Luminous Debris is a smart, moving throwback to the era of amateur archaeologists and Victorian belle-lettrists, with their “delectable valleys” and “fanciful curves” and Romantic attachments to their data sets. For all his hostility to our placeless postmodern global moment, Sobin reads the prehistoric record like a species of postmodern poem, alive to the absences, elisions, fragments, and traces that restore our earliest ancestors from silence to the fragile contours of memory. Who but a poet like Sobin could see Stone Age arrowheads as “hyphens” connecting predator and prey, or an ancient quarry as the “inverted grammar” of a missing city? His prose turns Ionian pottery motifs into “the calligraphy of Logos” and place names into “breath shreds … endowed with all the material attributes of objects.” If Sobin occasionally makes prehistory sound like a giant example of slow poetry, rearguard and hectoring and nostalgic for a lost authenticity, he also recovers from the dull-as-dirt discourse of professional archaeology an “imminently semiotic” précis of our own condition here at the bleeding edge of human history.
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