Jul/Aug 2019 Reviews & Interviews

...like you, I was cruel...

By John Balaban.
Copper Canyon Press. 2019. 88 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-570-7.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! From Harvard on a fellowship to conscientious objector to volunteer in Viet Nam during the war to victim of the infamous Tet Offensive to witness before a US Senate Judiciary Subcommittee to professor to co-founder of the Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation to author of the upcoming volume of poetry Empires, John Balaban has lived a full and unique life it is fair to say. There is plenty of material for poetry.

These experiences have yielded a toughmindedness, however, rather than annual volumes of poetry. Balaban's volumes tend to appear every eight years or so. This volume waited thirteen. They are slim. They do not romanticize their topics. They are veristic—when the occasion calls for it, even clinical.

The first poem in Empires is stunning. It is about...

A delicate tip, burnt and marked "finger, distal" and sent over
to the Medical Examiner's, where forensic anthropologists
sorted human from animal bones from Trade Center restaurants...

It begins the reading experience with an ambush. Word by word the stark humanity of it unfolds itself to the eye until there is no escape.

The poem is the best in an exceptional volume, and Balaban himself surely knows as much. But there has been no calculation. no placement. There is only one place in the volume that it belongs.

The second poem is "After the Inauguration, 2013." There is no letdown:

Now our Amtrak
speeds by, passengers chatting, or snoozing, or just looking out
as we flick on past the shut-down mills, shotgun shacks, collapsed
tobacco barns, and the evening fields with their white chapels
where "The Blood Done Sign My Name" is still sung, where
the past hovers like smoke or a train whistle's call.

Again, it is matter-of-fact—just one more Amtrak train headed south. It is important to let selection of the details be the only fashion the poet inserts his own politics—his personal perspective—into the landscape. The facts tell the story best.

Two poems in, it seems clear this level cannot be maintained throughout. Regardless, we cannot help but hope, and the quality that lies ahead is sometimes every bit as high. But, however much it is a physical and figurative desert for the locals, the artists' community at San Miguel, Mexico, is too far away to have the same impact—for all that the details of the poem "Cibolero" are every bit as stark, the words every bit as well chosen.

Dramatic monologues by Xenophanes and Ovid are more distant still. Even as well written as are these. Perhaps the lives of aging poets require historical perspective, and readers need to read a change of intensity as a vital tool of a poet's craft as well.

Wisely, placement as not been forgotten altogether. Benjamin Fondane's poem "Preface en Prose," though a translation, is Balaban's through and through by the act of selection. It is as close as the mirror. "I am talking to you man to man," he writes:

And, yeah, like you, I was cruel, and hungered
for tenderness, for power, money, pleasure and pain.
Just like you I was mean, filled with anguish,
reliable enough at peace, drunk in victory,
and staggering and worn in times of failure.

We are alike. We both have been cruel and turned right around to complain that we were not loved. Neither of us has had the strength to be better than our environments. Not many poets do confessional poetry like this. With this poet it has become a signature trait over years of hard lessons.

With the gravity of this we slingshot into Viet Nam, Li Po, a fine memorial to a dear friend that borrows a couple of stanzas from a description of him, in the previous volume, Path, Crooked Path, when he was joyously alive, the Chinese invasion of Tibet. At last we arrive at the desert South West, pick-up trucks, coyotes, Marfa lights, and all.

At its best, John Balaban's Empire shows an exceptional poet growing still better in his seventh decade. Taken altogether, it is a strong piece of work that rises, at times, to that level at which reviews cannot do justice.


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