Adventures in Ancient Egypt

Essay by jav2009 August 2009

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Albert Goldbarth is one of the most talented and prolific writers of his generation. His twenty-five years of nonstop productivity do not seem to have diluted his energy or his level of achievement. In this collection, he is better than ever.

The title is slightly, whimsically, misleading. Goldbarth does not really travel in ancient Egypt (by visiting ruins), modern Egypt, or any of the several other civilizations he conjures up in this exuberant collection. The adventures are intellectual and emotional. The travels are like those John Keats took when he read George Chapman’s translation of Homer and “traveled in the realms of gold.” Goldbarth’s themes, as he contemplates the rich pasts of Egypt, Sumeria, and Italy, have to do with continuity and the memorializing impulse. As any poet knows, art and artifact are expressions of identity and selfhood. The rulers of ancient Egypt in particular knew how to say “Here I am.”This

business of projecting the self and its values through time is Goldbarth’s playing field, and he romps delightedly across it, making distances vanish. After all, how better to understand the past than to find today’s parallels; how better to understand the present than to find its seeds in yesterday? The clues are temples, implements, weapons, reliquaries, canopic jars, and sarcophagi. These items focus the business of life and death, and particularly the struggle against extinction. Goldbarth treasures these vanities, not only because they have beauty, not only because they send messages, but also because he reveres the doomed impulse toward immortality.

His poems are busy traveling back and forth between his readings of contemporary civilization and those messages sent from the cultural birthplaces of the Fertile Crescent, Renaissance England, and other glorious time zones. His jocular juxtapositions are the wise and playful heart of his vision and artistry.