Extraordinary Art Brought to Ordinary Life
by X.J. Kennedy
Every poem of Midge Goldberg’s, when read aloud, sounds convincingly like speech from a human mouth. That isn’t usual nowadays, as you’ll notice if you try lending your voice to the poems in a current little magazine. In some of Goldberg’s work, the poet imagines far-fetched events. See “Curiosity No Longer Sings Happy Birthday to Itself,” featuring a winsome space rover; or “Time Travel Airlines,” in which the reader is invited to meet his or her mate back when that person was a stranger; or “God Talks Back to the Baseball Player,” which begins with the Almighty admitting:
Sometimes it sucks being me.
I really dread those prayers of yours,
the ones right before you strike out.
I feel like I’m Aunt Mabel,
and then bringing fruitcake….
These extraordinary stories are couched in ordinary diction. So too are the poems concerned with everyday life, which in Goldberg’s work are more numerous. Who would expect commonplace objects to inspire memorable poems? Wordsworth, to be sure, once wrote an ode to a shovel, beginning, “Spade! with which Wilkinson hath tilled his lands!” but I remember it only because it was so bathetic. Yet Goldberg indelibly celebrates the ordinary in poems such as “Pan,” not about the mythic deity but about trying to find a twenty-inch baking pan with a high rim, suitable for making a chicken feeder. She has also given us poems on such subjects as hats, a sump pump, a coffeepot, and an ice tray [forthcoming in Light‘s Winter/Spring ’19 issue]. From her most recent collection, Snowman’s Code, how’s this brief poem, “The Language of Love,” for rendering the ordinary special?
I found not flowers or poetry
This morning when I woke up,
But coffee brewed and poured into
My Wonder Woman cup.
If that little poem (which I love) is autobiographical, the brewer of the coffee must have been the poet Robert Crawford, the spouse who also favors rhyme and meter, though his style and subject matter differ from hers. Goldberg’s love poems are surely among the best love poems being written these days (admittedly, not so many). In her first collection, Flume Ride, I cherish among much else, “Let Me Count the Ways”—the title, of course, a take-off from Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It begins:
I should not love you for your hair;
You’re not the one that put it there.
I shouldn’t love you for your eyes,
That look as if they’ve won a prize
Each time I see you look at me—
Your eyes, as well, you got for free,
But should I love that you love me?
Another object she champions is a harpsichord (in Snowman’s Code), which she finds unfairly becoming obsolete:
Just because of a simple hammer,
pianos still get all the glamour.
The harpsichord’s flat out of luck
with no one left to give a pluck.
Among Goldberg’s attractive strengths are her refusal to take herself dead seriously, her inability to think it the role of the poet to be the conscience of the human race. In “The Poet’s Corner” (Flume Ride) she wonders, “Does it matter where I sit / When I sit to write a bit?” And tentatively ends,
Maybe poetry’s not just
Simple fact of inspiration.
Maybe it’s—and here she cussed—
Just a matter of location.
Midge Goldberg was born and raised in Florida, and once remarked that she has never quite grown used to braving New England’s wintery blasts. Yet she was graduated from Yale, earned her MFA at the University of New Hampshire, and in her most-used publicity photo wears a woolen cap. She is one of the Powow Poets, a group that meets in Newburyport, Mass. to share one another’s poems and constructively tear them apart.
As her work in this issue of Light well shows, Goldberg writes with masterly skill in either traditional form or in free verse. The toil she must have devoted to her poems is invisible. For all the lightness of their tone, some of them go deep. I think it’s clear that she is one of the very finest American poets to emerge in the 21st century.
X.J. Kennedy‘s nine collections of verse include In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New & Selected Poems 1955 -2007 (Johns Hopkins University Press), a notable book of the American Library Association; and Fits of Concision: Collected Poems of Six or Fewer Lines (Grolier Poetry Press). He is the author of two dozen books for children, and of schoolbooks used by millions, including An Introduction to Fiction. His first comic novel for adults is A Hoarse Half-human Cheer. His honors include the Poets’ Prize; the Robert Frost medal from the Poetry Society of America; an award for children’s poetry from The National Association of Teachers of English; and a prize for light verse from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.