The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems by Ned Balbo (Story Line Press)
NED BALBO: THE TRIALS OF EDGAR POE AND OTHER POEMS
Ned Balbo's new book, The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems, is a brave foray into the sometimes terrifying world of childhood. The collection, which won the Donald Justice Prize in 2010, consists of 25 well-wrought formal poems, each one substantial and some (such as, “Hart Island,” a powerful blank-verse narrative at the heart of the book) qualifying as tour-de-force in terms of their deeply imaginative engagement of the subject and the deftness of the poet's craft. In fact, this combination of grave content and lively formal wit characterizes the book as a whole, creating for the fortunate reader a world that is simultaneously haunting and high-spirited, woeful and playful.
Childhood is common ground every one of us shares—our center of origin, a landscape of intense, relentless, and rapid change wherein our hopes and fears, loves and antipathies, talents and weaknesses have their genesis and generation. Within its precincts, for better or for worse, we become who we are. This shared terrain, and our seemingly inexhaustible interest in exploring it, is one reason for the enormous appeal of Balbo’s work, past and present. Readers familiar with his previous work, particularly his first book, Galileo’s Banquet (1998), will recognize this as territory the poet knows well and has probed with characteristic sensitivity and nuance. (It is worth noting that Balbo’s first book won the Towson University Prize for Literature and his second, Lives of the Sleepers, won the Ernest Sandeen Prize in Poetry in 2005, thus establishing The Trials of Edgar Poe as the third in a trifecta of prize-winning collections.) In his new book, Balbo approaches his theme from a fresh perspective—or, rather, a series of fresh perspectives—as he narrates the circumstances of his own difficult childhood intermingling them with the stories of others who have endured loss, insecurity, and disillusionment at a young age.
Most prominent among the book's afflicted children is Edgar Poe, a figure Balbo identifies with as a fellow-poet whose artistic disposition is related to the sense of abandonment he experienced as a child. In addition, the poet is drawn to a host of motherless, fatherless, and otherwise vulnerable creatures, including the actual, the historical, the fictional, and the mythic. From Frankenstein’s “son” to Batman’s orphaned apprentice, Robin; from James Whale’s hunted “Invisible Man” to Jules Verne’s hapless young Harry; from Fanny Allan (Poe's foster mother and caretaker, herself an orphan) to Don O- (Balbo’s fatherless birth father)—and embracing even “the nameless dead” children buried by the thousands at Hart Island, New York City’s potter’s field—Balbo’s book gathers together a company of rejected, forgotten, and misbegotten souls whose identities and lives have been (de)formed and (mis)shaped by childhood circumstance. In the course of the book, childhood becomes a land of unlikeness that is also eerily familiar; thus, it should not surprise us when we find ourselves in these pages.
Leo Tolstoy’s famous formulation about “unhappy families” might readily be applied to unhappy childhoods: each is unhappy in its own way. And yet, it is in the particular forms that unhappiness takes that we experience its universality. The first poem of Trials, “The Universal Monsters,” sounds the keynote of this pervasive theme, even as it conveys the outline of the poet’s story. The poem, written in the form of a ballade (a circumstance that establishes from the beginning the poet’s ease and expertise with formal verse), employs an insistent refrain that poses an unanswerable question: “Where are the Universal monsters now?” The five-year-old boy in the poem, who has been twice abandoned—first by his birth parents, unequipped to raise a child, and then, temporarily, by his adoptive parents while his mother is in the hospital and his father must go to work—is seated before the television watching monster movies on “Chiller Theater, New York’s Channel 11.” The precision of these topical references evokes a very specific time and place, as well as a scenario typical of American households circa 1965, wherein television served as proverbial babysitter, companion, and source of imaginative stimulation and escape for children. Indeed, the television figures prominently in several poems in the volume, and the shows the child watches become vehicles of expression for his own deeply-felt but inarticulate fears and desires. Such is the case with the “Universal monsters,” the vampires, werewolves, and mummies who frighten the boy, but not nearly so much as the terrifying threat of losing his father and mother:
Orphaned for three long weeks, under the eyes
Of aunt and uncle in a house not mine
I’d wait . . .
It is telling that the poem—and the book—begins with the word “orphaned,” a term we understand to be used figuratively here, but one which will be literal for Edgar Poe, who becomes, in some measure, the narrator’s alter ego in future poems. Also, the boy’s presence in “a house not mine” adumbrates the sense of homelessness the narrator experiences, both as a child and, later, as a young man. (Once he discovers that he is adopted in an arrangement never legally finalized, his not knowing to whom he belongs leads to uncertainly regarding where he belongs.) Finally, it is worth noting that the narrator depicts himself in a characteristic attitude of helpless passivity: “I’d wait.” The powerlessness of children in the complex world of adults is a poignant, universal fact. This leads the narrator to share a strange affinity with the afflicted creatures who appear on the television screen: Boris Karloff’s and Lon Chaney, Jr’s portrayal of their monstrous selves draws his sympathy (“both would burn”), along with his fear, as creatures who do not belong. Thus, by the end of the poem and the final iteration of the refrain, we understand the narrator to be in search of these comforting companions of his childhood imagination who turn out, after all, to be much less frightening than real-life human beings.
In this, and in subsequent poems throughout the collection, the powerlessness of childhood is set against the redemptive power of the imagination. Perhaps the central act of imagination, amid many, is the identification of the poet’s woes with those of Edgar Poe. Indeed, Poe haunts the volume, serving as both tutelary spirit and object lesson for what can happen to a poet when he loses his identity and becomes “the specter of his own fears.” In the course of three poems that focus on Poe, “The Trials of Edgar Poe,” “Adversities of Fatherhood,” and “A Year in Fordham Village,” the narrator rehearses the drama of Poe’s life: he is orphaned before the age of three, reluctantly fostered (but never legally adopted) by John Allan, and subsequently disowned. His brief marriage to his doomed cousin, young Virginia, ends tragically, as does his own life of quiet desperation soon after: “Poe in Baltimore would find his grave,” the narrator concludes, a chilling line which further underscores the poet’s identification with Poe as Balbo lives in the city where Poe died. Though these circumstances differ substantially from those of the poet’s life, they provide him with an alternate means to explore the fears and insecurities all children feel, to some extent.
These poems also enable us to plumb the mystery of Poe’s famously strange personality. For example, in the volume's title poem, the narrator attempts to explain one of young Edgar’s more bizarre childhood behaviors: one night, Poe covered himself with a sheet and entered a roomful of guests at the Allan residence, frightening the party into a considerable commotion. What might be construed as a mischievous childhood prank becomes, in Balbo’s moving narrative (conveyed in the hauntingly repetitive form of a sestina) the child’s almost unwilling embodiment of his greatest terror, not-being. Thus, sheet-covered and shrieking, he enacts his own ghostly existence, “the brittle truth: He’s no one’s son.”
In “Adversities of Fatherhood,” Balbo continues his pursuit of the Poe story and ingeniously imagines its intersection with his own. The poem consists of a series of sonnets that constitute a dialogue between Poe’s foster father, John Allan, and Balbo’s birth father, Don O-. Much is revealed in this oblique conversation, which serves as a one-act drama in a generic departure from the lyric and narrative poems that constitutes the collection. The harsh characters of both men, along with the great gap between their brutality and the gentleness of their respective sons, becomes evident in these dramatic monologues as these false fathers reveal more about themselves than they are aware. In reference to his birth son’s refusal as a young adult to acknowledge him as his father, and in attempt to absolve himself of the charge of neglect, Don O- finally pronounces on his own child, “he made his bed. Now let him lie in it. / He cannot justly claim we gave him up.”
Yet, it is the mark of Balbo’s generous imagination that even as he depicts these men as seeming villains, he also acknowledges their humanity. For instance, we learn that Don O- was also a fatherless child, a circumstance Balbo explores movingly in the subsequent poem in the volume, “Ward of St. Teresa,” in which Don remembers his widowed mother visiting him in an orphans’ asylum when he was a child. Here, again, we see a child powerless in the face of rough circumstance, starved for love he cannot have and for security he cannot know. This radical vulnerability is yet another echo of Poe’s, the poet’s, and our own.
Counterbalancing these poems depicting false fathers is a series of poignant poems dedicated to true fathers, embodied in the person of Carmine Balbo, the poet’s adoptive father, whose presence, like Poe’s, haunts the volume. Carmine is everywhere in these poems—even in the ones that are not ostensibly about him—as surely as a father informs every aspect of his son’s real and imagined worlds. Balbo recognizes in him an unlikely hero. Describing Carmine’s occupation as plumber, he conjures language that conveys both his father’s vulnerability and his great strength: “Gray-haired, you broke the earth / of ancient basements, sulphur, stale vapor, / clinging fast.” In “The Sugar Thief,” he revisits his father’s embarrassing habit of stealing sugar packets from restaurants, a practice born of poverty and blue-collar ethics (“If it was free, you taught, I ought to grab it”). The son’s sour annoyance with this father’s minor crime, however, turns to sweet recognition in the sonnet’s final movement:
I have them still, your Ziploc bags of plunder,
yet I find today, among the loose
change in my pockets, packets crushed or faded—
more proof of your lasting legacy.
The bitter-sweet quality of the son’s recollection is further confirmed by the musicality of these lines, a quality much evident in Balbo’s verse. The careful attention to rhythm and to the sonic patterns created by assonance, consonance, alliteration, and internal rhyme create a consoling effect, even as the poet tacitly acknowledges his grief at his father’s absence.
Among the finest poems in the volume is “The Yankee Clipper,” a poem which was a finalist for awards from the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society and the Italian American Writers’ Association. Once again, Balbo’s extraordinary formal expertise is evident as he describes, in stately ottava rima, the humble procedures of caring for his sick father in the hospital:
I tilt your chin, blade gliding in its pass
across smooth skin, tracks edged with shaving cream,
bed raised, your pillow white, smeared window glass
bleached by October sunlight. Razor’s rim
dabbed clean, I trim your mustache, tiny fleece-
hairs falling. Outside, dead leaves—copper, flame,
brass, verdigris—still cling to branches high
over the cars of 27A.
The absolute attention to the ritual of shaving is echoed by the careful orchestration of sound in this stanza—the rich internal rhyming of “chin” and “skin,” “white” and “sunlight,” in addition to the rhymes at the end of the lines—suggest the son’s total absorption in his twin tasks as caretaker and as poet. In some essential way, his two identities are fused, have become one. In addition, the poem depicts the conscious act of memory, wherein we hold fast to the concrete particulars of our lived experience with those we have loved in effort to retain some essential aspects of who they are—and were—to us. As the poem continues, the talk turns, as it will between fathers and sons, to baseball and to the Yankee Clipper. The narrator reads aloud the revelations of Newsweek that the recently-deceased DiMaggio was “an s.o.b.” In the final line of the poem, Carmine counters the attempt to denigrate his hero’s quiet greatness with this homely assertion of faith, “No one could fill his shoes”—a line which expresses the son’s unspoken admiration of his own childhood hero, his father. In “The Yankee Clipper,” heroes coalesce, even as the poem crystallizes a single moment in time and the relationship of a lifetime.
The Trials of Edgar Poe begins with childhood and ends in adulthood, the arc of its narrative tracing the process of maturation we all inevitably undergo. Balbo’s poems evoke a series of powerful moments that are both past and, yet, somehow, present and ongoing, reminding us of the formative power childhood continues to exert on us through the agency of memory and of art. The poems also demonstrate poignantly the degree to which the adult one is now is rooted in the child one was then. These poems return the poet, and us, repeatedly to the ground of our making, enabling us all to re-cover who we were and to dis-cover who we have become.
Angela Alaimo O'Donnell teaches English at Fordham University in New York City and is associate director of Fordham's Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. Her books include two chapbooks, Mine (Finishing Line Press, 2007) and Waiting for Ecstasy (Franciscan University Press, 2009), and two full-length collections, Moving House (Word Press, 2009) and Saint Sinatra & Other Poems (Word Press, 2011).