For almost thirty years now, U-M English professor Laurence Goldstein has edited the Michigan Quarterly Review, and he’s done the scholarship — in his case studies of the use of aviation and movies in literature — necessary for his tenure and promotion. But I suspect the real passion of his life has gone into his own poetry.

A Room in California, his most recent book, shows the range of a lifetime devoted to his craft. Goldstein is unafraid of being formal and sonorous, and he feels no need to strain to be hip, even when writing about movies. The collection ends with a tour de force, a poem of forty-five eight-line stanzas called “Meetings with Prester John.” It mixes medieval legend and fanciful adventures with a completely contemporary sensibility, allowing the prophet Daniel to stand next to Henry Kissinger and Eric Ambler. The poem is a wild, occasionally difficult ride that jumps through time and across history, pulling a longing for fanciful, undiscovered places in its wake.

Ann Arbor audiences might be especially interested in a poem about the statue that dominates the entry to the U-M Museum of Art, “Randolph Rogers: Nydia, The Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii.” We may enter the museum to escape for a moment the usual things (“The big doors close out what’s contemporary: / the noise of a living culture, the earthshake / of lurid bulletins, each a brutal crime”), but in Goldstein’s vision the sculpture of the blind girl trying unsuccessfully to escape the eruption of the volcano becomes a vision of all victims: he gazes upward at her, “where the imaginary smoke of extinction / gathers like the vanished clouds of 1945.” The art is no escape.

But I think most readers will remember the poems in the first section of Goldstein’s book, which combine recollections of his childhood in southern California with a nostalgia for the postwar cinematic world. In “Thanks for the Memories,” for instance, he describes a moment captured in a family photo: “this photo of Bob and Bing arm in arm / with my mother’s sisters, circa 1947, / on some avenue in the Adams district of L.A.” Hope and Crosby were just driving by a family picnic, probably, and decided to give the folks a thrill. But Goldstein understands what the movies have done more completely than the stars themselves:

How could it happen? What did it mean?
That on a whim the nation’s most familiar
voices and faces would mix their charisma
with ordinary folk and make a still
for generations of the Soltot clan to set on shelves,
to share with guests, to freeze a perfect moment
in the full sunshine of postwar California.

The movies intersect the real and then become our reality, or at least our memory of it.

Laurence Goldstein reads from A Room in California at the U-M Residential College Auditorium on Thursday, October 6.

[Review published October 2005]