Ned Balbo: Three Poems



            For Catherine, in her father’s custody for the summer,
            and for Jane, June 2008, Rodgers Forge, Maryland


In our small parcel of suburbia,

my neighbors straggle outside after rain,

drawn by the sight: bright band, celestial arc


blending to indigo. Weightless, unreal,

it rose in silence when our backs were turned

this afternoon in spring, its end unknown,


its origin light rays at altitudes

beyond our reach, prismatic, luminous.

Is this what draws us out—that splendid color


at such scale could secretly arrive?

Hungry for spectacle, I join my wife—

Sun showers, in short bursts, fall. The kids run riot


on rain-drenched lawns. A neighbor brings his camera.

Spider-Man—mask off, in ill-matched sneakers

and sports goggles with corrective lenses—


peers up when his mom says, “Watch the sky.”

Each parent understands this moment calls

for awe—that awe is possible, today,


and should be shared, or taught—though novelty

compels us, too: we’re human, after all.

Is this the same arc, bow without an arrow,


Noah showed to Japheth, Shem, and Ham

after the Flood, God’s sign of covenant

that, next time, he’d select a different method


to destroy the world? I’ll bet they smirked,

Well, that’s a comfort—though I wonder if

what’s more important is that they remembered


something—fiction, mystery, or myth—

some narrative that joined them to the world,

the world to them. Apart, I cross the lawn.


The storm’s still moving west—a few stray drops

now spattering on impact—to abandon,

spectral in its wake, a ghostly version


of the crescent near its counterpart—

Now there are two, though one’s translucent, pale.

A boy who wears, festooned with flying saucers,


pajamas with feet that tread on grass and sidewalk,

yells, “Hey, Dad,” and everyone looks up—

my wife, too—at the double vision floating


strangely overhead.  Will we tell stories

of the sight, transformed in local myth

to some sign that commemorates an age


that merits auguries? Did Noah’s story

help sons grasp the image and hold on?

The mind is restless, though: Focus, look up


goes only so far with our kids, ourselves,

before we look away, distracted, bored,

or, simply, elsewhere, carried off by time


into a different moment, memory

impatient for dominion. By the time

I stand beside my wife, mothers conversing,


step-daughter out of town, wondering if

she’s yet been introduced to Roy G Biv

in science class, refraction’s miracle,


they’re gone, both arcs sent to oblivion.

Conditions changed; they simply don’t exist,

while here on earth, kids quarrel, shriek at freeze tag,


happily indifferent to the loss.

Show’s over; dinnertime. Our small talk dies,

the neighbors hail farewell and wander in,


shepherding offspring cranky at the change,

hungry or nap-deprived. Each loss is different;

so, too, every gain: we have a story,


now, my wife and I, our hopes invoked

with every telling—lasting, clarified—

its sole flaw—that it must be told at all—


its gift as well:

                     Catherine, had you been home,  

by happy accident, the storm delayed,  

you might have been the first to go outside.






               John 11:1-12:50



At first he was a sideshow: the dead man raised,

someone to gawk at during his three squares

or trips back from the privy: he’s alive,

all right—reason to think about those rumors

and strange sayings making all the rounds

before you draw conclusions that they’re bunk.

But, later, it was strange: back from the dead,

whatever chamber held him, he seemed lost—

as if the Man from Nazareth and he

had shared some secret no one should endure,

and he was left behind to bear the mark.

My job was keeper, plainclothes guardian,

and model convert: stationed at his home,

I’d lead the tour groups over for a look

at him, Christ’s greatest miracle so far,

then lead them out, careful to watch for signs

that marked them allies—traitors, possibly—

though most were only curious: fellow Jews

still on the fence, willing to be convinced.

He’d tear the bread, dip it in olive oil, 

and chew—he’d chew so thoroughly, I’d want

to shake him by the sleeve, “Enough already!”

crumbs stuck in his beard, but turned away

instead to talk with those who watched, inspired.  

The sisters, Martha and Mary, ran the house—

they, their servants, and some hangers-on—

what good could he do, wandering at will,

vanished for hours, sometimes on the day

he knew I’d show him off; I’d stall for time

with shepherds, moneylenders grown impatient

for the proof that we’d exchange for faith.

(I lost more than a few of them that way.)

Why him? What were we getting for the deal?

The rest of us, I felt, deserved some scrap

of what his afterlife, or lack of it,

had shown: the secrets he was holding back.

I thought of my dead wife, my only daughter,

a few more who’d have better suited me

to make the trip, if I’d had any say….

I didn’t, and they haven’t to this day.

Another week, another round of doubters,

lousy conversation, worst of all

the resurrected host’s, and my small place

in Someone’s great plan hidden from us all.

And then, the sideshow wrapped; the curtain closed.

Some said: Apostles’ orders, others told

me that the Pharisees had placed a contract

on his head since he inspired belief,

having, you know, once come back from the dead.

Good luck the second time, I thought to say,

but checked myself: what was the latest Word,

brought back with loaves and palm-branch souvenirs?

He that hates his life here in this world

will live eternally.  Did that explain

why Lazarus had grown so loathe to speak,

unnerving even those who loved him once—

Mary, who washed his feet and rubbed his joints,

Martha, who brewed the heavy lentil soup

in which he dipped his bread—and me, of course,

though love was not the feeling that I harbored.

Sometimes I think about the time I found him

standing off the road to Bethany,

some weed-choked precipice where I rushed forward,

grabbed his wrist and pulled him back to earth

to face our wrath, his duty, and the long

walk back.  He answered “Nothing” every time

I asked what he’d been doing, what he saw. 

Maybe it’s good he kept us in the dark.

As lookout, go-fer, keeper of the Faith’s

corporeal proof, now stuck with other tasks

essential to the Cause, I’m guaranteed,

whatever rage the dead man made me feel,

I’ll know—as he will, too—eternal life.






               After a painting by Nora Sturges


At dusk, the sun, our Sol—celestial star

that offers light and life—accepts decline

as its official due, all debts erased,

night’s clean slate taking hold, the lesser stars


surfacing in deep blue. It’s not yet night

at dusk; but when our solitary star

descends, our memory of sun at zenith

pales a little. Nothing’s as it was.


Up from the ground crawl shadows over walls—

higher they rise, and higher, till the bricks

lining the roofs ignited by our star

look magma-made, ignored by those below,


like Marco Polo, propped upon his staff.

Solo he walks, in shadow, snowy hair

nigh-phosphorescent, stepping over dogs

at dusk whose sun-struck naps, Sirius-blessed,


enact the proverb and a prophecy.

The alley-lights—bulbs screwed to surplus globes,

a few fluorescent lamps—have not come on,

poor substitutes for daylight on a day


when dusk comes late, and souls seek out the stars.

Note: Nora Sturges’ painting, Marco Polo Reaches Kobiam, at the Edge of the Desert, may be viewed at



Ned Balbo is the author of three books: The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems (Donald Justice Poetry Prize, Story Line Press/WCU Poetry Center), Lives of the Sleepers (University of Notre Dame Press, Ernest Sandeen Prize and ForeWord Book of the Year gold medal), and Galileo's Banquet (Towson University Prize). He has also published a poetry chapbook, Something Must Happen (Finishing Line Press).