Many Circles: New and Selected Essays by Albert Goldbarth

My word. This is a complicated one.

I admire Albert Goldbarth very much. I’ve read his essay “Fuller” several times now, but I think that’s the only work of his that I’d read before this book. As an overall impression, I am deeply impressed, and challenged. These essays are beautiful and complicated. They are braids of many strands, often organized around an abstract concept, and Goldbarth makes it his job to help us see the connections, which can as well be pretty abstract. In other words, classic essayistic thinking-on-the-page. I’m thinking of the masterful braiding in Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” which I so love, but even more complexly. And long: these essays are 20, 30, 40 and 50 pages long, which can make their braiding quite an organizational feat, and a feat for the reader as well.

They tend to focus on dualities or multiplicities, and profiles of people in history as well as in the present. The amount of information presented in each–scientific, historical–is boggling, and yet each essay makes sense in the end almost despite itself. I want to call the subject matter often obscure, but that’s an issue for each reader to decide, isn’t it; I am not the most well-read person I know, but I am not the least, either, and I certainly found some of the historical figures new to me. (I was fine with Yeats, and Einstein, and the Greek myths, of course; but the archaeologists John Lloyd Stephens* and Augustus Le Plongeon? Millionaire astronomer Pecival Lowell?) Goldbarth himself: extremely well-read and wide-ranging. Reading him is an education.** And I really, really enjoyed reading these essays and learning so much; but they must be taken slowly, to follow and parse all those threads.

Goldbarth is a poet to boot, and adds lyricism and whimsy in where we least expect it, expanding the ways in which he makes connections–imagistic and figurative ones, and wordplay–which make his work so much more beautiful but also that much more complex to follow in his meanings. His images and sentences as well as his essays are surprising, gorgeous, complicated, and rich.

I find his clearest obsession to be the concept of a “sympathy of souls” (the title of an earlier essay collection, many of whose essays reappear here), the interlinking of concepts and images, yes, but also of people. My two favorite examples of this type of essay are “Fuller,” which I’ve read repeatedly and finally begin to grasp, and “After Yitzl.”

The first links Marie Curie with the dancer Loie Fuller. They were contemporaries, and the historical record shows that they met; but much of their touching, close relationship as Goldbarth writes it here is born in his imagination. It’s a stunning piece, first in its portrayal of Marie and Pierre Curie’s passion for their research (and the starry brightness it yielded), and then in its, yes, sympathy between the two women. The narrator’s present life and relationship with his wife sneak in, too. I admired in many essays that the narrator was present as a writer and researcher: this line of poetry he was struggling with and its relationship to the apparently unconnected essay draft, etc.

“After Yitzl” is also a sort of dream sequence, which opens this collection and the earlier Sympathy of Souls. It is about the narrator’s ancestor, his ancestral connections to Jewish immigrants to the United States. It’s brief, and lovely, and as much imagination as anything else, but also research-heavy…

And then there are the longer essays: “Many Circles,” “Worlds,” and “Ellen’s,” which I could read a dozen times and still not grasp all of. It’s about the narrator’s friend Ellen, who is both a genius and mentally ill, and her deep relationship with James Joyce; it’s about Leonardo da Vinci, Dorothy in Oz, and spirals in architecture and nature and imagination. Whew.

Do I recommend this collection? Wholeheartedly, I do; but be ready for a challenge and some slow page-turning, and take notes. I’ll be studying this one for a long time.


Rating: 9 thimbling netsukes, if you’re up for the challenge.

*But then it turned out I did know the archaeologist John Lloyd Stephens: when Goldbarth got to the part about his two-volume work Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, I looked up and yes, spotted those two volumes on my to-be-read shelf. (Thank you Fil for that perfectly appropriate gift.)


**Stay tuned for a vocabulary lessons post to come on Friday.

One Response

  1. […] readable (in one sitting, in fact, and what a relief following Goldbarth) and highly recommended, for its individual essays and for its organization overall. A tender, […]

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