Review: The Adventures of Form and Content by Albert Goldbarth

Poet and essayist Albert Goldbarth’s latest book, “The Adventures of Form and Content,” is a remarkable ride to the other side of the looking glass and back. Patterned after the ACE Doubles book format of the 1950s, where two short science fiction novels were placed back to back within one cover, this essay collection is a thoughtful, poetic and remarkably human reflection on our many dualities: how we are each “two people, nestled together.”

The confines and freedoms, then, that emerge when juxtaposing youth and old age, sex and love, the poetic and the profane, result in moving and poignant conclusions, particularly in the essay “Roman Erotic Poetry,” when Goldbarth weaves together, among other things, musings on Springsteen and interoffice romance with the classic poetry of Catullus and analysis of anthropologist Mary Douglas. Thanks to Goldbarth’s unlikely pairings, the ordinary becomes extraordinary; the inaccessible, accessible.

We see this again in “A Cave in a Cliff in Scotland,” where Goldbarth explores the “idea of the bifurcated self,” amid an analysis of 1830s novels, buddy movies and the narrative of Larona — an escort and a doting mother, living with one foot in two worlds. It might sound overly complicated, or disjointed, but reading a Goldbarth essay is like watching a fine magician at work. Here is the hat; here is the story; the scarf; the woman; the rabbit. Goldbarth weaves each element together so finely, while also paying homage to their individuality, that when they all come together the result is surprising and inevitable.

A master certainly of both content and form, Goldbarth will assuredly have readers returning to these essays again and again, not only to delight in their material, but to search for the sleight of hand, the trick, the answer to the question: how did he do that?