Body & Mind: Barry Goldensohn


Marc Woodworth

   Reading Barry — knowing Barry — went some way toward making it possible to live with the mind-body problem. Which isn’t to say Barry himself ever stopped worrying that conundrum, however often he set it out or even, for a moment, fought it to a draw in his poems. The ones he wrote early, in the middle of life, and then late when he was fully aware of a very proximate mortality, articulate the pull and push of desire and morality, the erotic and the mortal. His poetry often animates just how the body and mind jar against one another, how the possibilities of liberation and order conflict, sometimes coincide, or even—on rare occasions—coalesce.
   I came to learn from Barry that physicality and artifice, culture and eros, were not separate things, but parts of a complicated reality called being human. I began to study with him as a sophomore in college, a new convert to a world of high culture that I assumed required a spiritual transcendence precisely the opposite of whatever dull reality I experienced in my own uncultured state. Given how far I felt from writing real poems or understanding those who wrote them, the making of art seemed well beyond anything I knew. To write I felt that I would have to become someone entirely different than I was. In Barry’s poetry workshops at Skidmore, he showed us that being flesh and blood didn’t disqualify us from making poems. In fact, it was only our own complex and unresolved selves, bodies and all, that would lead, one way or another, to work that was worthwhile.
   One way Barry fostered this understanding was by treating us as equals. He was utterly human in his workshops and this utterly human poet wrote poems we loved. Poems, it turned out, weren’t the utterances of distant gods on Parnassus or the vatic pronouncements of specters from the dead Modernist past. Another way of saying this: Barry was the first poet I really knew and, fortunately, he let me—as he let all his students—come to know him as a familiar.
   Barry wasn’t distant or stagey in class. He was never pedantic, always as honest as he was encouraging. Occasionally his mind moved restively, eager for more than what was on offer in our drafts or conversation. Almost always, though, he took our work for what it was and treated it perhaps more seriously than it deserved. He showed us how art ramified into everything and how everything ramified into art. He was frequently flat-out brilliant, displaying without a trace of self-regard a mind that was astonishingly well-furnished. His range of cultural reference was broad and often surprising. Importantly, what he knew he knew passionately, not dryly or bloodlessly.
   For example, in “The Librarian of Alexandria,” a poem first published in SALMAGUNDI to which I return often, Barry describes the librarian catching the scent of her own perfumed body as she buries Sappho’s original autograph manuscripts in order to save them as the city burns. She is no virgin priestess, this librarian; she’s not only a reader who studied the satyr plays but a woman who knows the drives and pleasures of the body. The desire for a “body” of work, the handling of a manuscript like the one the librarian buries, turns here into something deeply somatic, even erotic. The poem ends on the witty, slightly blue conceit that turns the proper noun “Satyr Plays” into the active subject/verb construction the “satyr plays”: this librarian, Barry writes, “knows how the satyr plays.” Even the papyrus to which the language is committed is “shining with her mark,” as if Sappho had burnished it with her body’s own ichor or cured it with hot tears.
   Barry’s pages, too, shine with his mark — he shows up there, leaving a palpable record of himself that leads back to his always-live mind, his lived-in body. Like his librarian, Barry is on intimate terms with books he loves: “Euripides /on the stupidity of the gods,” he writes, and the “whole warm body” of Archilochos. In this poem, perhaps more than any other, Barry shows how inseparable texts are from the body, the poet watching the librarian kneel “as she buried them,” “her face lowered in the golden tent of her hair.” There’s not much distance between them, the mind and the body, not much of a problem to solve, perhaps, after all.

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   Nothing in Barry’s poems was distant from him — everything directly expressed aspects of his consciousness, fully owned, alive and intimate. As his students. we also understood through anecdote, an off-topic conversation or simply by hanging out in the kitchen when he and his wife, the poet and critic Lorrie Goldensohn, prepared dinner for us that his life was not confined to high art—or by high art—however much culture fed him. To live fully with the pleasures of art and ideas was not to deny other forms of pleasure. Barry relished, for example, sitting down with his students to a plate of good pasta, the pleasure of breaking off a chunk of fresh bread while we talked and passed the dishes. It was itself a kind of solution to the equation of life and art that he was as excited to read to us the long draft of a new poem by a former student that had just come in the mail as he was to recite a favorite Pound canto.
   Barry’s presence itself was an inducement to trust our own reality in the same way that he seemed to trust his. His very manner of sitting, sometimes ‘semi-recumbent’ in his chair (as he has a young woman describe his way of walking in one of his poems) was natural, informal—his casualness emphasized the fact that seriousness had nothing to do with projecting a carefully maintained attitude of rectitude or authority. His fingers were active around his face, his eyes alive, often a smile in them; in jeans, his legs intertwined, one ankle wrapped around the other; his voice, warm and inflected, resonant with intelligence as he offered responses both keen and useful, recited lines, said something funny or appreciative; his mobile features shaped themselves into a look of concentrated seriousness just as quickly as they became playful as he responded to the emotions or ideas that came up around the table. What we wrote and what we said and felt were validated by the way he responded to us, his mind focused, his body active in the room during our discussions. There was no sense—as there was in so many classrooms—that we were simply ‘students’ devoid of our other human attributes or identities.

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   Which isn’t to say that for all his naturalness and attention to us, Barry’s learning and brilliance didn’t show up the distance between him and his students. The first poem of mine I gave him to read was an exercise in veiled allusion beginning with an epigraph from an important novel I’d never read. Barry dismissed it, this pretentious and transparent attempt to impress, without somehow discouraging me. It was clear from what he said and how he said it (simply, honestly, without a trace of condescension) that I hadn’t written a real poem. He took me seriously enough to let me know that. It was obvious to me that I would need to abandon this kind of posturing and, instead, put something of my actual self into the work. But what of myself to put in? I looked to Barry’s work to find out. It might be the evocation of music we see in a poem like “Thelonius Monk Dancing” or the complicated understanding of filial connection depicted in a Holbein drawing Barry takes up in “Margaret Roper.” It might be a record of incisive self-reflection in a poem like “The Kabalist” (“The only parts of nature known to me/ are my wrists, hands and fingers”).
   That the self we were meant to consult when writing poems could expand by immersing ourselves in the world I was learning about from Barry gave me a distant kind of hope. When I house-sat one January during college for Barry and Lorrie, the separate volumes of the Anchor reference Bible took up several linear feet on one of many fully-stocked bookshelves. The Bible as both scholarly opportunity and story, a real book rather than a pious text in a bad faux-leather cover. The box set of Janos Starker’s recordings of the Bach Cello Suites faced outward from the stack of LPs near the stereo. Those passages so accessible and yet possessed of a beauty that was unfathomable during those first few listens. Art on the walls—paintings and prints by friends like Douglas Kinsey whose work appears on and in some of Barry’s books. I found arresting a particular Kinsey painting hung on the wall between the living room and dining room. It featured the head of one subject at a party angled in a psychologically charged way that demonstrated that adulthood could be more complex, more uncomfortable than I knew.
   From this remove and after many decades living in a world that I first glimpsed in Barry’s house, the way he and Lorrie lived with books, music and art has become entirely familiar. That mode of living, however, seemed singular and talismanic to me then: evidence of a devotion to beauty, to meaning, to a community of the informed and well-read. This environment was evident in the poems Barry wrote, poems that might conjure with anything from a 15th century crucifix to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, from a dybbuk to statues of Aphrodite in the Louvre or Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan movies. The presence of such subjects in the poems all resonated in Barry’s setting of them with his lived experience, his appetite for the world. When I think of that house, I think of these lines from Barry’s poem “The Kabalist”:

   On my shelves, even the meanest book

   retreats in depth and joins with all my books,

   and can place me back and back behind myself

   reading the book behind the book, until

   the blossom opens and we form one text,

   one complete mind, the one order.

   Immersion here becomes one way to background the self, the ego, the body and its desires in order to come into a fuller relation with the world. I started to understand that one could live more fully in such a world of connection, of potential if fantastical completeness.
   But Barry was also wary of his own intelligence, his scholarly bent, the tendencies of a cultural omnivore to use his mind in a way that might, if he wasn’t careful, diminish his animal self. He reminded himself, as in the poem “Home,” “to loosen [his] hold on/the need to dope things out, always.” He claims that he “must study” “a rough-cut waywardness” to oppose his “town style: tight, little, too moral.” In “Immersion,” a later poem, he hears “always a noise in [his] head” and has to tell himself to “stop/this busy chatter and roar/and sit and be still and hear.” As much as books and ideas, art and artifacts enhance and define life, so must the body moving through the natural world, coming across a great horned owl in the woods or seeing how “mist squats” over East Long Pond where the Goldensohns spent, for many years, as much of three seasons as possible in a house on an unimproved Vermont road that became passable only in late spring. Theirs was a place, I always assumed, where they cultivated that “rough-cut waywardness” apart from the strictures of town and the academy.

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   “The hundred yard dash is very like the lyric poem.” This claim constitutes the dedication to his father, in his youth a record-holding runner, of Barry’s volume of new and selected poems, The Hundred Yard Dash Man. This unlikely articulation is a Goldensohnian summa: relating the body that realizes its potential through the refinement of economical movement to the way the poet’s mind refines the lyric to achieve feeling. Barry also means that the lyric poem is a sprint, kinetic, an unskeining of a kind of physical energy sustained through form. The title poem of this collection describes the last time Barry carried his father, the “old track star” now down to 80 pounds and very close to the end of his life. The way Barry vividly evokes that moment is affecting. It’s another poem about physicality—the body of the son carrying the body of the father—that reminds us of so many other types of embodiment in Barry’s poems. And yet here, as elsewhere in Barry’s work, the physical isn’t isolated but tempered and represented by language: humor lightening the moment without erasing its pathos, talk lending meaning to experience.
   There’s a great deal to feel and think on in that poem—the way we use language so we can bear existence, the stubborn fact of our mortality, a recognition of the way generations succeed one another. Within it all we feel a palpable expression of love. It’s a poem I think of when I try now in his absence to see Barry and his work clearly, another example of this beautiful poet bringing the mind and body into conversation with one another. In that constant yoking, for all its frictions and misalliances, there’s something deeply moving and consoling, even seemly—especially now that Barry’s poems alone—that compelling body of work he left us—are what remain to carry the weight.