The final lines of the book’s opening poem (“Our questions are / our miracles.”) are uncharacteristically positive (even to use the word “positive” here seems an awkward choice, perhaps “affirming” is more apt) for Goldberg. Drawing a poem to an eloquently surprising and surprisingly eloquent and obsessively conclusive conclusion, however, is not. In fact, this is Goldberg’s special talent—perfected over twenty years and throughout her six books—demonstrated with astonishing consistency and brilliance in her new poems, of which a dozen and a half appear in this volume. “It’s not a season if it expects / a conclusion. That’s what I think, / because of you,” she concludes in “Everything is Nervous.” “If you can’t bear to forget don’t / be born,” concludes “Absence.”
Of course, we cannot control “being born,” at least as it is the literal expression of ourselves in the world. And unhappiness with our fate, having not asked to be born, is also characteristic of Goldberg’s work. She is not nostalgic for the childhood she did not have—or, in fact, for the one she did—instead and consistently throughout the books and in the new poems she reveals a particular and idiosyncratic longing for an unimaginable childhood. Here is the beginning of “Absence”:
It is where it isn’t. For instance, the hallway. For instance, What next? The apple that
says then I was happy, or I was happy then…When
you aren’t here. I don’t have to make the bed. I don’t have to eat on time. Well,
I’m just like memory and what good
does Papa do there? The red dog. The old house. The old baby. At least there’s
California where it’s still possible to think while you
drive, stop, eat, watch the desert disappear and the flowers grow giant,
famous and rich. I’ve been there, done
that. “Talk to me as if I were there…” and some clipping taped to the side of the
he was gone and I was back in my mother’s kitchen, back at the mountain.
In the new poems, Goldberg has not only perfected the art of the intensely and relentlessly perfect conclusion, she has elevated to perfection the art of looking back with unadulterated clarity. “I See the Light Shining Through” recounts the experience of a brother coming home from the Vietnam War (to which the only specific reference is Saigon), broken himself and to a broken-down family. He brings her a shirt (“a blouse tried on by / girls my age in / Saigion”). “I thought as a girl / it was not my war,” she concludes. Entire family histories, a whole war, and a lifetime of adult misperceptions are contained in those brief—and desperately relevant—lines. Would we be entering the second decade of another ill-conceived war if any of us thought it was “our war”?
There is nothing in the new poems that does not seem, on some level, to have pushed Goldberg further, deeper, more intensely and intently forward with the themes, subjects, and tendencies developed in the first six books, the personal and collective psychic pain and circumstances in her “Twentieth Century Children” series from The Book of Accident (2006); the troubled relationship with her father from “Lie Awake Lake,” from the book of the same title (2005); the inventive retelling of a well-worn myth as in “Lucifer’s Crown,” from Never Be the Horse (1999); the drive to define the divide between absence and presence (as we have already seen) in “Love, Scissor, Stone,” from The Badlands of Desire (1993; “But we bear it. / Because it’s here. It’s where / the hell we are.”); and the elements of nature as emblems of our emotional landscape, as in “Salvation” from Body Betrayer (1991).
You must be willing to hurt when you read Goldberg because she relies on pain to get us through; to suspend belief (there is much that is, if not surreal, then unexplained); to embrace the cruel or grotesque (if rejecting would mean avoiding her insistence on it); and to be disappointed (“Maybe / the dreams that keep us going / are no better than our lives. // Maybe it hasn’t turned out like this.”)—or, at the very least, to be confused about whether you’re disappointed or not.
Above all, you must be open to the possibility that the perfect conclusion is both “miracle” and the “resemblance” of a miracle; that the self is the source of our own grief (“The conclusion: Every body has / a wound that is secret”); and that every narrative (every poem, every life) is equally disturbing and redemptive, as the final poem in the volume (“There is a Rock in Tent City,” “one more new” as it is categorized) insists:
Now, they look American. The way
is dark. Tonight, there’s little difference I can tell
between the cruel and the kind, except that one has
a longer memory. And this story depends on which.
It is kind of me to recommend this book—it is a must read. It’s equally cruel— I know you will suffer.