‘Away’ by Albert Goldbarth is a complex meditation on the theme of disappearance. Goldbarth uses a variety of images and similes to explore ideas of negation, absence, and interiority.
In ‘Away,’ Albert Goldbarth considers what it means to disappear. He discusses disappearance in several different contexts, including what people miss when they blink, how an entire civilization can vanish, and how people can retreat inward as interpersonal relationships break down.
Goldbarth plays with notions of scale to examine the concept of disappearance from different angles. The result is a memorable and somewhat unsettling poem about what happens when people, animals, objects, and civilizations go away.
‘Away’ by Albert Goldbarth is a poem about what it means to go away or to disappear, particularly in the context of a romantic relationship.
The poem begins with an extensive description of blinking, including what can happen in the blink of an eye. Goldbarth plays with the reader’s sense of scale. He moves from an examination of a blink to the disappearance of whole civilizations due to conquest and genocide.
In the second half of the poem, the speaker becomes clearer about what he is really talking about. He considers what it means for someone to draw back from a romantic relationship. The poem ends on a more balanced note. While it acknowledges the benefits of a temporary disappearance, it suggests that it is also important to be able to return.
Structure and Form
There are no stanzas in ‘Away’ by Albert Goldbarth. The poem is fifty-eight lines long with no clear divisions. It is a free verse poem, which means that it does not follow any particular rhyme or meter. Line lengths vary considerably, making ‘Away’ feel almost like a prose poem. The lines of the poem flow into each other with relatively little punctuation. Although the structure of the poem is fluid, repetition and thematic consistency help tie the piece together.
Albert Goldbarth uses several literary devices in ‘Away.’ These devices help give the poem structure and serve to clarify the poem’s themes.
- Repetition: the use of a word or phrase multiple times for emphasis. Goldbarth repeats the phrase “If that’s the standard” in lines 12 and 14 of ‘Away.’ This helps lend structure to the text while also pushing readers to consider the same information in multiple ways.
- Personification: the practice of ascribing human characteristics to non-human subjects. In ‘Away,’ some parts of the human body are said to have a “shrilling voice” that alerts people to pain. The ancient Mayan stones are also given the ability to observe events over time.
- Enjambment: the continuation of a sentence across two or more lines of poetry without punctuation or pause. Like many free verse poems, ‘Away’ makes extensive use of enjambment. This gives the poem a sense of flow, pulling readers through an extensive series of images.
- Simile: a comparison between two unlike things using “like” or “as.” The poem begins by comparing the size of a blink to many large things. Later, the poem uses metaphor (direct comparison without using “like” or “as”) to describe a woman’s sense that her husband has changed dramatically. She feels that he “has been replaced by a figure of balsa and wax.”
‘Away’ is a thematically dense poem. Rather than focusing on one clear thesis statement, the poem focuses on the theme of disappearance and absence, exploring them from all sides. By the end of the poem, the speaker has not necessarily come to any conclusions. Instead, he has drawn parallels between the vastly different concepts of blinking, genocide, relationship troubles, and personal alienation.
The poem is, therefore, very open to interpretation, allowing readers to examine their own thoughts on the work’s themes and their own experiences with the concept of going away.
We think a blink is tiny but
it’s the size of all of our eyelashes, it’s
of a fallopian tube or the prostate will, that pain enough
to fell us like a hammer can fit on a pin.
At the beginning of ‘Away,’ the speaker describes the act of blinking. While a blink may seem very small in terms of both physical action and time, he says, it is actually large. Temporally, a blink can be enough time to miss the fall of a meteor. Physically, the eyelid is small, but it can cause a great deal of pain in the body if something goes wrong.
Throughout the poem, Goldbarth examines the idea of scale. Something that appears very small, he suggests, may actually be very large. It may have serious repercussions for an individual. In the case of blinking, the very act of blinking is only possible because of millions of years of evolution. These lines also introduce the theme of disappearance. When one blinks, there is a lot that one can miss about the world.
If that’s the standard, the eyelashes come to look
as large as a row of hussar swords uplifted in a toast.
for all I know, detected the landing thump of Viking I
on Mars before it registered with NASA.
The speaker starts to describe a blink as something huge rather than something small. In the space of a blink, it is possible for a cockroach to appear to vanish as it scuttles across a floor. The poem again explores the concept of scale, juxtaposing the very small (a cockroach) with the very large and distant (a spacecraft landing on Mars). In this passage, the poem suggests that the power to disappear, as the cockroach does, is akin to a kind of magic.
Throughout the poem, the act of disappearing is closely connected to the unknowable and the mysterious. Because it is able to disappear so quickly, the cockroach seems like a magician. Perhaps, in its near-infinite speed and sensitivity, it is able to detect something as distant as a spacecraft on another planet even before NASA has access to the same information. Some aspects of ‘Away’ verge on the surreal, and this is one of them.
entire people disappear: what genocide is all about;
the god-faced Mayan stones, this
would have happened in the blink of an eye, a stone’s eye
In this passage of ‘Away,’ the speaker makes a sudden shift in the subject matter. He talks about another kind of disappearance: genocide. Rather than focusing on the violence of such an event, the speaker maintains a degree of distance. He moves on to talk about abandoned cities of the Mayan civilization. After the people disappear, the architecture of the city also gradually fades back into the foliage. This time, the disappearance was gradual, not fast. Still, it would all have happened “in the blink of an eye” from the perspective of the carved stones in those cities.
Once again, the poem makes a rhetorical shift in its exploration of disappearance. While a cockroach scuttling across the floor might look like magic, genocide or the abandonment of a city are certainly not. They are longer, much more involved, and far more violent events. Nonetheless, by discussing them only briefly or by looking at each concept through the eyes of an unmoving stone, these lengthy disappearances can be reduced to mere instants.
But tonight I don’t mean anything
that vast, I only mean my friend Dolores says
blasted out of the real world of community, into cockroach
At this point, the speaker of the poem seems to reach a more grounded, more specific approach to his theme. He focuses on how people can disappear within a marriage. He says that his friend Dolores feels as though her husband has been replaced by a replica of the man he once was. The speaker confirms her suspicions, saying that such cases are common: “It happens.” He compares people’s efforts to retreat into themselves within a marriage to the cockroach disappearing out of sight.
Up until now, all of the forms of going away that the speaker has described have been about actually disappearing. The people of an abandoned city may still be alive, but the city itself is empty. A cockroach hides and is no longer visible. Within the context of a marriage, however, the poem suggests that people can disappear without going anywhere. They remain physically present, but they retreat inward until their partner can no longer communicate clearly with them.
The delights of Away are many. The grass of Away
is a deeper, sweeter, narcotic viridian than the lawns of Here
would row me away on the black sea
of that disappearing ink.
Finally, the speaker discusses his own experiences of disappearing. For the first time, he makes the idea of a disappearance sound appealing. As a child, he retreated into himself as a way to escape the uncertainties and struggles of his daily life. Now, he says, he still disappears sometimes, curling up in his bed and closing his eyes. His wife does the same thing. However, unlike Dolores’s husband, he and his wife only disappear temporarily when things get overwhelming. They can return at any time.
After exploring disappearance from several extreme angles, the speaker settles on a more balanced view. Disappearances do not need to be very big or very small. They do not need to signal trouble in a romantic relationship. Instead, they can be a temporary refuge from the world. The entire poem has a dreamlike quality to it as the speaker muses on what disappearance can and should mean, both for him personally and for other people in the world.
‘Away’ is about the act of disappearing and what that action can mean. It is a complex poem that explores its main theme through several different lenses.
The tone of ‘Away’ is somewhat dreamlike. It draws readers through several vivid images, never engaging too deeply with the emotions that each one summons before moving on to the next.
The speaker of ‘Away’ is a married man who contemplates the role of disappearance in his own life. Unlike some of his friends, he and his wife have found a way to use temporary disappearances to their advantage.
- ‘The Ache of Marriage’ by Denise Levertov is a poem that examines the potential challenges of marital relationships.
- ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ by Robert Frost has a similarly dreamlike tone to ‘Away’ as the speaker contemplates his place in the woods.
- ‘Insect’ by Annie Finch uses the titular insect as a way to convey important themes, similar to the cockroach imagery in ‘Away.’