Albert Goldbarth, Selfish, Graywolf Press, 2015

Kim Kardashian West, Kim Kardashian West: Selfish, Universe, 2015

Reviewed by Jessica Jenkins

[Review Guidelines]


  1. A book, a collection must at the very least bifurcate and ask an old question in two dimensions.
  2. A good book trifurcates and makes whole a trinity of things into the feeling of an answer.

Selfish, from the point of one star, the self (one of the perennial abstractions that young poets with CVs scrub from manuscripts and sanitize into something weirder) does neither.

It infinitely furcates.

The result is not question or answer, not as much a book as an artifact or tool, to splay out the all-at-once evil and totally insensate tissue that connects the multiverse.

Quite grand.

Also quite grand is the brick of Kim Kardashian that shares a title: Kim K's Selfish is a contemporary artifact that oscillates within this multiverse—the 20teens disappointing contribution to pop art. Selfish and Selfish exist in the same place, at once they are planetary—they orbit and wander, at once they are laughing at the other's expense, at once they are speaking different languages (but to Goldbarth, "All of the languages are appropriate to their purposes—are fine").



When I first picked up Kardashian's two-pound block of book, I was struck with the opening image from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hominids gaping at the obelisk on the Martian backdrop of the Dawn of Man. Kim's book is good for a chuckle, buzzing with novelty and highly meme-able, but Goldbarth's is the code running those stark geometric spirit computers. Like Arthur Clarke's monoliths, this book accelerates understanding, telepathically plants a seed, and unleashes an idiopathic germ that shapes us. Like the apes' revelation in 2001, Goldbarth imparts that same magnetic anomaly that drove mankind forward, from the hint of a spark to space travel.

Kardashian distills the capital 'p' Poet's gazing instinct into a monolith of Kim looking at Kim back at Kim. She has appropriated the act of looking and yes, if you try hard enough to believe—even glossy-illuminati-coffee-table-money-boxes—can ask the tired question:

Who wins when the inner and outer self(ie) duke it out?
Don't worry—I've done the work; It's a wash, who cares?

There is only so much thinking to be done in that liminal space between the laminate of the selfie and the tide pool of Self. The verdict: her photos are disturbingly homogenous, the angles, shots, and expressions recur without context. In fact, these images could just as easily be pathological lies. Is Kim K. an AI among us?

I see Goldbarth's monolith as a trail marker, packed with an incantation. The sound of that spell is traceable from cover to cover:

Some nights
I lay my head against my wife's reclining body
and hear a note—a single pure musical note
that she carries inside her

 This is the same note sung by the whale-dwelling monk "a footnote to the operatic transatlantic coo and boom of whalesong", by the whirring mosquito, "the one struck key", all of them the same as the spell calling to Breton's girl in "The Song of the Lark"—"a song, /calling from a planet other than hers."



Goldbarthrepeatedlyevokes the cosmic and science fiction as a graceful corollary to the poet's treatment of self. Pop art rocket ships and Martian latex decorate the work and the "I" goes about armchair astronomy without fail. 

[...]                                  the 21st century astrophilosophers
say that we're as chaf, or dust, or less and the stars
themselves one day will sputter and die out.

[...]                                                  Poems are good,
and my wife's paprika-freckled skin is good, and they
return for their encores every night

on the lit stage of my personal mythology;
and they bow to the dark.

Even when the book becomes most self-like, Goldbarth, in his circuitous dance of scale, creates ladder rungs from nowhere. I take comfort in this easy linkage of personal experience, sadness, trauma, grief and smallness to the concentric circles of something larger—always scaling loss up or down, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age passing by in the time it takes to wave hello, goodbye. And so "we have no stethoscope to set against/ the dust—or the stars—to bring that eloquent breath back into a living articulation." Maybe the articulations are no longer living, but these poems have moveable joints—I know because I relished the moment each one clicked into place—the model I've built is not alive but it is a key, a Rosetta stone, and with one eye closed I can hold it to the sky and link the stars into a constellation.

In "The Story of My Life" we are digging with an archeological curiosity through space to the "the bottom black of the sky itself," the poem lithely taps in a primary source journal entry from Alexander von Humboldt's South American expedition (Goldbarth often calls to history for context to march us through time.) Then, incisively these lines rise up like a challenge:

                          How readily
the present moment is willing to extend itself
back, to that earliest radiance
from which the atoms of 'present' and 'moment'
first began their long journey to Earth.

The poem unpacks Goldbarth "minikins" moving backwards in time to weddings, the wrench of the oncologist's news, to birth, back to "the story of my life as told in constellations, /starting with My Father is Proposing to my Mother in a Canoe on the Lagoon/ at Humboldt [yes, for the famous naturalist explorer] Park..." at which point this reviewer stops to marvel at just how ready the present moment really is—extending itself to where I sat reading then, in Humboldt Park (I live nearby the park, in Chicago). A rush of narrative, total sensory context! A call back to the "'magical thinking"...the kind that says since two men named Doug Finnegan ("total strangers to each other") wrecked their identical '09 Subarus at Main and Kirkendell, the universe itself was born..."



For those of us already half digitized, reading eventually becomes the infinite content scroll, the late night scrutiny of curatorial identity. Unlike Goldbarth's "I" (knitted seamlessly and eventually undetectable, even in the title), Kim K.'s captions drag out "I" with a percussive intensity:

I love my girls.

I love bathroom selfies.

I was in Mexico.

I was in Africa in a diamond mine.

I look naked but I'm wearing a strapless dress.

When pressed, these captions could be fashioned into a masterpiece of automatic writing—channeling the siren song of Instagram. Kardashian's captions are mostly riskless chatter and they only accidentally stumble into ideas: "I watched the show [the Emmys] with Ryan Seacrest and then went home and ate Cup noodles in bed at my apartment".  This is more than CELEBRITIES, THEY'RE JUST LIKE US! and then again, perhaps it's not. The book begs for something to be palpable, to justify the heft and photo-paper—and for me, maybe it is loneliness, but it is probably just the Cup o' Noodles, #relate. Kim K's self-obsession is pathogenic: she was raised by photos of herself, raised by the singularity, the modern day raised by wolves.  

But Kim still isn't much more than a mascot for the 6 billion snaps uploaded a month—we are heading for a data storage crisis and she's already melting into the glut of our content churn ("Evidently deities require us / to be mainlined into their systems".) Our selfies (call them prayers, sex declarations, ritual documentation) are twin to pollen clouding up in "a powerful gold drift of the sex of flowers" and are" taken bodily into the air/and are the air's" and then "they've gained a place in something/larger than themselves." It is all sex, until it isn't—then it's spirituality.

I might already be mainlined in the right place to transmit, but now I feel that I'll never need to read another collection again—at least for a while. Goldbarth's Selfish emanates an exuberance that calms the "itch of the minute." It is curious and wise, almost botanical in its tendriling from idea, to place, to sunlight. A kaleidoscope of disciplines shake around with wit and make for a voice that casts a wide net. I don't mean to call it beautiful only—many of these poems burn like a smudge stick, smoke slow and ruminate or amuse themselves, some turn totally inwards and the reader is only able to crane over a shoulder for a look in.

These tilt-shifted poems manage to capture crisp moments - framed by scientists, astral bodies, friends, poets, painters, and places in soft focus ("a gelid smear that quivers in light", "a philosophically minded gas"), giving each poem the glow and grain of an Instagram filter. But this is not a digital snap: we're reading through their chemical development bath, startling the cuttlefish, and in a flash of incandescence, the fish (like the poem) is gone for us—still there, yes, but invisible.




& not giving a piscine fuck