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Poems like little novels

A poet as word-rich as Albert Goldbarth is not likely to repeat himself accidentally. But in his new collection "Saving Lives," he uses variations on the word "famous" often. And now he is famous, at least by the standards of poetry.

When Goldbarth won the National Book Critics Circle poetry award for "Saving Lives" last month, the citation noted that he "finds startling and intricate connections where no one else has thought to look" and that "for him, nearly every poem is a metaphysical occasion, an opportunity to encompass the universe in all its randomness and bizarre beauty." (Goldbarth also won the NBCC poetry award back in 1991 for "Heaven and Earth: a Cosmology.")

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Poets tend to enlarge their worlds, to fill them with images that aren't there already. What makes Goldbarth exceptional is that he hands all this material over so his readers feel it's their own. As a result, the reader feels not quite famous, but as a famous person should feel: completed, satisfied, rich.

As Goldbarth refashions it, the world isn't just real; it's really real. In one poem, he calculates the actual weight of our misdeeds, concluding that original sin alone is equal to "a couple of fully loaded Cadillac Sevilles,/ a small Stonehengian circle of bulky 1950s Frigidaires,/ the medals and buckles of all of the pooh-bahs in Fraternal Lodge 347,/ and an extra scatter of tire jacks and foundry moulds."

Another Goldbarth trademark is that he collapses time periods, so that the past bursts into the present in these poems "like an axe-head/ from the back of the canvas." In most cases, "life is a diary/ nobody opens and reads completely," but that doesn't mean nothing's going on: "Hummingbirds migrate across the country/ too, although we never see it happening."

And these poems are full of characters, of both the textbook literary type as well as the isn't-she-peculiar sort: relatives living and dead, friends, enemies, and friends who may well become enemies when they see their behavior described here.

In Goldbarth's action-packed world, a character will often double or triple before one's very eyes, as is the case with the Russian emigré grandma whom Goldbarth describes listening to her first radio broadcast in the New World and weeping at the miracle of "Brahms or her first insurance commercial" pouring out of a tabletop Zenith.