D____ L____’s

By Albert Goldbarth b. 1948 Albert Goldbarth

Fathers are invariably great nuisances on the stage, and always have to give the hero or heroine a long explanation of what was done before the curtain rose, usually commencing with “It is now nineteen years, my dear child, since ...” etc., etc.
—Charles Dickens

There might be a planet. Before that,
though, there would have been a gas that coalesced   
into a planet . . . as, before that, there were dots of flux   
and energy that hadn’t yet declared themselves
in concert. There’s always “before”: there's more
each minute, more each person, yes and every one
of its smallest, irreducible subparticles—which I name   
the “beforeon”—is exerting force on us
that’s surely time’s own version of gravity: its purpose
is to tug, and to remind us. In the house of second marriages,

it causes the man to do what he and the woman had promised   
they never would: one night while she’s asleep, he snoops   
her bureau for telltale relics of the mysterious Mr.   
Number One. And why, or even what
he hopes to find, he couldn’t clearly say: a letter? photo?   
sex toy?—something, some objectified gossip, a fossil   
of bygone love. Essentially, we make of our own psyches   
a bureau and pay a shrink to snoop; as for the moment   
when our neural linkage first began to form,
as for the flavor of the fluids in the womb. . . we’re all

amnesiacs: and our earliest self, just like the universe’s   
earliest being, is a “phantom limb” with the faintest   
mnemonic of starbursts in an otherwise chill void. I have   
a friend D____ L____ (this poem is hers) who, orphaned   
as a newborn, is devoted to learning her origin
as doggedly as any cosmologist tracks light to its source, although   
her search (when not pure Internet) is more a matter
of tape-recording the beer-sour stories in sailor bars,
of sifting ashy memories in nursing homes,
one backwards inch of plotline at a time. And yet somebody

else is waking up this morning with the need   
to be detached from any history,
to stand here like a person in a play who enters   
onstage from a pool of perfect blankness. Then,
of course, he can start over, minute-zero-of-year-zero,   
unbesmirched. We could have told him that he’d be this   
anguished—sneaking in her drawer, below those folded   
pastel lozenges of lingerie, uncovering the one thing   
that could ruin them. Now he wants only to float (who   
doesn't, sometimes?) in an anti-world: appealing, but

illusory. We can’t unmoor ourselves from linearity,   
no more than any one of us can be a human being   
unconnected to a genome—and in fact, no more   
than Mama-All-of-Time-and-Space-Herself (I mean   
the cosmos) can unwrap her vasty body from its own   
twelve million years of Big Bang “background radiation”   
so it wafts—a tossed off, filmy scarf—far elsewhere.   
No; there isn’t any “elsewhere.” When we sleep   
or simply deepen into quietude enough, the voices   
come—the rhythmic, grave, ancestral murmur,

a woman bearing a ritual clamshell bowl . . .
a man with a done-deal sales contract . . . whispers,
knuckle-rap, cleared throats. . . . Her great-grandfather,   
D____ L____ has uncovered, was a lector—a reader they used   
to relieve the tedium of the leaf rollers’ shifts   
in cigar manufactories. Shakespeare, Dickens,   
union tracts, love letters, family diaries . . . . He’s   
walking through the tobacco aroma; he’s setting his text   
on his easel; and the story—the only story we know,   
the story of Before—is recited.

Albert Goldbarth, “D____ L____’s” from Combinations of the Universe. Copyright © 2003 by Albert Goldbarth. Reprinted with the permission of The Ohio State University Press, www.ohiostatepress.org.

Source: Combinations of the Universe (Ohio University Press, 2003)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Albert Goldbarth b. 1948

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Albert  Goldbarth

Biography

Acclaimed for its dense, expansive form and linguistic energy, Albert Goldbarth’s poetry covers everything from historical and scientific concerns to private and ordinary matters. His numerous, highly-regarded collections are often filled with long poems which range in style from playful and conversational to serious and philosophical. Goldbarth’s unique style is a mix of complex ideas and detailed descriptions woven together . . .

Continue reading this biography

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.