Dark Waves and Light Matter: Essays

Dark Waves and Light Matter: Essays

by Albert Goldbarth


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Albert Goldbarth’s personal essays are known for their marriage of poetically rich language with research into intriguingly arcane corners of our culture. “Goldbarth is a master mixer,” says the Village Voice, and the New York Times Book Review calls his prose “an artful joining of disparate entities into something new that illuminates as it entertains.”

Dark Waves and Light Matter is an energetic, eclectic gathering of Goldbarth’s recent essays. They are part meditations and part short stories, part scholarship and part downright sassiness. A paean to 1950s comic book villains leads, through a visit with Charles Dickens, to a contemplation on the unity of the first day of Creation. Agatha Christie, Timothy Leary, and Pieter Brueghel all contribute equally to a consideration of how the unity of our lives is perforated by tiny moments of disjunction. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Wizard of Oz, and the National Enquirer unlock a study of patricide and UFOlogy.

These essays look squarely at large, tough, all-encompassing ideas, but they don’t ignore the small specifics that multiply into a day, for example, one “lone orchid pressed into an album; its oils have long past stained the paper around it translucent, a wimple of spectral sheen.”

Annie Dillard has said that Goldbarth’s prose is “lively, brilliant, vivid, witty, and informed,” and Dark Waves and Light Matter triumphantly confirms this assessment.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780820321264
Publisher: University of Georgia Press
Publication date: 08/28/1999
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.86(d)

About the Author

ALBERT GOLDBARTH is widely heralded as one of the most creative voices in contemporary American literature. His work frequently appears in the pages of the New Yorker, the Nation, Harper’s, and the major literary reviews. Over the past two decades, he has published nearly two dozen volumes of poems and essays, including Heaven and Earth: A Cosmology (Georgia), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. He has also been a Guggenheim Fellow, the recipient of National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships, and a finalist for the National Book Award. Goldbarth is Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Wichita State University.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Square of Light

* * *

"But sir, my name is on a list ..."

    "You think you're special then? You're a lump. You're one more formless lump."

    "The mayor's office they signed the list, sir ..."

    "Mayor my ass. Four hours, not one minute more. You won't get paid here for those four hours, do you understand?"

    "The list ..."

    "Do you understand?"

    She does. She goes, she leaves the gates of Pryor's Manufactory Cottons with the note in her carpetbag purse. She is a formless lump. Her father is a formless lump, her mother is a formless lump, and seven siblings share two beds like pallid balls of dough that still await a baker's shaping touch.

* * *

I don't think we can be ourselves again—I mean our original selves, before the twentieth-century silver-screen-TV-and-magazine-ad-infonet-athon provided its thousands of models for any possible emoting.

    You were on the bed, your arm raised in an eloquent, skewed L that meant dismissiveness, but meant it in the language of an image of a gesture of dismissiveness picked up from this or that iconic figure which preceded us.

    And I could almost envy, a moment, the neighborhood's singular mutter-and-spit old man we find on benches in the summer swatting demons off, his mumbles and his raw gesticulation unprovided—for by anything—so, pure in a way; a shape outside ideas of succession.

    I could see your mind's eye calling forth its stored range of celebrity dismissiveness, in microseconds, selecting a posture from out of similar second-bests ... In an artist's sketchbook once, I saw the body of a woman with her left arm lifted, only it was dozens of rehearsal left arms lifted, she was waving like a hydra on the smudgy page.

    It's this way: say a woman wants to rent a cast-of-suntanned-thousands Biblical Epic video, something with sandals and shields and plumes and golden chariots and a love scene near a pyramid as the sky storms. And a man prefers to rent the story of four echt-pensive people at a table, talking, talking.

    Then the mode of what they're arguing about instructs the arguing itself. The hothouse thespian hauteur of Nefertiti; and the generated chill from a man who has studied shoestring-budget portrayals of auteur emotional freon.

* * *

"You will simply climb one side of the ladder until you reach its top, at a natural speed, don't hurry, and then at the top pose—so," and Eadward Muybridge, in his graying frowzled garden-of-a-beard and eternally-on-him-whether-out-of-doors-or-in black crumpled Amish-look surveyor's hat, swings one leg grandly in back of himself, and lifts his arms and puffed-up chest aspiringly upward, with the full effect of a ballerina's kick cum Viking dragon prow, "and count to five, and then simply climb back down. Do you see?"

    "And I will be undressed?"

    "And you will be undressed."

    There's silence now in this building on the well-trimmed Pennsylvania University grounds. He fancies he can hear the light in its ceaseless lap against the outside walls—his light, his wrought gold that he captures and condenses like an alchemist in an alembic.

    "Elsie—" What to say? She's new. A friend of the provost's daughter. She's the only model who's shown so far today, and the cameras he'd swear are lowly purring in impatience to be used.

    He nods at one of them now, his lovely four-foot box with its thirteen Dallmeyer lenses. "I will be here with the camera, Elsie, fully forty-nine feet away from the ladder."

    If this reassures her, there's no visible sign. She knows this is "important," that it's "Art" or "Science" or some such term come down to touch her life from where it's been carved on a marble entablature, and yet ... and yet ... What tale will she tell them, when she returns to her day at the folding-line of Pryor's Manufactory Cottons?

    "Dozens have preceded you, Elsie, women, men, all—" He has an idea. "This," and he unties the leather cover of an album and removes two sheets of developed images, "this will either send you fleeing in horror, or convince you of the ... naturalness with which we view the project."

    One is eighteen sequenced shots of Athlete swinging a pick, and one is forty-four of Model No. 95, ex-athlete, aged about sixty, ascending and descending incline, and bearing a fifty-pound weight in twenty-two of these snaps. The man is naked. The man is Muybridge, chuckling now over his sixty-two tiny selves.

    "You see?"

    "But Mr. Muybridge," she says—is there a nascent twinkle in her eye?—"when you was a-posin' for these ... ?"

    "Yes, Elsie?"

    "... sir, I wasn't behind the camera." And then the both of them, chuckling. She milks the joke of her sly observation. "I never made no such photographs."

    "Elsie ..." He fully undoes the album, and then two more, and fans a hundred sheets across the table, selecting some, pointing in rapid succession at his astonishing serial studies, naked men at cricket, boxing, fencing, horseback riding, naked women running, somersaulting, rolling hoops with sticks, a trotting camel on loan from the Pennsylvania Zoo, a greyhound, a milk-white parrot in flight, more naked men (one pugilist feigns a knockout), a deer, a woman performing jumping jacks, and all of them immediately blinking out of themselves and into their next selves ...

    "... nobody, nobody, has ever made such photographs."

* * *

If you run beside an ancient Egyptian temple mural, skimming your vision linearly along those beaked and snouted anthrobodied gods, and the captives taken in war, and the stately parade of geese at the Nile's shore ...

    Does it "move?"

    It's "motion" "pictures."

    Yes, or if you take a vase, a cayenne-red Greek vase with its circular frieze of courtesans or wrestlers in flat black profile, if you spin it, if you place it back on its potter's wheel and spin it ...

    "For Claude Monet, there are 100,000 images," art historian Elie Fraue declares, "in the space of a second." How to separate them, into single painted moments that maintain their continuity? It's 1891: Monet is painting "frames" of what could be a continuous "reel" of haystacks ageing over—ageing into—time ...

    But let's go back to May 4, 1880. Eadward Muybridge tonight is lecturing at the San Francisco Art Association Rooms; he's introducing his quaint invention by which his sequenced photographs of a horse in motion are set around the circumference of a glass disc and projected by a lantern onto a screen, while a handle is turned and the disc is rotated.

    Kevin MacDonnell: "To Muybridge belongs the honor" (not that it isn't debated) "of inventing the movie."

    In 1888, on a lecture tour that brings him to Orange, New Jersey, Muybridge meets Thomas Alva Edison, who received a demonstration of the "zoopraxiscope," and who "purchased a set of Muybridge's horse pictures. When he invented his revolutionary cine-camera, using the long perforated films we know today, he is said to have made his first movie by copying these photographs." By 1910 the Edison Company's already publishing Edison Kinetogram, announcing "Edison Films to Be Released," including Frankenstein.

    Imagine for your first time seeing the battle of love and monstrousness in a form that subsumes you entirely. It's said that people continued to sit there, demanding not the movie again, but just the square of light itself—as if even that were instructive.

* * *

This isn't an easy confession to make, but I'm the kind of guy who leaves at the end of a Jerry Lewis movie duplicating Jerry Lewis's wacky ham abrasiveness for a day—it gets inside me, like a hand inside a puppet. I'm suddenly honking the noses of friends. James Dean: that bee-stung sneer. James Bond (the Sean Connery Bond): that killer haute monde eyebrow-arch.

    Weightlifter Gordon Scott was the Tarzan of my childhood (Tarzan's Hidden Jungle appeared in 1955; Scott stayed with the role through 1960): rugged good looks, a touch more pretty than craggy. Forty years go by, I'll still startle up from the work at hand (a poem; or the drone of committee work; or the fussy upkeeps houses require, and love) and I'll have the half-subliminal flash of that immense heart-whanging parabolic sweep-through-air on a jungle vine: a single green and graceful scallop.

    It's this way: fifty years before that day when Muybridge redefined the gallop of the horse for us (renumerated it, actually, with photographic proof that all four hooves are off the ground at once, a refutation of centuries of equestrian depiction in the fine arts), sheets of plate glass came to the streetside windows of snooty shops in Regent Street and Oxford Street; some, nine feet tall by five wide. Now the idea of "display," of spacious, elegant interiors. And now the idea of shop assistants selected for certain paradigms of physical appeal. With all-night lighting installed, pedestrians would gather in enormous knots before these windows, learning what they wanted to become.

    Today, when the tonier big-bucks fashion models strut their ramps in versions of otherdimensional-sci-fi-funk-punk-faery-fireman-shepherdess-hookerapparel, it's harder to remember, but these are "models"—these are paragonic structures—and their trickle-down will fill our common psychic air, will determine the mall-talk of Omaha. The most stellar of these, of course, will even try "making it" in the movies.

    We think of Hollywood as "the land of dreams": it's one of Hollywood's favorite self-descriptions. But the reverse is true. The movies are our lives—writ large. And if they're often wish-lives, if they're nothing but otherdimensional fashion ... still, our minds try on those giants' clothes, those clothes consisting of shadow and light, and for better or worse we wear them into one another's days and nights.

    The ancient High Myths, with their cycles of gods and hellspawn, have deserted us (or we, them). Religion is a thin shell, not an infrastructure. And yet we hunger for precepts, modes of conduct and social assurance ("The name is Bond ..." pause-pause then turn and give her a javelin stare full-tilt, oh fourteen-year-old manboy lost in the wilds "... James Bond"). We need a world larger than we are. No—we need a world larger than we are that addresses what we are.

    I have to ask now: did I love my father? Irving Goldbarth, weary, decent, family-minded peddler of Metropolitan Life Insurance through the penny-ante living rooms of Cicero, Illinois, at 10 P.M., who never lied to me, not once, whose voice in the blessing over the Hanukkah candles wavered like the flames, who danced in his underwear in the kitchen ("hoochiekoochiekoo"), who embarrassed me (he'd never read a book), who worked the weekends so that I could lead a life of reading books, who walked the dog and waited patiently for it to pee on its signature trash can, even in winter, even when Dr. Steinitz said that in winter he'd have to wear the breathing mask, for his heart ... did I love him? Yes. Did I learn the rudiments of what it is to walk this planet from him? Yes.

    But I wouldn't have spent ten minutes trying to emulate my father. I could be Tarzan or Bond in my head for a month.

* * *

She's placed a thumb in each of her ears and spread her fingers apart, like wiggling, cockamamie antlers.

    "See? Like this? And I can spin around like a toy top." Both of them giggling—she and Muybridge.

    "Or so?" She pulls her mouth grotesquely wide, then squats and hops like a frog—assured her audience will be won, assured by her eighth time back to pose for Art and Science that she can clown this way and still retain the composure of a professional conspiring in hijinks with a coworker. This is the ambience he's created for her, and she's risen from out of some beat-down, bottom shapelessness to make herself over, into the image this newfound world has seeded for her and that she's continued to lavishly nurture.

    "Or simpler, sir?" She pairs her hands beneath her chin, as if for prayer, and bows elegantly from the waist, in slow repeated clockwork fashion.

    "Elsie, Elsie. You're as frisky today as a pent-up cat. Relax. I need to bring more lenses over, from the shed outside. When I return, we'll think of some proper posing." They both laugh: proper! The day before she spent her four-hour session juggling a pear and an orange, then climbing the ladder with a circus parasol held in either hand.

    He leaves her standing before the project's standard backdrop, a floor-to-ceiling grid of two-inch squares created of taut white cord against black. He lingers amid a pile of Carbutt's Keystone Dry Plates, checking the shipment. When he returns ... She's cut a cat—a pent-up cat—from a roll of butcher paper, and set it clawing its way up the grid.

    She's inventive that way, and she notices he's appreciative of her gamin creativity, and this inspires more. She milks her jokes. Just to see what will happen, he thinks up another excuse for leaving the hall. It's a game now: he returns to find she's papered the exes and ohs of tic-tac-toe into nine of the squares.

    "Enough. Here's a pan and some sawdust. Go, pretend that you're feeding the chickens."

    It is enough—perhaps too much. The truth is, they've created an Elsie so aware of her bearing (after all, these are supposedly photos of people caught in common, candid motion) that her modeling sessions are some of the least productive. While her "Elsieness" strengthens in charm and durability, it translates into something artificial on the proof sheets. Anyway, the project is nearly over. He likes her, they all like her, he could see her on his arm, with a foamed-over pail of beer and a platter of iced raw oysters ... hmmm ... Regretfully, though, they ease her out of the schedule. Her note is not renewed.

    And from then on ...? Muybridge in Paris, Muybridge in London, Muybridge addressing the gathered grandees of the worlds of Art and Science, Muybridge opening Zoopraxographical Hall at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893). "On 8 May 1904 he died and was cremated in Woking."

    No, I mean Elsie. Back to the folding-line. Back to the twelve-hour days of spirit-vitiating labor. Although there's this:

    "You! Havercomb! Elsie Havercomb! Step from the line!"—a loutish assistant manager. "Production rate for your section is down, and I swear that if you don't—"

    Something about the set of her jaw, the unexpected aliveness in her eyes now. Lamely, letting it dwindle: "Havercomb, just get back to the line." And she turns from him like royalty.

* * *

The same year that the most fashionable of plate glass windows opened up its opulent realm of furs and buttery leather goods on Regent Street, and started its work commercially mentoring people into gaining newly elevated concepts of themselves ... that same year, a Dr. Horn from Salzburg reports that there, in the infirmary, was "a girl of twenty-two years of age ... who had been brought up in a hog-sty among the hogs, and who had sat there for many years with her legs crossed. She grunted like a hog, and her gestures were brutishly revolting."

    The annals are filled with the various mewlings of humans-raised-by-animals stories, from (the first of contemporary record) the wolf-boy of Hesse, who was found in the woods in 1341 "and growled, and beshat himself naked in public, and raw meat only would he eat; and this while on his knees," through (for example from 1971, in the London Daily Mirror) the gazelle-boy of the Spanish Sahara near Rio de Oro, seen leaping with the herd. The anthropologist Jean-Claude Armen watched the gazelle-boy "approach gazelles and lick their foreheads in a sign of recognition."

    The monkey-boy of northern Ceylon (1973, in the London Sunday Times) "is speechless, grunts in a half-wolf, half-goat way, and bites and claws at anyone who shows him affection." The bear-girl of Fraumark was found in a den, a woman/girl of about eighteen, asleep on a floor of bear scat: "She refused to eat anything but raw meat, roots and the barks of trees."

    Those for whom Another Kind is precedential.

    So much of us, inside us, is innate. As for the rest ... Somebody hypnotized at that furrier's gold-and-ruby-highlighted, easeful, splendid family of mannequins: a schematic display of not only adornment, but of the rules of a possible life.

    And somebody (just as "happy"? how are we to judge?) on her rump in a mire of pigness.

    How could she have been otherwise, without a god or a guide or a single scene from Casablanca? Without, essentially, a window: into the world of what and how to be.

* * *

"Heroes? Heroes?" asks one of the likeably nasty midge-trapscallions in the classic camp-adventure flick Time Bandits, almost spitting the words. "What do they know about a day's work?"

    And it's true. For example:

    The sun in Sumeria savages the everyday afternoon air, as you'd expect. As you'd expect, sun makes a burning mote in the center of every sweatbead. Gilgamesh cuts down a tree. Gilgamesh, whose father was a lillu-demon, King of Uruk who founded civilization in the Seven Cities, fells a great huluppu tree with a dragon's nest at its base and the terrible Zu-bird in its crown "and in its midst the demoness Lilith had built her dwelling."

    I wouldn't say he doesn't strain. I'd say he doesn't sweat. Exertion is never that intimate for him. I've looked at the cylinder seals, I've read the cracked, translated tablets, and the sweat isn't there, no, not at the lip of the Well of Immortal Life, not in the wrestle-pit of lions or by Humbaba's mountain, and not at the tree, and not at the one great swing or at the one clean bite it requires.

    But look at flipped-through pages from The American Photographic Postcard, 1900-1920:

    Here above the mill at Loleta "Mr. Gibson is the 3rd from left and Harris our son is the 4th from right"—nine men are ready to pole a background of hundreds of ton-jumbled fifteen-foot logs. It always looks like fifty men's work, a hundred. There are always nine. I come back often, and count—there are nine, their heavy faces say their easy poses have nothing to do with their work, which is hard, too long, and depleting; and the small empty corner up in the right says: air has been converted today, into just a new place to hold wood.

    And the light in the simple sky and the cumbersome cameras of 1910 are saying, flash by flash, and ice delivery truck by hod by plow by shovel, that twelve men in Ohio are halfway up a frame for "Duncan, the Round Barn Man." I close the book. Days later I open it. Yes: there's still halfway to go. They wake up every morning and know it, and there are overalls here so rumpled, they carry permanent shadows in places no matter where the sun or how strong.

    I won't suggest that Hercules was ignorant of effort, in the stables, "diverting the course of a river" to cleanse their waist-high filth. But on the white-ground jar and the red-figured platter, the sun pours down in a column behind him, a clement and almost sculptural sun. He doesn't pant. The stables are newly fresh, and here he is now, busy posing as if for a calendar featuring surfer boys. Later there will be bonfire feasts, a speech, a green wreath, and some nubile dancers.

    And later there will be, and there will always be, "Mrs. Adeline Havercomb Maggody and sister, Mrs. Elsie Havercomb Atkins. During their 35 years of service at Pryor's Manufactory Cottons Pennsylvania's Very Finest they have boxed and folded 71,280,000 sheets of Pryor's excellent products." (Elsie's the one with the elfin cockiness.)

    Seventy-one-million, two-hundred-eighty-thousand.

    Smile. Hold it. (flash)

   Seventy - one - million, two - hundred - eighty - thousand - and - one ...

* * *

Perhaps you have seen me. I know well, my purpose was merely that of a symbol, "equals," "times," or that of the person drawn as a code, with sticks for limbs and a circle for a head. I could be anyone. I was specifically asked to be anyone. I do know what a "portrait" is; and mine are not. I could have been the woman on her toe-tips just as readily, or the woman lifting imaginary laundry from a real tub. I could have been a man fencing the air, or a bicyclist. I was, we all were, series of connected dots upon the graph we posed against. Our flesh it was, that connected the dots, our own insistent flesh; but what it said, for all that, was identityless: a kind of live geometry.

    And yet when I look at myself here thirty-five years back, I take my individual pleasure; this, I think, was the moment I first understood that a pleasure could be an autonomy, that I was something more than a human unit inside a human machine. You see?—here?—these are the sturdy, wheaten haunches that Tallow, the manager, couldn't bring to his bed like trophies although he threatened dire consequences every week for a decade until the shearing engine one day went off track and ate him up to the waist; and these are the sassy breasts that brought the haughty Lemuel Atkins to his knees; and here, your finger can trace the strength of this back, that never gave out, and supported—once Father had disappeared into too many brandywine cordials—a mother and six unappreciative ne'er-do-well brothers and sisters, bless them anyway each one (excepting Henry perhaps, the rotter).

    You see?—in this one, here, I smile, and Lemuel won't be thrown from the spook-eyed strawberry roan for another twenty years. Time stops here. Nothing can take away this smile.

    I patterned myself, for the rest of my days, on the form you see here making itself completely in eight four-hour modeling sessions. I never regretted it.

    And these are the ones in which I posed with Isabella, my friend, the contact who recommended me to the mayor's offices in the first place. Here—the badminton ones, and the sillier ones with the pillow fight. Perhaps you have seen the ones in which she splashes me with a pail of water, its contents entirely flung in the air and caught there forever uncurling like a fern; or like the silvery train to a gown at my coronation.

* * *

Nobody really argues over which video to rent. They argue over lassitude-versus-retentiveness, they argue over God and no-God, immediate-gratification-or-future-security, they argue over money, over seemliness. The video is only the mask for this, the key, the lever.

    Soon, they compromise: they watch the video she wants. But she has to feel indebted for a while.

    They watch it—something alternately steamy and deific, about a slave girl's rise to queenship through the (overgilded, technicolor) pharaonic bed—they watch it sleepily and chatter, easy and sweet but with a small glint of the squabble's after-edge, and when it's over and rewound they chatter sweet-and-squabbly more, until his sentences grow scratchy and distracted, yes and her attention warbles like a song on the whipping tip of a threadthin wavelength on the radio when the car speeds ever out of range, it's here now, what's she thinking, reed in a slipstream, now it's gone ...

    She walks outside ...

               the night sky feels as snug as a headdress—in a way; and in a way she's aware of its limitlessness, its dizzying outward-onward. She's been given—since the royal eye has declared her a sexual favorite—a break this evening from her line-work in the stuffy deeps of the House of Folding the Sacred Cloth. It's fold-and-fold-and-pile-it, and fold-and-fold-and-pile-it, and the gossip of Takh-te and Natra-tiy beginning to harden like plugs of glue in her ears ...

    Out here, away from them, and away from the lusty touch of He-Who-Is-the-Shining-Lotus-of-the-Two-Lands, she can be a whole number again—before the duties all resume, and so refraction her—can be a number feeling that it might rise to a higher power.

    A laggard breeze from off the river reaches her skin ... The cries of the compound's geese ... She looks up at the sky, at its fiery diagram of connection-points—the Nurturers and Warriors and Devils and Martyrs and Shapers who have always burned up there no matter who we were down here, and always will. We are those elements—in mortal combination. She flexes her nostrils. If she had a wish ... So simple:

    She wants to be like the stars.

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