WORDS FOR JOHN
Balaban reveals the depth of his feeling for the Vietnamese—
born of the
years he spent interacting with them in ways
no soldier-veteran ever
could—his astounding eye for detail,
his absorption of the daily
rhythms of life in a rural, traditional
world, and the terrible
destruction of those rhythms and traditions.
Not every American can say he
got lost one chilly Saturday afternoon in Hanoi. Especially not
in 1985, when Americans in Hanoi were about as common as feathers on a
fish. But I can. So can John Balaban.
We’d been walking all afternoon, mesmerized by this
ancient city, by the fact of our being in it. Old Hanoi, the
Rising Dragon of antiquity become sleepy French colonial outpost become
the very heart of the indomitable people who had defeated the most
powerful empire the world has ever known.
The Temple of Literature. The One-Pillared
Pagoda. The Lake of the Returned Sword. Ho Chi
Minh’s Tomb. And the people: the noodle shops and bicycle
repairmen and vegetable venders. The lotus cutters. The Red
River with its dikes and paddy fields. We have been like
kids in a candy shop. Like sponges in a bucket.
Wide-eyed. Amazed. Enchanted.
But now we were hopelessly lost in spite of my
repeated insistence that I knew how to get us back to our hotel.
Cold and exhausted from five hours of walking, we finally concluded
that there was nothing for it but to hire a cyclo — a rickshaw-like
bicycle — to rescue us. Ubiquitous as they had seemed earlier in
the day, it took another 45 minutes to locate one. Finally, with
Balaban negotiating because only he could speak Vietnamese, we settled
with the driver on a price of 50 dong (then about $3.50) and climbed
Which was no easy task: our third companion, Bruce
Weigl, took up the entire wicker seat while Balaban and I perched on
either arm of the chair. It was now pitch dark. As the
driver pedaled along, working very hard to propel his 450-pound load,
John tried to talk with him, but about all we could discover was that
the driver liked “Hotel California,” a song by the Eagles, an American
After awhile, I began to suspect that we were not
going in the right direction. We seemed to be heading out of the
city, rather than into it. But my directional credibility had
long since evaporated, and I was rudely and gaily told to shut
up. Perched precariously on the narrow arm of the cyclo chair, my
rear end and left leg were by now asleep, which sounds more benign than
Soon, however, I was sure we were going in the wrong
direction. Only a few hundred yards up ahead stood the Thang Long
Hotel, where we had eaten dinner a few nights earlier with a group of
disabled Vietnamese veterans. The Thang Long Hotel was on the
edge of the city, a very long way from the Thong Nhat Hotel, where we
There followed a brief but energetic burst of
shouting and general pandemonium. Then Balaban began to talk to
the driver. I couldn’t, of course, understand anything he was
saying. Except the words “Thang Long.”
“What hotel are you asking for, John,” I interrupted.
“The Thang Long.”
“That’s the Thang Long,” I said, pointing.
“We’re staying at the Thong Nhat.”
“Oops,” Balaban replied.
“You want to try explaining this one to the driver?”
“No,” he replied. But he did. And it
clearly wasn’t what the driver wanted to hear. He was panting
hard and drenched in sweat. At first he refused to budge, as if
he couldn’t believe what Balaban was saying. Then he shook his
head, as if to say, “No wonder we beat them.” But he turned
around, and off we went again.
At one point we were stopped by a policeman.
There was a brief conversation between the cyclo driver and the cop,
and then we were off again. “I think it’s illegal to ride three
to a cyclo,” John said, “But the guy explained that we’re Americans and
we’re lost, and the cop told him to beat it.”
Our driver was pedaling furiously now, anxious to be
rid of us. On one narrow street, we overtook one of the old
French-built trolley cars, the three of us cheering and urging our
driver on, the trolley passengers hanging out the windows and laughing
and pointing, and when we finally drew up even with the trolley driver,
he waved and smiled and rang the trolley’s bell.
And then we were cruising around the far side of the
Lake of the
Returned Sword, and past Indira Gandhi Park and the Central Bank
building, and finally there was our hotel. Our driver was
whipped. He leaned over the handlebars, breathing like he’d just
gone fifteen rounds with Smokin’ Joe Frazier. Then looked up and
grinned. Even as I write this, he’s probably telling his
grandchildren about the three crazy Americans he met one cold December
night long ago.
I no longer remember when I first met Balaban — the
late 1970s, or maybe 1980. But I’d first encountered his poetry
in 1974, years before we finally met, when Jan Barry and I were putting
together Demilitarized Zones:
Veterans After Vietnam. Barry had come across a collection
of Balaban’s poems published earlier that year called After Our War, and we were both
deeply taken with Balaban’s work. We ended up including seven of
Balaban’s poems in our anthology, and Balaban’s writing has been a
staple of my life ever since. In 1987, in the course of an essay
called “Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War,” I had this to say about him
and After Our War:
Balaban is an anomaly: a soldier-poet who was not a soldier;
indeed, he opposed the war and became a conscientious objector.
But he chose to do his alternative service in Vietnam, first as a
teacher of linguistics at the University of Can Tho, then as field
representative for the Committee of Responsibility to Save War-Injured
Children. Later returning to Vietnam independently in order to
study Vietnamese oral folk poetry, he spent a total of nearly three
years in the war zone — learning to speak Vietnamese fluently and even
getting wounded on one occasion — and he is as much a veteran of the
Vietnam War as any soldier I have ever met.
Because of his unique situation, however, Balaban
brings to his poetry a perspective unlike any other. "A poet had
better keep his mouth shut," he writes in "Saying Good-by to Mr. and
Mrs. My, Saigon, 1972":
Unless he’s found
words to comfort and teach.
Today, comfort and teaching
and it takes cruelty to make any
when it is a lie to speak, a lie
to keep silent.
While Balaban’s poems offer little comfort, they
have much to teach. Years before Agent Orange was widely
acknowledged for the silent killer it is — the deadly seed sown in Asia
only to take root at home among those who thought they’d
survived — Balaban wrote in "Along the Mekong":
With a scientific turn
of mind I can understand
that malformation in lab mice may
not occur in children
but when, last week, I ushered
hare-lipped, tusk-toothed kids
to surgery in Saigon, I wondered,
what had they drunk
that I had drunk.
And his "The Guard at the Binh Thuy Bridge" is a
frightening exercise in quiet tension — the way it was; the war always
hair trigger away, just waiting to happen:
How still he stands as
mists begin to move,
as curling, morning billows
his cooplike concrete sentry
over mid-muddy river.
* * *
Anchored in red
morning mist a narrow junk
rocks its weight. A woman
kneels on deck
staring at lapping water.
Wets her face.
Idly the thick Rach Binh Thuy
He aims. At her. Then
drops his aim. Idly.
Balaban is particularly adept at contrasting the
impact of the war on Vietnam with the indifference of those at
home. In "The Gardenia in the Moon," he writes: "Men had landed
on the moon. / As men shot dirty films in dirty motel rooms, /
Guerrillas sucked cold rice and fish." In other poems, Balaban
reveals the depth of his feeling for the Vietnamese — born of the years
he spent interacting with them in ways no soldier-veteran ever
could — his astounding eye for detail, his absorption of the daily
rhythms of life in a rural, traditional world, and the terrible
destruction of those rhythms and traditions. In "Orpheus in the
Upper World," he offers perhaps an explanation for the hundreds and
even thousands of poems written by those who fought the war:
For when his order had
burst his head
like sillowy seeds of milkweed
he learned to pay much closer
to all things, even small things,
as if to discover his errors.
Not all the poems in After Our War deal with
Vietnam. But if some of the non-Vietnam poems occasionally reveal
the graduate student laboring to flex his intellectual muscle, they
also reveal the poet’s ability to transcend Vietnam and reach out to
the wider world around him.
As I look back now, I realize I’ve
written a lot about Balaban’s poetry over the years, and that last
sentence above is just about the harshest thing I’ve ever had to say
about it — not because I can’t see the flaws and weaknesses, but
there are so few. Later in that same essay, “Soldier-Poets of the
Vietnam War,” I had this to say about Balaban’s second collection, Blue Mountain:
Here are poems ranging from the American West to the
southern Appalachians, from Pennsylvania to Romania, along with
eloquent elegies to friends and family members.
Still, lingering memories of the Vietnam War
persist. In "News Update," he chronicles the lives — and deaths —
friends he’d known in the war zone: "Sean Flynn / dropping his camera
and grabbing a gun"; Tim Page "with a steel plate in his head";
Gitelson, his brains leaking "on my hands and knees," pulled from a
canal. "And here I am, ten years later," he muses:
written up in the
local small town press
for popping a loud-mouth punk in
Oh, big sighs. Windy
sighs. And ghostly laughter.
In "For Mrs. Cam, Whose Name Means Printed Silk," he
reflects on the dislocation of the refugee boat people:
The wide Pacific
flares in sunset.
Somewhere over there was once
You study the things which start
And in "After Our War" (the poem, not the book), he writes:
After our war, the dismembered
—all those pierced eyes, ear
slivers, jaw splinters,
gouged lips, odd tibias, skin
flaps, and toes—
came squinting, wobbling,
After observing wryly that "all things naturally return to their
source," he wonders, "After our war, how will love speak?"
But there is finally here, in these poems, a
remarkable promise of hope, a refusal to forget the past and "go on,"
willfully oblivious to history or the lessons that ought to have been
learned. In "In Celebration of Spring," he insists:
Swear by the locust,
by dragonflies on ferns,
by the minnow’s flash, the
tremble of a breast,
by the new earth spongy under our
that as we grow old, we will not
that although our garden seeps
and our elders think it’s up for
by this dazzle that does not wish
to leave us—
that we will be keepers of a
More than transcending the Vietnam War, in Blue Mountain Balaban absorbs
Vietnam and incorporates it into a powerful vision of what the world
ought to be.
In another essay, “Praise the Poet,” I
wrote of Blue Mountain:
One expects poems about the Vietnam War from the author of After Our War, of course.
Indeed, those who insist that it is time to put Vietnam behind us may
well deserve to be convicted of a felony. But beneath the
expected bitterness and cynicism and irony of poems like "News Update,"
there is also a remarkable willingness not only to acknowledge that
terrible past, but to build something lasting and good out of it [as he
demonstrates in "In Celebration of Spring"]. It is this
affirmation of what is worthwhile, and the refusal to knuckle under to
all that is not, which carries Balaban far beyond Vietnam into the more
general and ultimately more durable realm of shared experience.
Balaban manages to deliver sentiment without
sentimentality, emotion without embarrassment. Although his
elusive Blue Mountain is
"only as large as a thought," the range to which it belongs stretches
from Ovid’s Black Sea city of exile to the Pueblo ruins of New Mexico,
from antebellum Charleston to Kate and Gary’s Bar in Red River.
And Balaban covers that territory with authority and conviction.
I have seldom, in fact, encountered a collection of
poems so consistently solid. Each poem in Blue Mountain is a mother lode so
rich that it is likely to take one weeks to finish the book.
Particularly impressive is Balaban’s knowledge of the flora and fauna
that surround him wherever he is; his poems read like botanical and
biological catalogues. Moreover, he observes keenly and in great
detail all that he sees. The best part of Blue Mountain, however, is its
constant insistence upon the dignity of the human will. Insane we
may be. Certainly foolish and shortsighted and capable of
brutishness. But if he finds despair and sadness in the worst
that we are capable of — and he does — he finds also courage and hope
that human will which has thus far permitted us to survive.
"Into that peculiar silence which only parents have,
/ she retreated, and, now, she has entered forever," Balaban writes of
his mother in "Words for the Dead":
But if all things
crave themselves more clearly,
we who issued from the cells of
her body, whose
first impulses flexed with the
rhythms of her heart,
are each partial flesh and seed
of her craving
for wistful things. That
are her. And will not die.
It is this continuity, however tenuous and vulnerable, that Balaban
celebrates. One worries about heaping praise so lavishly as not
to be believed. But this book is good, and there is no way around
it. "Praise the poet," says one of the "Inscriptions from the
Black Sea Tombs." And indeed, Blue
Mountain proves John Balaban worthy of praise.
In the twenty-five years since Blue Mountain appeared, Balaban has
published three additional collections: Words for My Daughter, Locusts at the Edge of Summer, and Path, Crooked Path. Each
subsequent collection only confirms and renews what was so evident in
his first two books: that here is a poet of great power and tremendous
range, an exceptional poet, a poet of lasting worth, a poet for the
ages. The poems he wrote thirty and, now, even forty years ago
still resonate while the newer poems are exactly that: new, fresh,
exciting, each one a discovery.
The war in Vietnam, for better or worse the
touchstone experience of our lives, is never far from mind, whether it
be an old Viet Minh fighter reminiscing with three American veterans
young enough to be his sons, or the tiny Green Beret at Balaban’s front
door on Halloween night, or the dog meat served to the vegetarian
American by the Vietnamese district chief who’d been sent home from the
war to die years ago but hadn’t.
But vying for attention, indeed, bumping the old war
off the front pages, are Balaban’s cancerous and beloved dog Apples, an
Arab emissary encountering Vikings on the Volga in the 10th century,
the teachers who rescued Balaban from mental poverty when he was a high
school boy, Van Gogh, Hurricane Andrew, snails, parrots, alligators,
Eddie the homeless paraplegic shot by a cop while trying to steal a
car. These along with poems translated from Vietnamese, from
Bulgarian, from Romanian, from Latin.
Translations, in fact, are another whole facet of
Balaban’s life as a poet. In addition to his extensive work with
Vietnamese Ca Dao,
traditional folk poetry, he spent years translating the 18th century
Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Huong, in the process helping to retrieve the
nearly-lost-forever ancient Vietnamese script called Nom in which she wrote. And
he’s the only guy I know personally who’s ever been awarded a medal
declaring him a Hero of Bulgaria — for his work translating Bulgarian
As if all that weren’t enough, Balaban has also
written fiction for both adults and adolescents, Coming Down Again and The Hawk’s Tale respectively, a
nonfiction memoir, Remembering
Heaven’s Face, and the text for a book of photographs, Vietnam: The Land We Never Knew, in
addition to editing Vietnam: a
Traveler’s Literary Companion. Not to mention teaching
fulltime all these years at Pennsylvania State University, the
University of Miami, and now North Carolina State University.
Best of all, for me at least, Balaban is as decent
and great-hearted a human being as his poetry suggests. Let me
speak again, if I may, from personal experience: I know for a fact that
I was, for much of that 1985 trip to Vietnam, a most unpleasant
traveling companion. For reasons I could not begin to understand
at the time — though I came to believe after the fact that I was
experiencing a kind of post-traumatic stress, a sort of “short-timer’s
syndrome” flashback with all the uncertainty and anxiety those last
days in combat seventeen years earlier had entailed — I became
pathologically homesick during the trip.
I mean, for much of the trip, I was no fun at
all. A pain in the ass would be a polite way of putting it.
In retrospect, I wouldn’t be surprised if I had never heard another
word from Balaban as long as we both lived. But aside from one
brief remark a year later when my book about the trip, Going Back, was published — a book
that didn’t begin to convey either my emotional tumult during the trip
or Balaban’s patient forbearance — he’s never even mentioned it, though
we have had occasion to be together often in the years since.
Most recently, in the spring of 2006, Balaban came
to the Haverford School, where I teach, to give the annual Edward R.
Hallowell Lecture, a series that has attracted the likes of Norman
Mailer, Derek Walcott, Donald Hall, Edward Hirsch, and Tim
O’Brien. A year later, my students and colleagues are still
talking about his visit, about his rambling shuffling of papers between
poems, about his affable and unpretentious demeanor, about his lilting
rendering of the sing-song rhythms of the Vietnamese language, about
his breath-taking, heart-stopping poems.
Indeed, I’ve heard him read “Words for My Daughter”
on more than one
occasion, as he did that night, and I cannot for the life of me figure
out how he manages to get through it without choking up or bursting
into tears. It gets me every time I read it. Or hear
it. Every single time.
© by W.D. Ehrhart