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"The Past Hovers Like Smoke": John Balaban's Empire

Empires by John Balaban (Copper Canyon Press 2019)

In a John Balaban poem, random acts of both kindness and destruction happen in profusion, but what they fall upon is never nameless. A resourceful diction—plus a wry, casual mastery of metaphor—nail the scene. From “Cibolero”: “the rain, dropping its dark curtains…” From the poem “At Nora’s House,” herring run “inside the green lung of the recoiling wave.” But in “Christmas Eve at Washington’s Crossing,” the poet needed as much nerve and determination to lift this old warhorse of a subject into fresh poetry as the general took in crossing his famous river. Weighting the odds against success even more, Balaban opens with a heavy Latin tag—“Omnia reliquit servare rempublicam” (Relinquishing all to serve the republic”)--before he floats eight beautiful lines of precise and present-leaning natural detail on the rigors of that long-gone winter. Winning his gamble, he ends: “Before crossing, legend says, they assembled in the snow to hear/ Paine’s new essay about summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.” The poem’s somber conclusion: “What words could call us all together now? On what riverbank?/ For what common good would we abandon all?”

The tensions of Balaban’s subjects--moral, philosophical, political, or even domestic—shake with their own music, whether the framework contains serenity or agitation, as the poems submit their lyrical force in defiance of irony, and even of terror. In Hanoi, an old woman sitting zazen is watched by the lake “with its glassine sentient eye”; in “Poetry Reading by the Black Sea,” Thracian horsemen circle a frozen marsh, as they shoot their poisoned arrows, “their long hair tinkling with chinks of ice[.]” Innocent tinkling set against those chinks of ice: it is not just the telescopic intensity of this gaze, but its small, supple reinforcements of chiming sound that we feel.

Balaban makes use of collage and sharp-elbowed juxtaposition to build narrative, its ironies sweetened by an ever-present, even if sometimes fierce, compassion. But up close, in counterpoint to the breadth of reference, clots of enumeration serve material particularity; in “Remembering Elling Eide,” the details of his neighborly intervention during a Miami hurricane: an old VW van “packed with candles, with/ dog food, cat food, flashlights and batteries,// jugs of water, a frozen cake dripping icing, crackers,/ caviar, a chilled case of Tsingtao beer, chainsaw blades,/ and tropical trees to plant the place again.” Lists, but always in deference to narrative. In “Poetry Reading…,” a bald list punctuates a historical point: “Greek and Roman, Getae, Thracian, Bulgar,/ Slavs, Avars, Goths, Celts, Tatars, Huns,/ Arabs, Turks, Russians, and now, the US Navy.”

“Acacias fragrance our evening” says Balaban of this Black Sea reading, which in its perfumed setting moves from its violent past, from which the poet Ovid fled the barbarians two thousand years ago, to the present: “as poplar fluff floats over imperial rubble.” The US Navy must take its place within an ongoing series; the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, but also sweeps out in tidal waves of destruction and decline. As the poem takes in that consequent imperial rubble, it finishes: “Only poetry lasts.”

But actually, so does material culture, encysted within the poems, like the beads, sequins and glinting mirrors sewn into an Indian cloth. In Empires, at least several of the wholly new poems-- “A Finger,” “Cibolero,” and “Christmas Eve at Washington’s Crossing”--are clear candidates for future anthologies. Yet often in Balaban’s work, repeating, identifiable objects as well as persons and moments, leapfrog from one poem or prose piece to the other, from book to book. A pair of finches representing a distress in Balaban’s married life, detailed in Remembering Heaven’s Face, re-surface in a sequence made up of parts newly written and parts Balaban borrows from Balaban elsewhere. The paired finches flash briefly in “Saigon,” the first poem in a reconstructed and collaged rewrite of earlier Vietnamese moments, now part of an ensemble in Empires called “Returning After Our War”: the birds are now “a memory of some distant encounter…a flower market where I once bought a pair of finches[.]” Once?

Similarly, the ceramic block functioning as headrest during opium intake, has been a crucial prop several times: first, the block shows up in a sequence, “Speak, Memory,” appearing in Blue Mountain, in 1982. Then the poem bearing the block is re-shaped slightly, to become the opening of Locusts at the Edge of Summer (1997); it touches down again, revised and reassembled in Empires (2019) as poem 2, “The Opium Pillow,” in “Returning After Our War.” The headrest, “this pillow of dream and calmest sleep…now sits upon my study shelf” (Blue Mountain); whether it does so in actuality is not important. This hard, durable pillow, the servant of many startling dreams, has established itself in several memorable resting places. “Only poetry lasts.”

Memory, however, is a kind of matter--a material energy, used by Balaban’s restless intelligence to re-tackle, re-shape, and literally re-member the events of his own life, willing them into new insights. “Finishing Up the Novel after Some Delay” shows the complexity of his layering instincts, in time, text, and genre. “Finishing…” pivots from fiction to reality, from the prose of what became the novel Coming Down Again (1985) to the poem presently before us, over a malleable quarter of a century later. Balaban caresses his characters, only half-visible in the surf of this poem, and makes us believe in their materiality—even as fragmentary glimpses of what are discernibly real people in his life also turn up elsewhere within the Shiva-like limbs of his work.

Even more radical shifts occur in “Down Under,” a poem whose split, proliferating perspectives deploy newspaper text, classical motif and literary rumination, while incorporating Balaban’s own passionate personal honesty and raking self-query. The John Balaban of this poem is his doppelgänger, discovered in the files of The Adelaide Messenger, August 23rd, 1953. “ ‘To the very last minute of his life, Australian John Balaban, 29, couldn’t get along with people.’ ” Before being executed “my double-goer [who] strangled his wife and little son,/ and slashed up a prostitute named Zora, not to mention/ the Hungarian girl, Reva Kwas,” snarls at the chaplain, “Why don’t you shut up?” Balaban hastens to assure us that in 1953 he was a little kid far away in Philadelphia, and traces the disconcerting identity to a common Romanian ancestry, and “an entire village called Balabanesţi in the rolling farmlands near the Black Sea/ where I bet half the men are named for Saint John or Michael.”

He notes that Shelley saw his own double before drowning in the Gulf of La Spezia; “Nobody likes to run into them, /creepy with twilight, lurching from the shadows to spook us.” But then Balaban doubles down, spooked by yet another John Balaban, “a road-raged wacko” in an incident he has described elsewhere, again in both prose and poetry, using the confessional I. This recollection shackles him, the wartime conscientious objector, to the root violence of Achilles: “Atë consumed me.” Wrath burns through the species, its literature, and this speaker. The poem ends, down under, where the goddess Atë lives: “deity to doppelgängers, sending them, /now and then, from their land of shadows into ours.”

Unlike most of the poets noted for their poetry of the Vietnamese-American War, John Balaban began his adult life as a poet, not igniting in that caldron of war, but rather earlier. His fledgling poems, written from college in the 1960s, reflect on Xenophon’s exile, and the nine layers of Troy at Hissarlik. Within Balaban’s multi-lingual career, long saturated with historical curiosity, geography also shapes the late work of Empires, haunting a poet preoccupied with the blood-sticky, layering ghosts and ghost objects diffused through all human culture.


LORRIE GOLDENSOHN authored the collection of poems, Tether, as well as Elizabeth Bishop: A Biography of a Poetry. She also edited the anthology Dismantling Glory: Twentieth-Century Soldier Poetry.

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