseh finagle this plot on behalf of a troubled people, tipped a flagon of burgundy in a room of laundered varnish rags, and plotted as the radio-telescope Monitor Maids of planet Vidus lounged about in their gold lamé uniforms, listening....)     Maybe. Always a maybe. Always someone forcing the scattered timbers of history into a sensible bridge. The Lost Tribes: China. The Lost Tribes: Egypt. The Lost Tribes: Africa. India. Japan. They formed a kingdom near "a terrible river of crashing stones" that roared six days a week "but on the Jewish Sabbath did cease." Lord Kingsborough emptied the family fortune, won three stays in debtor's prison, "in order to publish a series of sumptuously illustrated volumes proving the Mexican Indians...." Ethiopians. Eskimos. The Mormons have them reaching America's shores as early as "Tower of Babylon times" and later again, about 600 B.C., becoming tipi dwellers, hunters of lynx and buffalo, children of Fire and Water Spirits.... Maybe. But today I think these caskets in Chicago soil are voyage enough. The moon's not that far.     We visit the other family graves: Auntie Regina (brain cancer) ... Uncle Jake (drank; slipped me butterscotch candies).... Miles square and unguessably old, this cemetery's a city, districted, netted by streets and their side roads, overpopulated, undercared. Dead Jews dead Jews dead Jews. Ruth Dale Noparstak * Age 2 Weeks * 1944 --death about the size of a cigar box.     My mother says to Aunt Sally (a stage whisper): "You'll see, Albert's going to write a poem about this." Later, trying to help that endeavor: "Albert, you see these stones on the graves? Jews leave stones on the graves to show they've visited." Not flowers? Why not flowers? ... I think I farmed black bent-backed turnips in the hardpan of a shtetl compound of equally black-garbed bent-backed grandmama and rabbinic Jews .     My mother's parents are here in the Moghileff section, "Organized 1901." "You see the people here? They came from a town called Moghileff, in Russia--or it was a village. Sally, was Moghileff a town or a village?--you know, a little place where all the Jews lived. And those who came to Chicago, when they died, they were all buried here. Right next to your Grandma and Grandpa's graves, you see?--Dave and Natalie?--they were Grandma and Grandpa's neighbors in Moghileff, and they promised each other that they'd stay neighbors forever, here.     "Your Grandma Rosie belonged to the Moghileff Sisterhood. She was Chairlady of Relief. That meant, when somebody had a stillbirth, or was out of a job, or was beat in an alley, she'd go around to the members with an empty can and collect five dollars." Sobbing now. "Five dollars."     On our way out there's a lavish mausoleum lording it over this ghetto of small gray tenanted stones. My Uncle Lou says, still in his Yiddish-flecked English: "And dis one?" Pauses. "Gotta be a gengster." 5. The Mormons marry backward. "Sealing," they call it.     "Is that the end of your story of Misheleh and you?"     The story of marrying backward never ends.     In Singapore not long ago, the parents of a Miss Cheeh, who had been stillborn twenty-seven years before, were troubled by ghosts in their dreams, and consulted a spirit medium. Independently, the parents of a Mr. Poon consulted her, too--their son had been stillborn thirty-six years earlier and, recently, ghosts were waking them out of slumber. "And the medium, diagnosing the two ghosts' problem as loneliness, acted as their marriage broker." The Poons and the Cheehs were introduced, a traditional bride price paid, and dolls representing the couple were fashioned out of paper, along with a miniature one-story house with manservant, car, and chauffeur, a table with teacups and pot, and a bed with bolster and pillows. Presumably, on some plane of invisible, viable, ectoplasmic endeavor, connubial bliss was enabled. Who knows?--one day soon, they may wake in their version of that paper bed (his arm around her sex-dampened nape, a knock at the door ...) and be given the chance to be Mormon, to have always been Mormon, and everlastingly Mormon. They'll laugh, but graciously. She'll rise and start the tea....     These ghosts. Our smoky ropes of attachment. And our reeling them in.     Eventually Misheleh and I prospered. The store did well, then there were two stores. We grew fat on pickled herring in cream, and love. I suppose we looked jolly. Although you could see in the eyes, up close, there was a sadness: where our families died in the camps, where I was never able to find time for the poetry--those things. Even so, the days and nights were good. The children never lacked a sweet after meals (but only if they cleaned their plates), or a little sailor suit, or Kewpie blouse, or whatever silliness was in fashion. Before bed, I'd tell them a story. Once, your mother and I, we lived in another country. A friend introduced us. He was a famous musician. Your mother danced to his songs and a thousand people applauded. I wrote poems about her, everyone read them. Gentlemen flung her roses ....     I died. It happens. I died and I entered the Kingdom of Worm and of God, and what happens then isn't part of this story, there aren't any words for it. And what I became on Earth--here, in the memory of the living ...?--it isn't over yet, it never ends, and now I'm me and I love you. * * * Because the ash is in this paper on which I'm writing (and in the page you're reading) and has been from the start. Because the blood is almost the chemical composition of the ocean, the heart is a swimmer, a very sturdy swimmer, but shore is never in sight. Because of entropy. Because of the nightly news. Because the stars care even less for us than we do for the stars. Because the only feeling a bone can send us is pain. Because the more years that we have, the less we have--the schools don't teach this Tragic Math but we know it; twiddling the fingers is how we count it off. Because because because. And so somebody wakes from an ether sleep: the surgeons have made him Elvis, he can play third-rate Las Vegas bars. And so someone revises the raven on top of the clan pole to a salmon-bearing eagle: now his people have a totem-progenitor giving them certain territorial privileges that the spirits ordained on the First Day of Creation. So. Because.     In He Done Her Wrong , the "Great American Novel--in pictures--and not a word in it" that the brilliant cartoonist Milt Gross published in 1930, the stalwart square-jawed backwoods hero and his valiant corn-blond sweetheart are torn from each other's arms by a dastardly mustachioed villain of oily glance and scowling brow, then seemingly endless deprivations begin: fistfights, impoverishment, unbearable loneliness, the crazed ride down a sawmill tied to one of its logs.... And when they're reunited, as if that weren't enough, what cinches it as a happy ending is uncinched buckskin pants: the hero suddenly has a strawberry birthmark beaming from his tush, and is known for the billionaire sawmill owner's rightful heir....     Because it will save us. * * * The story-in-my-story is over: Misheleh and the children walk home from the cemetery. She's left a stone and a paper rose. We never would have understood it fifty years earlier, sweated with sex, but this is also love.     The story is over, too: the "I" is done talking, the "you" is nearly asleep, they lazily doodle each other's skin. We met them, it seems a long while ago, in what I called "a trough between crests." Let their bed be a raft, and let the currents of sleep be calm ones.     Outside of the story, I'm writing this sentence, and whether someone is a model for the "you" and waiting to see me put my pen down and toe to the bedroom--or even if I'm just lonely, between one "you" and the next--is none of your business. The "outside" is never the proper business between a writer and a reader, but this I'll tell you: tonight the rains strafed in, then quit, and the small symphonic saws of the crickets are swelling the night. This writing is almost over.     But nothing is ever over--or, if it is, then the impulse is wanting to make it over: "over" not as in "done," but "again." "Redo." Re-synapse. Re-nova.     I need to say "I love you" to someone and feel it flow down the root of her, through the raw minerals, over the lip of the falls, and back, without limit, into the pulse of the all-recombinant waters. * * * I meet Carolyn for lunch. She's with Edward, her old friend, who's been living in the heart of Mexico all of these years: Our maid, Rosalita, she must be over seventy. She had "female troubles," she said. She needed surgery. But listen: she's from the hills, some small collection of huts that doesn't even bear a name, so she hasn't any papers at all--absolutely no identification. There isn't a single professional clinic that can accept you that way. There isn't any means for obtaining insurance or public aid. So we went to a Records Division. I slipped the agent dinero . He knew what I was doing. It's everywhere. It's the way Mexico works. And when we left, Rosalita was somebody else. She had somebody else's birth certificate, working papers--everything. She had somebody else's life from the beginning, and she could go on with her own. Copyright © 2001 Albert Goldbarth. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

After Yitzlp. 1
Parade March from That Creaturely Worldp. 17
Dualp. 27
Calling Upp. 47
The Lakep. 69
Fullerp. 93
Farder to Reachep. 123
The Spacep. 125
Ellen'sp. 141
Many Circlesp. 175
Worldsp. 237
Parnassusp. 305
Notesp. 307