Albert Goldbarth's poetry collection Budget Travel through Space and Time is one of the more cohesive collections of poetry I've encountered in recent years. Using history, science, and mathematics in equal measure, Goldbarth explores some of the more influential events in his life in a dry and humorous fashion. Take his riffing on infomercial rhetoric in opening poem "Budget Travel through the Universe:"
We can rig a supernova in a single laptop jiffy. Ditto werewolf transformation: every feral heir is given its credible gumption and its little jacket of oil. As for aliens summoned from out of the holes in space itself...we're crackerjack on aliens, a seven-story studio exists to make their travel to our planet a persuasive thing.
You can feel the cadence of sales in these first few lines. There's the hyperbole to exaggerate technological advances, the commitment to accuracy and quality, and then the big pitch on why your alien species should choose our humble little planet to visit. If Budget Travel through Space and Time just stuck with this almost-satirical riff on pop culture through the lens of science, it might have grown tired. It doesn't. Take a quick look at the rest of that stanza:
And yet, today at a festival of silent film, I'm moved by what was possible in 1910: a city street is empty; then the camera stops; a man's positioned standing in that street; and then the camera rolls again. It could be a man from the moon has suddenly appeared on our world, without even the help of a pair of blunt-tip sewing-basket scissors.
The narrator of this poem isn't impressed by the quasi-infomercial tone of his own time; he's captivated by a simple trick of film splicing from the past. He knows that a pair of scissors created the illusion, but he's become obsessed with it.
Goldbarth is using a combination of speculation--the arrival of spaceships, mastery of space and time--with the known--history, antiquated technology--to explore deeper issues in his life. The section A Trip to the Country of Crazy, and Back is all about mental illness. "Heart Heart Heart Heart Heart Heart Heart" uses speculative and historical examinations of space and the heart to try and cope with someone he loves self-injuring herself to deal with "The Shapelessness"--an ultimate unknown of her own invention. In "A Knife through the Head (Your Distreses and Mine)," a woman's suicide attempt leads to the emergency room by way of steam of consciousness history from Babylonian gods to a Mickey Mouse cartoon in only a few short lines.
Where Budget Travel through Space and Time really excels is in Goldbarth's multi-sectioned poems. "A Gesture Made in the Martian Wastes" takes three sections to go from the relative significance of Earth in the universe to an admiration of the body by way of the surface of Mars. To get there, we visit video game parlors, strip clubs, Hindu philosophy, small-town depression, and even reviews of Goldbarth's previous publications. Seemingly no facet of the universe is left uncovered by Goldbarth's introspective eye, even if his riffs on history usually go to Babylonia, Egypt, colonial America, and Old Hollywood.
Perhaps the end of opening poem "Otzi," the last poem in the opening section, says it best:
At mine, I shone like a sun. At hers, I exhibited fitful overcasts. I call it Goldbarth's Law of Physics: At the moment when the past becomes two futures, it becomes two pasts.
If all of the choices in history informs our lives, when do we become part of that history of choices that shape space and time?