John Balaban’s Empires: The Poetry of Witness

John Balaban
(Copper Canyon Press, 2019, $17.00, 59pp.)

John Balaban’s Empires is a superb late achievement by a major American poet. Cosmopolitan and deeply learned, compelling both as narrative and music, the poems of Empires are also pervaded by the moral seriousness that has characterized this poet’s work from the beginning. Balaban is the author of six previous collections of poetry, two novels, and a memoir of his time as a conscientious objector doing alternative service in Vietnam during the American war. He is the English-speaking world’s most distinguished translator and curator of Vietnamese literature, and remains, as Empires confirms, a poet of extraordinary range, fluency, and erudition.