March 2007

Goodtimes’ work shows why poetry matters

By David Feela

Editor’s note: Art Goodtimes of Norwood, Colo., is a county commissioner in San Miguel County, serving his third term. He is the highest-ranking elected Green Party official in the state. In addition, he’s a columnist for several papers, including the Free Press, and a poet whose readings are as highly charged and entertaining as performance art. He has just released his first book of poetry.

On the newly released cover of the first major poetry collection by Art Goodtimes, “As If the World Really Mattered,” an image of what could be mistaken for a wizard from Middle Earth appears. In one hand, a hiking staff connected to the earth; in the other, a lightning bolt streaking toward the sky. Between them a man with the ability to hold my attention now in this totally unusual forum: The printed page.

It’s not that Art Goodtimes’ poems have never found their way to print before. His work has circulated for decades like the legendary ring of power, from hand to hand, within a stack of publications too thick to mention. But it’s his voice that has dominated our Southwestern landscape: Performances, politics, and gatherings of the heart.

Now, for the first time, bound in a handsomely printed sheaf of 128 pages, I can touch the poems themselves, with additional note pages that read like a metaphysical fusion of biography, philosophy, and bibliography. His craft is laid bare without the accompaniment of his booming voice, but his words still hold me breathless.

For those of you who have not heard Goodtimes read his work, then the book becomes a surrogate voice, and the typography sets itself up as a clue that there’s a score by which to hear his poetic music. Visually, all the poems are justified to run a line down the center of the page, those wider, more narrative and discursive pieces set beside the narrow, quicker paced images:

Then my name is butter,
sweet cream,
& no noise can disturb
the blind ease of a finger
tracing orbits
in the furrows of our deepest eyes.

The strategy works beautifully, for not only is the page symmetrically balanced for the sake of the reading eye, but the cadence of breath seems to have its say as the eye moves down the page. It’s Art behind the ink, or it’s ink in the service of performance art. Either way, I can hear him from miles away.

An “invocation” by the late Dolores LaChapelle provides Goodtimes with a brief introduction. She relates that he studied in the seminary to be a Catholic priest for seven years before he realized how deeply theology resonates within the earth’s geology. Goodtimes may have escaped his monkish cell, but his poetry remains a prayer book of sorts, an earth meditation, on the relationship between animal and human, a genuine search for meaning locked into the ironies of our existence. He conjures a few spirits from the past like Linnaeus, Neruda, Edward Teller, Ed Abbey, his own grade-school teacher Sister Leo – each of them personal and cultural touchstones. Of Linnaeus, for example, an ancient who advocated for early science and the identification of all things, he writes:

In his last years
Linnaeus suffered a stroke
& it is said he who named & classified

all the known species,
flora and fauna, of his day
forgot even his own name.

As a reader, I’m impressed watching Goodtimes arrange language, and not just in English. His poems contain Greek, Latin, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese references – to name a few – but all of them efficiently and insightfully glossed in the note section at the end of the book. Art Goodtimes is a linguist at heart, a shaper of word baskets, a dervish of vocabulary. Even his last name – an English translation for an old world Italian name, Bontempi – cradles a rekindled spirit.

“As If the World Really Mattered” blends land and language, and the poems are energized with both passion and wit. In “Breathing Kansas” he writes, “Breathe it in. / The centerfold prime rib heart of America.” In “Current Events” it’s “man’s (sic) rise to civilization” that both enlightens me with its Latin notation for correctness while the same (sic) doubles as a comment on our human foibles. Formality is muddied with colloquial mortar, a mixture stabilizing both earth and sky: “...crash ashore / you mother waves! / Soak in. ... Pulling up / mud of the New World / from under waves of the Old Ways.” It’s possible the Old Ones have abducted Art Goodtimes and shamelessly used him as a sounding board. I welcome these spirits back as enthusiastically as I congratulate them on the choice for their voice.

Over 50 years ago, American poet William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

“As if the World Really Mattered” reminds me that poetry, indeed, does matter, and that the real news has always been old.