Sunday, November 04, 2007

Richard Jeffrey Newman, review: "Griffin"

Richard Jeffrey Newman
Nassau Community College

Albert Goldbarth. Griffin. Athens, OH: Essay Press, 2007.

Let’s start with the last sentence of “Roman Erotic Poetry,” the first essay in Albert Goldbarth’s Griffin: “There are many things I don’t know [Goldbarth is quoting himself talking to an undergraduate poetics class], but trust me: I know how to recognize the marriage of form and content.” This metaphor—of form and content somehow being married, suggesting of course they can also be unmarried—is what Goldbarth has written the two essays in Griffin to explore. He does this through his signature and dizzyingly virtuosic weaving together of image, metaphor, fact, fictionalization, meditation and narrative. In the first few pages of “Wuramon,” for example, the second essay in the book, Goldbarth moves with an effortlessness that belies the deep craft holding his prose together from the unearthing of Neolithic villages to the wind’s role in plant reproduction, from economics to musicology, from the cliché of “Be careful what you wish for: you might get it” to that cliché’s fulfillment in “the molten gold a concentrating Aztec warrior pours, a cupful, down the throat of a captive—one of Cortez’s men.”

The movement back and forth between and among the seemingly disparate elements Goldbarth brings to bear in his essays is indeed dazzling, though it can, on occasion feel forced, as when he introduces us to Jim (whose cancer and impending death are the impetus for “Wuramon”) by having to recall the fact that it was Jim who organized the activity where Goldbarth first encountered the Asmat “soul ship” (wuramon) that gives the essay its title. Given the loving detail with which Goldbarth paints Jim’s portrait, the fact that Jim’s health is the essay’s central concern and that the Wuramon is the essay’s central metaphor, it’s hard not to read the first sentence of the section where we meet Jim (“Who was it?—that’s right: Jim) as disingenuous, a way to appear to be pulling Jim out of thin air when, in fact, Jim was there right from the start.

More often than not, however, Goldbarth’s rhetorical strategies are successful, resembling nothing so much as the movement between and among the various themes a composer must weave seamlessly together to create a successful piece of symphonic or chamber music. “Roman Erotic Poetry,” for example, begins with a rather bald announcement of its theme—“This seems to be the summer of com-, recom-, and uncombining”—which also introduces us to Martha, the friend whose looming divorce from Arthur provides the essay’s starting point. Goldbarth then brings in a number of other characters, whose relationships, sexual and otherwise, are turned this way and that throughout the rest of the piece. There are Sweet and Danny, Ed, Yancy, and Mister J and George, each providing local embodiments of the questions about “com-, recom-, and uncombining” that Goldbarth raises as he leads us through an extended discussion connecting his reading of Catullus, a meditation on the nature of the griffin, P. T. Barnum’s “Feejee Mermaid,” Jewish dietary laws and more.

Each of the characters mentioned above, and each of the topics as well, will appear more than once throughout the essay, though each appearance will be in a different context, with different shadings of tonality, different subtexts, even different levels of diction, much in the same way that the musical themes in a symphony appear and reappear, differently harmonized, in different keys, with different phrasing, tempo, instrumentation and so on. We first meet Martha on page 1, for example, and are told a little bit about the difficulty she is having dealing with the fact that Arthur, her husband, has just moved out of the house. Before Martha and Arthur return on page 8, however, Goldbarth takes us through a reading of Catullus’ poem #56, in which the poet, coming upon his lover’s boy-slave masturbating, fucks the boy from behind. Thinking about this poem leads Goldbarth to wonder “what is and what isn’t a proper coupling?” and this question takes him through a consideration of Leda and the swan, the problems of adulterous behavior among the Greek gods and goddesses, Romeo and Juliet, the taboo against cross-caste marriages in traditional Indian culture, Galileo, and the penalties for bestiality in 1636 in Plymouth and for sodomy in Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1641.

When Martha and Arthur do return on page 8, Goldbarth has just finished, with a delicious irony, parodying the Bible speak used to talk about the horrors of homosexuality, which “is an abomination of which the After-life waits for ever and aye with an eternal torment of flames and the stench of brimstone.” He then has this to say about his friends: “[F]or me this week, this summer[,] it’s Martha and Arthur who seem to be schlepping their lives through the ravenous fires of hell.” Not only does the trip Goldbarth has taken from ancient Rome to the New World render the significance of Martha and Arthur’s personal hell much deeper than it would otherwise have been, but the entirety of Martha and Arthur’s predicament takes on a cultural resonance it would not otherwise have had.

This technique is repeated again and again throughout the essay. In the very next section, for example, we learn something of Martha and Arthur’s history, and it is here that Martha introduces the idea of the griffin—part eagle, part lion—as a metaphor for marriage. Goldbarth then goes off on another exploratory jaunt, ranging through the cultural function served by mythical creatures like the griffin, creatures that defy categorization, to the different ways in which medieval villages responded to premarital sex and adultery—the former was “winked at,” the latter punished most severely—and then back to Catullus and the difficulties of translation. The question of translation returns him once more to Martha and the desperation with which she is trying to make comprehensible to herself—to translate, if you will—Arthur’s behavior.

In each case, when the theme of Martha and Arthur is restated, it is with the verbal equivalent of a different harmony, key or tempo, and, in each case, that difference moves us deeper and deeper, intellectually and emotionally, not so much into Martha and Arthur—we don’t actually learn very much about them—but into the subject Goldbarth wants to investigate. Put most broadly—and I do think this is the point in both form and content of all Goldbarth’s essays—that subject is the way in which metaphor serves as the infrastructure of our individual, social, cultural and political lives. In Griffin, the specific metaphor under scrutiny is the line separating form and content; or the line along which they are “united in marriage,” cobbled together as seamlessly as possible; the line along which the two essays in Griffin lie side by side. “Roman Erotic Poetry” deals with how griffins are made and unmade, not only in the spaces of our imaginations where myths are made, but also in the fact of our need to join with others in relationships we commit to a transcendence of our individual differences. “Wuramon,” on the other hand, suggests that we are all griffins, products of the uneasy and terrifyingly fragile marriage of body and spirit. The hope of the first essay gives way to a kind of despair in the second, and yet the two pieces coexist as a seemingly seamless and satisfying whole. Indeed, it is the gift of the essays in Griffin that they make this line that runs through all our lives not just visible, but palpable, revealing the ways in which it is a necessary part of what makes us human, no matter what differences might divide us.

Richard Jeffrey Newman is the Literary Arts Director of the Persian Arts Festival, sits on the advisory board of The Translation Project and is listed as a speaker with the New York Council for the Humanities. He is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Nassau Community College in Garden City, New York, where he coordinates the Creative Writing Project. His website is www.richardjnewman.com.

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