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Jul/Aug 2007 Reviews & Interviews

Excursus

Path, Crooked Path
by John Balaban
Copper Canyon Press. 2000. 80 pp.
ISBN 1-55659-238-8

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy


Buy now from Amazon! John Balaban begins Path, Crooked Path on the road in the tradition of Jack Kerouac. The road being Highway 61 (and the title of the poem "Highway 61 Revisited"), it might seem more appropriate to invoke Bob Dylan, but the tone of the opening poem is more in line with Kerouac, who was one of Dylan's muses early on:

...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.

By the time he gets to the end of his travels, he has been to California, Florida, Romania, Greece, medieval Russia and places in between. He is, indeed, on a crooked path.

Of course, the rambling tone of a two page road-trip poem, or even of some three dozen poems, arrives at quite a different experience than a rambling novel. There is only a Beat undertone to "Highway 61 Revisited" and it serves as the first poem of the volume because it is a point of embarkation.

Kerouac's bumming around the country became transformed into a rite of passage, for a while, mostly for those well under 30. Perhaps Balaban's first trip along Highway 61 was just that. He grew up at the right time for it. But this time around he is recognizably a middle aged man. There is a theory that the Beats were so named because they seemed beat: weary, tired. Presumably, this impression was the result of late nights in dives and smoking "tea" and young men too wise in the ways of the world to believe in anything but hanging out. While Balaban also sounds weary it is the incipient weariness of someone who has seen a bit too much, who no longer feels a youthful enthusiasm.

At the same time, Jack's traveling ways were more a relic of an earlier version of America than the beginning of a new. Hitchhiking and riding the rails belonged to the years of the Great Depression. The loner going from job to job belongs to all of American history until the end of World War II. By his time they were already a romantic throwback.

By the late-1950s, America was mobile. Highways were being built at a furious rate. Its youth were satisfying their wanderlust by automobile as did the family as a whole. Traveling the great highways was quite a different experience and nearly all who did so had steadys job waiting for them when they returned home. By the late-60s the road trip extended to the highways of the skies.

Today's Beat, as likely as not, is a middle-aged man struggling in his third marriage. Maybe he is a poet by trade, and can take his workplace with him, or maybe he's put a few dollars aside and is spending them on a bit of thoughtful freedom which his thoughtfulness will teach him isn't even freedom after all. Whereas Kerouac sent down roots too easily, wherever he happened to be, and therefore never sent them deep, the new Beat has not sent roots at all. His trip down Highway 61 is a trip from nowhere in particular to nowhere in particular. Thus this "crooked path" is also a bit of a euphemism.

The tropics have a way of forcing themselves on the senses while more moderate latitudes never seem to manage to imprint themselves on the transient beings that most of us have become. In the "Miami Suite" section of Path, Crooked Path John Balaban stumbles upon a sense of place. Hurricane Andrew approaches. It sharpens the senses, provisions the poet:

Then our friend Elling drove over from Sarasota
in his old VW van packed with candles, with
dog food, cat food, flashlights and batteries,

jugs of water, a frozen cake, crackers and caviar,
a case of Tsingtao beer, some chainsaw blades,
and tropical trees to plant the place again.

Time is measured from it, not by the tick of the clock but by more fundamental measures. Five years later:

          the house

is shaded, overhung with bougainvillea,
trellised in passion flower, scented by gardenia,
by Burmese orchids that drink our humid air,

each offering its reply to wreckage.

Here the impressionistic swatch that the poetic image generally is these days, and in this volume, is a bit more detailed. The poet is recognizably in the Miami area and nowhere else. Nature burgeons so quickly that, in a mere five years, his life has become entwined with the landscape. The two share a history in which "The fountain / drips its meditative trickle."

In between Miami and Highway 61 (chronologically speaking), the two constants are travel and poetry. There is a trip to Romania to find his roots:

...one finds below Birlad, lost in the remote rolling hills near the crooked path of the Danube, not far from its Black Sea delta, the town of Balabanesti, the "Place of the Balabans," chartered by Stefan the Great in 1520 after one of my ancestors rallied a peasant force that defeated "The Turk."

From this excursion come translations from a swatch of Latin poetry by Ovid, who was exiled to live out his last years in the country, and a short poem by Romanian poet Stefan Augustin Doinas, Romanian presumably enough of a romance language that the poet of Path, Crooked Path could translate it with the aid of a competent dictionary.

Eastern European themes and poetry being de riguer these past several decades, Path, Crooked Path also presents two collaborative translations from Bulgarian poems. These were likely the result of the poet's participation in the American Association for the Promotion of Bulgarian Culture exchange programs. The seeds of the American-Bulgarian exchange were sown during William Meredith's tenure as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. There has been a near flood of Bulgarian poetry translated into literal English by Bulgarian intermediaries and "poetized" by American grantees, as the result. Balaban refers to traveling to Bulgaria as early as the 1980s.

One of these Bulgarian poems, in particular, "Let Him Be," by Georgi Borrisov, is a fine example of the combination of sophistication and na´vete which empowers the provincial poet (all of Eastern Europe being more or less provincial) to write work that is beyond the present reach of our writing program tradition. It is one of the finer poems in the volume.

Most of the poems that compose Path, Crooked Path arise, in one fashion or another, from the poetry conferences, exchange programs, residencies, and teaching positions that have composed John Balaban's life. His neighbors are generally the poets who have shared those same venues, the locals those who have provided the exotic extras, the landscape an index of the names of regional flora and fauna, the "deep woods generous / with creek-and-birdsong," or an arroyo where "yellow warblers / trill" and "Even the cottonwoods are taking off in song." He jots "A Note to Hayden Carruth, from Miami," Carruth being his near-neighbor wherever he may be. He meanders from Bulgaria to visit the Acropolis with Borrisov. The remains of ancient Athens are described off-handedly in favor of their conversation about American imperialism and shared vodka toast to the muse that might help them to find the words to overcome it.

"Well, these were the thoughts," says Balaban, in the poem "The Lives of the Poets,"

          that came to me
on a high wooded bluff outside Port Townsend
just after Levertov died. Her Times obit
ran next to some admiral's from the Vietnam War,
apparent adversaries, now side by side,
true to their conflicting truths.

The poem is more or less a catalogue of the poets of his generation, each portrait dashed off with one or two suggestive brush strokes. Those that remain with us are all well over 70. We find William Meredith (now recently passed away) "struggling back toward speech" in the wake of his stroke. Balaban walks with Carolyn Kizer's husband across the couple's farm:

we stopped before a storm-struck, twisted pear tree,
a remnant from an orchard of 100 years ago.
Out of the bulk of its blackened trunk,
one smooth-skinned branch sent forth some leaves.
"Still blooming?" I asked. "Madly," he said.

It is probably fair to see this as the poet's symbol of himself. Read carefully, the image is apt. By the same token, with the exception of those poems that have the advantage of Miami or humor, there is the sense, in Path, Crooked Path, of the aging poet as purgatorial spirit recalling the scenes of its former life, wandering now in search of an elusive sense of closure. This should not imply failure. In fact, it gives a legitimate, coherent theme that is less contrived than most, and John Balaban remains a poet with a reality orientation that recommends him.

 

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