V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of John Balaban's Fifth Book of Poetry




When readers encounter John Balaban’s poetry,
they usually
believe the words have been fashioned
 by a thoughtful
and compassionate man who himself
may have survived
a number of life’s toughest tests
or witnessed others
endure some of the severest
circumstances humans must face,
whether as a
consequence of the death and destruction
with war or arising from another form of loss. 

For more than three decades John Balaban has been providing readers of contemporary poetry with intelligent yet accessible works that display insight into one individual’s perspectives on important issues of intellect and emotion, including those largest of topics—love and war, life and loss, joy and suffering, human culpability and moral responsibility. Often combining the private and the public, Balaban writes lines that frequently seem intimate, poetry filled with scenes depicting engaging experiences and personal observations, while at the same time guiding readers with information that helps define current conditions influencing the author and the lives of those around him, as well as all of us who wish to carefully consider similar situations or shared concerns about the world in which we find ourselves.
    Balaban’s poems at times appear to be the products of a conscience in conflict, caught between what the speaker believes is correct or principled behavior and circumstances that present a competing reality tempting one to accept easier, more expeditious and expedient actions as alternatives. When readers encounter John Balaban’s poetry, they usually believe the words have been fashioned by a thoughtful and compassionate man who himself may have survived a number of life’s toughest tests or witnessed others endure some of the severest circumstances humans must face, whether as a consequence of the death and destruction associated with war or arising from another form of loss. Indeed, John Balaban’s initial reputation as a poet flows from those first pieces composed in response to his stint in Vietnam as a conscientious objector who nevertheless requested an alternate assignment in the war zone as a volunteer aiding civilians wounded or displaced by the combat around them.
    Consequently, when confronted by the casualties of war, both emotional and physical, including an instance of his own wounding by shrapnel, Balaban discovered he possessed an ability to express even the harshest of situations in lyrical language that evokes empathy for war’s victims or initiates meditative musings on the causes and conduct of war. These characteristics were evidenced in some of his earlier poems.  For instance, in “After Our War” Balaban begins with a litany of horror: “After our war, the dismembered bits / —all those pierced eyes, ear slivers, jaw splinters, / gouged lips, odd tibias, skin flaps, and toes— / came squinting, wobbling, jabbering back.” However, by the poem’s closing lines, these specifics of physical damage give way to more philosophical questions that haunt the speaker just as much as the images of the wounded and dead, including the final question posed by the speaker as he wonders: “After our war, how will love speak?”
    Elsewhere, delivering an address in the form of an elegy for a woman with whom he once worked, Balaban reports:

        We brought to better care the nearly lost,
        the boy burned by white phosphorous, chin
        glued to his chest; the scalpel girl;
        the triple amputee from the road-mined bus;
        the kid without a jaw, the one with no nose.
        You never wept in front of them, but waited
        until the gurney rolled them into surgery.
        I guess that’s what amazed me most.
        Why didn’t you fall apart or quit?
                    [“Thoughts Before Dawn”]

    John Balaban’s skill at confronting in his poetry the horrific incidents and general inhumanity that accompany any war could be traced to his strongly held convictions and his admirable actions, including his activities as a field representative in Vietnam for the Committee of Responsibility to Save War-Injured Children. In the title poem from Words for My Daughter Balaban is reminded of an instance in Vietnam when he assisted surgeons caring for wounded civilians. He recalls “from a cloud of memories / still drifting off the South China Sea”:

        . . . the 9-year-old boy, naked and lacerated,
        thrashing in his pee on a steel operating table
        and yelling “Dau. Dau,” while I, trying to translate
        in the mayhem of Tet for surgeons who didn’t know
        who this boy was or what had happened to him, kept asking
        “Where? Where’s the pain?” until a surgeon
        said “Forget it.  His ears are blown.”

    However, perhaps what has repeatedly surprised and satisfied readers about Balaban’s poetry is his seemingly resilient spirit, which continues to look for good and express hope for the future.  As he advised his daughter, as well as his readers, in the final stanza of “Words for My Daughter,” his goal appears to be alerting all to the darker parts of human existence in order to prepare that they might find a way through to the light of kindness that also exists: “I want you to know the worst and be free from it. / I want you to know the worst and still find good.”
    Balaban’s language usually indicates a yearning for an ultimate faith in future possibilities, a hope for the next generation’s acknowledgments of evil’s presence even while seeking a more beneficent society. This poet — who has experienced the awfulness of war — seems to need to believe in such an optimistic forecast of a positive outcome, perhaps desires to find comfort thinking of such a consequence. As the closing lines voiced by the speaker in “Words for My Daughter” suggest: “I suspect I am here less for your protection / than you are here for mine, as if you were sent / to call me back into our helpless tribe.”
    With the publication in 2003 of Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New & Selected Poems, a wonderful volume in which Balaban thematically organized pieces from his previous collections with more than two dozen new poems sprinkled among them, he seemed to have reached a point of completion.  The generous array of poetry in this book represented a culmination of thirty years’ worth of work, material that presented a compelling profile of the poet and hinted at the different direction his writing was moving.  Balaban’s new poetry showed readers and critics who may have pigeonholed him merely as a Vietnam poet that his sensitivity and appreciation of others’ lives extended beyond the narrow focus some devoted to his war poems when evaluating his literary contributions.  Certainly, Balaban’s past poetry had amply demonstrated why his work should be regarded among the finest arising from the Vietnam War and its aftermath.  However, with some of the newer items in this collection, Balaban proved that he already had begun to expand his artistic vision, as he also displayed his expertise in examining a variety of subjects.
    In “Anna Akhmatova Spends the Night on Miami Beach,” a poem that would be reprinted in Path, Crooked Path, appearing as part of a suite of elegiac pieces set in Miami, and perhaps serve as a bridge between the two books, Balaban affirms the authority of art, particularly its ability to transcend countries’ borders and cultural identities.  The speaker discovers a paperback of Akhmatova’s poetry left lying overnight on a bench in Miami beach, its “pages / a bit puffy by morning, flushed with dew.”  On the back cover a photograph from the 1930s pictures “her in spangled caftan.” Halfway around the world and more than three decades after her death, “at the end of the American century,” Akhmatova — a poet who also wrote of the effects of war — lives in the language of her poetry as Balaban personifies the book with its author longing “for the one person in ten thousand / who could say her name in Russian, / who could take her home, giving her a place / next to Auden and Apollinaire, / to whom she could describe her night’s excursion.”
    An epigraph from Plutarch that introduces “Looking Out from the Acropolis, 1989,” another poem reprinted from Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New & Selected Poems, reiterates the ability of even ancient art or architecture to endure and reinvigorate: “Each structure, in its beauty, was even then and at once antique, but in the freshness of its vigor, even today, recent and newly wrought.”  The poet himself reports being amazed by the remains, “awed / by the lonely grace of stones fallen, stones still standing.”
    Nevertheless, the poet knows the ravages and human suffering caused by civilizations in conflict throughout the centuries since those stones were erected, and the poem chronicles a number of such events: “Yugoslavian slaughter”; “the breadlines in Moscow, the dead rivers and lakes”; “Chechens, Kurds, Azeris et al. / went for their guns to settle old scores”; “Israeli rubber bullets and intifada stones”; “Bloated African bellies, fly-infested eyes”; “the Japanese, baptized in nuclear fire.”  Gazing around him, accompanied by another poet, the speaker declares: “These old stones cry out for more.”  Perhaps echoing the sentiment of Plutarch, Balaban comments in the poem’s final stanza:

        Surviving centuries, sculpted for all to see,
        declaring our need for beauty and laws like love
        for this tiny polis of a planet spinning wildly,
        for my daughter, snug, asleep in her bed.

    The poem closes as the pair of poets offer a toast with drinks of vodka from a flask “to the new world order / and to whatever muse might come to give us words.”  Once again, the speaker’s contemplation culminates in a search for words, poetry that might comfort or provide guidance toward a more hopeful future.
    As the author notes in the opening lines of “Varna Snow,” dedicated in memory of poet Roland Flint (as is the entire book, which begins with an epigraph from Flint’s “Varna Snow”):

        A breeze riffles in off the beach
        stirring poplar catkins, wooly stuff
        drifting the town in flurries, searching

        the air like syllables of poetry while
        we perch on the stones of this Roman bath
        listening to poetry, the delicate thing which lasts.

    After a long litany of empires and military powers — “Greek and Roman, Getae, Thracian, Bulgar, / Slavs, Avars, Goths, Celts, Tatars, Huns, / Arabs, Turks, Russian, and, now, the U.S. Navy” — who have controlled the region throughout the centuries, Balaban concludes this poem, which concerns the “aging Ovid, exiled by Augustus,” with this most telling last pair of sentences: “But now, acacias / fragrance our evening as poplar fluff drifts / through imperial rubble.  Only poetry lasts.”
    The perceived value of poetry and poets, particularly in contemporary American culture, appears as a primary subject in “The Lives of the Poets.” This poem is headed by an epigraph from Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, which proclaims the nation “is proud of its dead poets,” then continues to remark how the reality of America may be too large and overpowering for poets: “So poets are loved, but loved because they just can’t make it here.”  Intermingling other quotes from the pages of Bellow’s novel, Balaban references memories of a multitude of poets in the roster included among the work’s stanzas: Denise Levertov, Allen Ginsberg, Theodore Roethke, Richard Hugo, James Wright, Carolyn Kizer, Lew Welch, Hart Crane, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Delmore Schwartz, Maxine Kumin, William Meredith, Hayden Carruth, Richard Wilbur, W.S. Merwin, and Gary Snyder.  Listing a number of evocative instances reminiscent of poets Balaban has known and admired, he again argues the importance of poets and poetry, suggesting the art will outlive its creators and continue into the future.  As he has noted previously, poetry is “the delicate thing which lasts.”  Indeed, “only poetry lasts”; thus, the value of poets and poetry probably cannot be determined in current terms.
    The poem ends with a metaphor for the resilience and revitalization supplied by art, particularly poetry, over time.  Walking with Carolyn Kizer’s husband across their farm, Balaban recounts: “we stopped before a storm-struck, twisted pear tree, / a remnant from an orchard of 100 years ago. / Out of the hulk of its blackened trunk, / one smooth-skinned branch sent forth some leaves.”  Observing this, Balaban turns to his host and asks, “Still blooming?”  The answer he receives: “Madly.”  The perseverance of poetry over a long period of time also becomes most apparent in the recurring presence of Ovid as a figure throughout the poems in Path, Crooked Path.  Balaban translates a bit of Ovid and Ovid’s poetry provides epigraphs for some poems, while it is cited in others, and stories of Ovid supply context in additional pieces.
    Yet, John Balaban’s poetry also remains as distinctly American as any Walt Whitman work would, especially in a couple of poems concerning travel across the country (“Highway 61 Revisited” and “Driving Back East with My Father”).  “Highway 61 Revisited,” the terrific opening poem for the collection, immediately calls to mind the idealized images of freedom associated with cruising across the countryside on this legendary road, as well as its iconic presence in the Bob Dylan song.  In a piece that may be as poignant as any about the aftermath of 9/11, Balaban leaves the heat of summer in the city during June following the World Trade Center atacks, feeling pulled toward the open road:

                                        . . . I sped by, heading out
        once more for the heart of the heart of the country,
        rolling down Highway 61, heading West and South,
        lighting out again, away from fanfare and drumbeats,
        the couples holding hands in their slow-motion leaps
        from the skyscraper windows billowing smoke.

    Along the way, the speaker describes how he feels almost as if he’s escaped, “lost” among the rural surroundings: “In midwestern farmlands rustling wheatcrowns, / spreading out with alfalfa and sorghum, sprouting corn, / I thought I was lost, in the crickets and songbirds.”  However, an incident along his journey quickly brings back to him the difficulties and dark tone of the nation that he seems to be attempting to distance from himself:

        when I picked up the soldier mugged in the bus station,
        teeth kicked in, wallet taken, hitching back to base in Waco
        to his tank-repair unit readying for another Iraq war
        I knew I was on the right road, running like a lifeline
        across the palm of America.

    Farther along, pausing for gas while traveling over the Texas landscape, the speaker hears a cry for help, and he discovers “an elderly man in a battered Honda, door open, / big shoes planted on the greasy cement, looking at me.”  Balaban reveals the man needs assistance lifting his prosthetic legs into the car, and when asked where he is going, the old man “just pointed his finger like a gun, said, / ‘That way, down Highway 61.’”  Alluding to another poet, the speaker confides his choice to follow “a less traveled blacktop running south,” and he aims his auto toward the Mexican border, most of America in his rearview mirror.  There, it “is the summer solstice and I am with friends / in this high-desert border town rumbled by freight trains.”  Watching the moon poised above the Sierra Madres, the poet details its illumination and the mood of the nation:

        shining on the humble folk wading into Texas,
        shining on the Border Patrols, on the DEA blimp,
        shining on the bright empty ribbon of Highway 61,
        loud with strange cries echoing across America.

    In the other poem derived from a drive across the country, “Driving Back East with My Dad,” Balaban offers an elegy for his father, remembered from a photograph in which he “squinted / at the camera, baseball cap over his long white hair. / Seventy-five, and about to ride 2,000 miles in my old pickup.”  During the poem Balaban narrates his adventurous father’s life story, perhaps that crooked path that stretches like a line across one’s palm.  The father was born in Romania and immigrated at the age of 21 knowing “scarcely a word of English.”  He was a man who in World War II “invented the C130 ‘Flying Boxcar’” and led a walkout from a restaurant when “a black draftsman” with whom he worked would not be served.
    However, the speaker reveals an estrangement that apparently developed since leaving home at age 16 following another “punch-up” with his father. Therefore, as they travel along the road, the silence between them is most likely not surprising: “I can’t say we said much on our drive, / a mere detour on his long crooked path.”  In fact, at one point during the trip, as they move through a pounding hailstorm, the father even turns off his hearing aid.  Thus, Balaban believes he cannot credibly provide in his poem a desired uplifting ending marked by reconciliation and emotional expression between the two men.  However, the truth Balaban does offer may be far more important:

        How I wish for a lyric ending to this prose tale:
        a moment when the travelers, going in the direction
        they faced, found they had already arrived.  Still,
        it was good, being alive together, taking the road,
        mindful of where we had come, and moving on.

    Much of Path, Crooked Path appears elegiac, filled with farewells, as in “The Goodbyes,” which starts with a lyric from Trent Reznor’s “Hurt,” notably sung by Johnny Cash: “Everyone I know / Goes away in the end.” In this poem the speaker lists loved ones lost, sometimes to death, other times to the changes brought about by time — “both the dead and alive / Who we will never see again but in dream and memory”—including a likely reference to the father in “Driving Back East with My Dad”:

        Dead parents, good or bad, dwelling in terminal silence.
        Ex’s living in Ohio with someone you’ve never met.

        Past lovers, old friends, homes you had, last replies.
        Lips you kissed, would kiss again.  Children grown and gone.

        This is our harder trial; these, our bleakest times:
        Not our own going, but the going of others.

    These closing lines again remind one of Whitman, who wrote in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” that the dead “were fully at rest, they suffer’d not, / The living remained and suffer’d.”  Once more, Balaban’s poetry seems to explain and exemplify the need for art, particularly poetry, that allows our memories of those no longer in our lives to persist.
    Likewise, in the final poem of Path, Crooked Path, “The Great Fugue,” John Balaban presents another poem in memory of those who once mattered so significantly in his life.  Balaban honors those who, like his art teacher and her husband, took him in and guided him when he left home as a 16-year-old runaway: “Taken in by teachers, I became their project.”  Hired by other teachers to work odd jobs so that he “had a little cash,” the young Balaban also receives a separate education, a fondness for reading and the arts:

        My civics teacher pushed me hard in class.
        At school, she would not let me sulk; at her home
        she paid me to alphabetize her books and records,
        all of it a ruse to get them in my hands.

    Balaban reports how he was led by one mentor from author to author, book by book: Homer, Tennyson, Joyce, Kazantzakis, etc.  However, when he asked to hear Grosse Fugue by the Budapest String Quartet, he was informed his hosts only play it on Easter each year.  By the final stanza of the poem, the poet notes an absence, people and places now lost except to his memory:

        Now that lovely farmland is mostly turned to malls.
        The woods behind my boyhhod house—where I found
        arrowheads, box turtles, musket balls, and, once,
        a bayonet from the Revolutionary War—all are gone.
        My wise elders are long dead.  Today is Easter.

    Therefore, the speaker plays “the Grosse Fugue, hearing / the faded voices of those good people,” and Balaban concludes this book again with an elegiac mood, using his poetry as a way to remember and somehow preserve the relationships that initiated his interests in literature and music, perhaps the people most responsible for his becoming a poet:

        who did not want to see me falter, but took me in,
        schooling me in an intertwining of spirits
        that like music can fill a room, that is a great fugue
        weaving through us and joining generations
        in charged, exquisite music that we long to hear.

    Maybe due to misconceptions that have limited some views about his work, known mostly for his poems about Vietnam or his translations of Vietnamese folk poetry, John Balaban’s greater range and his ability to address a wider array of experiences or subject matter may hve been overlooked by some readers in the past.  However, with Path, Crooked Path Balaban confirms to all he possesses a continuing ability to confront different topics, public or personal, filled with difficult emotional overtones or fraught with ambiguity.  John Balaban carefully chronicles the crooked path of life with gratitude for those who had enhanced his journey, as well as a sense of sorrow with the loss felt by their passing.  By preserving memories of the individuals and incidents that enriched his life with his elegiac lines, readers also are enriched.
    The poet wisely praises the moments of joy life might offer, yet with regret at the pain so many have had to endure, especially those whose lives have been burdened the most, as in “Eddie,” another of the collection’s elegiac poems, about a paralyzed panhandler killed “by a truck running the light, crushed / into his wheelchair.”  When the speaker’s wife suggests the man may be “better off dead,” the poet replies:

         . . . I don’t know.  Behind his smudged glasses
        his eyes were clever.  He had a goofy smile
        but his patter was sharp.  His legs were a mess
        and he had to be lonely.  But spending days
        in the bright fanfare of traffic and
        those nights on his beach, with the moon
        huge in the palm trees, the highway quiet,
        some good dreams must have come to him.

    Balaban’s willingness to recognize human hardship and to catalog horror while also holding a desire to find hope for the future fuels his poetry.  As he once advised, he wants us to know the worst as a way that we may be free from it.  He wants us to know the worst but be able to find good.  He typifies this attitude when he writes with sympathy amid a Miami evening scented by orchids to Hayden Carruth, in whose colder northern climate “bleeding heart trembles in Isabel’s garden” (“A Note to Hayden Carruth from Miami”): “beyond your daughter’s death, beyond folly, / beyond fame, beyond indignation and pain, / toasting the first life in small things / fresh from the earth with their tentative yes.” Balaban has followed this crooked course accepting pain and acknowledging pleasure throughout his life and particularly through his poetry, perhaps acknowledging always that poetry is “the delicate thing which lasts.”  Thankfully, once again in Path, Crooked Path John Balaban continues to provide “the exquisite music we long to hear.”  

Balaban, John. Path, Crooked Path. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2006. ISBN: 1-55659-238-8  $15.00


© by Edward Byrne


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