With epigraphs ranging from Horace to Shakespeare to Lyn Hejinian, Judith Goldman does an excellent job at embracing her witty poetic humor in her most recent poetry book, l.b.; or, caternaries. This collection is perhaps Goldman’s experimentalist humor tour-de-force, and news about its release has created a ton of buzz this year. You will be happy to know that this poetry book is a lengthy one—about 200 pages thick—but is also a quick and highly entertaining read, especially when taking time to consider thoughtfully as a reader the various forms in her poetry series that shape-shift between ideas surrounding progressive struggles, such as “We’ll taper off passive aggressively Whatever’s Adjacent / ‘cause Headquarters is / Out / Feeding the meter” into the connotative sex that surrounds us in our demotic life (“Ok, let’s blow this hamlet, / Will you please to cunt her clickwise?”). Goldman displays keenness, in particular, for surprising enjambments, anaphora, and experimental caps and punctuation with consistent undertones of religious ambivalence, Elizabethan dialect and strike-through, all of these characteristics leading to results which are nothing less than absolutely hilarious (“Culture, culture, culture, / oink, this is not prigmatical / this oinkos can’t withstand centrifugal, shagged, yea or neigh-eigh-eigh / oink you for shipping here”).
However, it should be noted that Judith Goldman creates lines with surreal nuances, and so she seems concerned with much more than simple fun and games. As Alan Halsey puts it, “There are some funny and painful stories timing out among her whiplash puns and quickfire fragments. ‘This is el dorado, reader / your face / paved with gold’: here’s a mirror, take a look” (emphasis added). This summation is accurate, as painful notions—especially the struggles of social-political progressiveness— abound in this collection as well, with several nods to academic vice such as in the phrase “brothels of mimesis,” the at times intangible struggle of “just getting by” with “[s]craping / the bottom of the bowl,” to the performativity of demotic living with “truth is not enough: This / is just its Social Character.” Here and at other points, Judith Goldman succeeds at personifying the anthropologic other (though its true identity is evasive to this reader) into immediacy and thus relevancy via “sum of the parts equals the whole.” The abstract beginning word to the final phrase, “truth,” is deemed by Goldman as decidedly un-circumstantial since it is incomplete (“not enough”) and finally, the word “this” is a classic Ashberyesque undefined term that is just its Social Character—something that to me is not necessarily complete per se but is an agential entity in and of itself.
I am convinced that if l.b.; or, catenaries were to be a domestic beer, it would be a shape-shifting brew caught unapologetically between the agitated political stewing of an Breckenridge Oatmeal Stout and the refreshing, restoring crispness of a Ommegang Witte, the former beer as a poetic quality that is best enjoyed moderately from this reader’s standpoint to make room for Goldman’s aforementioned wordplay with the Belgian-white spatiality that constitutes the various experimental forms of her poems. Case in point, the vast majority of the collection contains lines enjambed in a similar fashion, falling at the least likely syntactical division in the sentence or phrase. This unorthodox line breaking and weird enjambment is wonderful throughout this collection of poems, as displayed in this opening selection from the poem “if all else fails”:
for I have no more milk teeth to cut
on fictions of shock and awe so plain
I need not instance to you
we fat all creatures else to fat us.There is no place to rest,
motive orphaned to try its luck,
car bombs and this method or that
method to hang a blank on and discard.
The animal passions lost their belief in inaction
and so came to enjoin the sweat
of someone else’s brow, yet
didn’t even know they turned aside (119).
The poet’s choice of diction with “killing the image” is striking for a number of reasons; firstly, if we are to refer back to this line from “we fat all creatures else to fat us” may coordinate “image” and “fat” with self-image. Having “no more milk teeth to cut” gives an undertone of a lack of human-animal functionality along with an undertone of losing one’s teeth, further confirmed by line 10’s “losing their belief in inaction.” These said humans and/or animals appear to be mourning their loss of function, or perhaps we as readers of Goldman’s work are doing something similar, made even more deliberate by the doubled nature of “in inaction,” do so with a different level of uselessness (“the sweat / of someone else’s brow”) never knowing “they turned aside” into an inaccessible place, whether that be death or a physical and more literal turning away.
So, after all of my long, meandering, circumlocutory, quasi-pretentious statements, the question you have all been waiting for: Buy or Sell? I can say right now: when I put together my newly purchased bookcase last month, my copy of Judith Goldman’s l.b.; or, catenaries is actually on top of my bookshelf for easier access, because I plan on re-reading this collection over the course of this spring. I’m not worried about repetition, though: there will be something new to discover with every reading. It is here that Judith Goldman cements herself as the voice of many as the poet does an incredible job at exploring diverse norms and forms suitable for broad readership. All of the poems are tremendous, bittersweet and delightful, no doubt holding up to multiple reads. For example, Goldman’s excellent aptitude in dealing with variations of the demotic is reminiscent of a much less minimal Dana Ward, with each poet being two of the most socially conscious poets writing today. Overall, I am enthused, surprised and inspired by this collection, and thus I am happily compelled to place this collection on my graduate reading list to reread and enjoy again and again.
Anthony Ramstetter is a graduate student in Miami University’s M.A. program in creative writing and is the current Editor-in-Chief of Miami’s literary publication, Oxford Magazine. His work has appeared in the collaborative chapbook Pork College and backlit, a performance poem by cris cheek. Anthony is in the process of applying to M.F.A. programs in poetry and is delighted to be published in HTMLGIANT.