Between Irony and Optimism: A Review of Ned Balbo’s Upcycling Paumanok

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The first question a reader of Ned Balbo’s Upcycling Paumanok (Measure Press, 2016) will most likely ask is, “Upcycling?!” Balbo makes us wait until the penultimate, and, as it happens, title poem for the explanation:

“Upcycling 2.0,” a plan requiring

what we throw away to serve some purpose,
trash not just recycled but improved,
suburbia changed, transformed to paradise.

Not only do these lines fairly represent Balbo’s style (mostly iambic pentameter, unrhymed more often than not1, demotic in register, expository in mode), they offer a pleasing answer. We realize that the book, as it collects scraps of ephemera, banality, coincidence, and, yes, jargon, and translates them into poetry, is indeed an exercise in “upcycling.” Mixed in with “serious” subjects like the Iraq War (“Snow in Baghdad”), 9/11 (“The Ghosts at Ground Zero”), the resurrection of Lazarus (“Dead Man Walking”) and parental abuse (“The Woods”) is plenty of more idiosyncratic matter: board games (“Ouija for Beginners,” “Green Ghost”), comics (“For Jacob Kurtzberg,” “Return from Slumberland”), minor key ekphrases (“Aerial Views of Levittown,” “Times Square Post Cards”). Longer pieces, like “The Poseidon, Capsized,” “The Case Against Standardized Testing,” and the title poem, meditate on jarring juxtapositions, half personal, half not: a middle school romance and a disaster movie; the SATs and a bad man in a van; upcycling and Walt Whitman. Throughout, Balbo resembles a curious suburban swallow scouring the neighborhood for favorite bits of bric-a-brac with which to line his nest.

The book is divided into three sections, each of which is untitled but shares a theme (1. World; 2. Time; 3. Death, as it seems to me), and each bears an epigraph (from Josephine Jacobsen, Philip Larkin, and Louise Bogan respectively). Here is a representative shorter poem from the beginning of section 2:

Rondel for a Timepiece Not Yet Obsolete

In an age awash with digital devices…plugged-in people
of all ages are opting to leave their old timepiece at home.

Analog watch—wrist-worn circle of time,
ticking the days away in symmetries
Swiss-made and sleepless, tireless mysteries
concealed by stainless steel—your hours rhyme

in sets of twelve. Essential in your prime,
object of habit now, set me at ease,
analog wristwatch, worn circle of time.
Keep ticking away the days in symmetries

that call to mind the past: sleek hands that climb,
pointing across a face that’s not a face,
as if in search of lost simplicities….
Earth’s orbit round the sun your paradigm,
how soon will you run down, worn-out?…Circle of time.

This poem demonstrates Balbo’s propensity for finding big meanings in humble places—“eternity in a grain of sand,” or thereabouts. It uses an obvious triple felicity: the circle worn on the wrist, the circular conception of time, and the circling movement of the form. To these circles Balbo adds the movement of hands around the clock face and the earth around the sun, as well as other good strokes: “tireless,” the rhyming hours, the play on “worn.” In ways both obvious and subtle the poem enacts what it describes (though, like others in the book, it could scrap the epigraph).

It also illustrates one of my qualms with Balbo’s style, which often underplays lyricism even in lyrical forms; however, there is good descriptive writing sprinkled throughout, with effective compressions of meaning. Take “Graduation Day,” when Balbo finds a metaphor for the fleetingness of youth in the graduates’ flung tassels:

………………………………………….. The storm of caps
goes flying upward—soon, the brass will sound,
strings, drums, and woodwinds running to catch up,
tired families heading home—but as they fall,

caps hurled so fast we hardly saw them fly…

The suspension of the syntax makes its point with pleasing subtlety. I also like the first and last sections of “The Woods,” especially the passage that takes us from unripe grapevines to praying mantis in a movement both descriptively and associatively satisfying:

Broad-leafed, the grapevines clung and intertwined
along a brace of pine trees, rose to clasp
an oak’s low-hanging branches, bell-shaped curtain
clustered with fruit not ripe enough to taste,
though, yes, we tasted it. And it was sour,
green grapes, green like the predator I glimpsed,
at waist-height, past the arbor, balancing
in quiet meditation on a branch.

In this poem the woods are an effective objective-correlative for the selva oscura of the dark family life of the subject, a young gay man despised by violent parents. If the conceit seems familiar, it is redeemed by the minute particularity of Balbo’s eye.

Yet not all of the writing is so charged, and the unpretentiousness of subject and style can conspire in slack stretches. This effect is particularly noticeable in expository passages, as in this bit from “The Case Against Standardized Testing:”

I headed home. What would my future hold?
My mother was in the hospital again—
bummer—and Dad was working “off the books,”
a plumber who’d lost our Blue Cross with his job,
collecting unemployment till the checks
ran out or he got caught, bills mounting up
with each wrong diagnosis.

These details are arguably important as background to the action (the young speaker, returning from the SAT, is harrowingly pursued by an angry man in a blue van), but to my ear at least the homespun falls a bit flat. Contemporary poetry in general may be too skittish of plain statement, but Balbo can be too attracted to it, and isn’t always able to sustain the pressure (observational, syntactical, lyrical, formal) that plainness requires to pull its weight as verse.

Fortunately, the book ends on a high note with the title poem, whose sparkling vision of a world scrubbed clean is effectively Whitmanesque, and, like the best of Upcycling Paumanok, delicately balanced between irony and optimism: the soaring youthful ambition of the “upcyclers,” the poet’s more cautious overture of hope. He wittily thinks of a futurist (“now obsolete”) mural at Uncle Walt’s eponymous mall—depicting dangling airships that “broke free of their berths, / invulnerable ocean liners rumbling // through gray mist.” He continues:

Like them, we’ve no idea what world will follow,
when we, too, are claimed for some new purpose,

sadly, joyfully. Who’ll be reborn?
Step forward; take my hand: and on the day
our lost past surfaces, we’ll walk on streets

eternal like ourselves, all debts in balance,
wrongs forgiven, wasted lives reclaimed,
the only shadows left the ones we cast.

Amen to that. Upcycling Paumanok provides a homely pleasure, like a good chat with a wise and genuine friend about things that matter. It may not rewire our brains, but it might rescue a good day from a bad one by its generous art.

1 By my count, 38 of 40 poems are in iambic pentameter, and 25 are blank verse.