Form is the Engine, Family the Freight: Two New Books of Poetry by Ned Balbo

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3 Nights of the Perseids 
(The University of Evansville Press, 2019, 149 pages, $15.00)

The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots
(Criterion Books, 2019, 105 pages, $22.00)

Publication of his fifth and sixth books of poetry made 2019 a very good year for Ned Balbo. The University of Evansville Press released 3 Nights of the Perseids, winner of the 2018 Richard Wilbur Award, and Criterion Books published The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots, the nineteenth winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize.

Balbo is a gifted, hard-working formalist craftsman. In the past three decades, he has won nearly a dozen notable awards, including—deep breath—a Robert Frost Foundation Poetry Award, a Donald Justice Poetry Prize, three Maryland Arts Council Individual Artist Awards in poetry, and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature in Translation Fellowship. He has been a visiting professor in the MFA Program at Iowa State University, and taught poetry and prose at Loyola University Maryland for twenty-four years.

He is serious, prolific, and adept, and each of these new books is pure, gratifying Balbo, although they differ in theme and tone. Before a description of the books, however, a glimpse of two important aspects of Balbo’s poetry will be helpful.

The first important aspect is his atypical childhood. Growing up in his large Long Island, New York family, among people who loved him, he was nonetheless surrounded from birth by lies and deception. His birth parents produced two babies—Balbo and his older sister—before they married; family members raised those children. Balbo was raised by his birth mother’s half-sister; his sister was raised by their paternal grandmother. Meanwhile, his birth family (including later siblings) apparently attended family events, and his birth parents took some interest in the welfare of Balbo and his older sister. Only at age thirteen did he learn that his aunt and uncle were his birth parents, his parents were his aunt and uncle, his cousin was his brother, and the girl with whom he had gone through school as a child was his older sister.

At sixty, Balbo has come to terms with all of this, to the extent that anyone can. But inevitably—and we all know how this works—his early environment of secrets and lies, hints and wondering, uncertainty and anxiety, is with him always, in one way or another. It manifests itself as either the topic or the strong undercurrent of many of his poems. In his poetry, Balbo is generally calm, kind, and philosophical. (The few angry poems in these collections are political, his anger focused distantly, at an ideology, rather than more painfully closer to home.) As a lifelong, unwilling scholar of human frailty and fallibility and of sorely disappointed filial longing, he knows the score: happiness is fragile. The other shoe is always waiting to drop. His family history is freight that Balbo will carry all his life, as we each carry our own.

Both collections contain poems about his family; the poems are introspective, sad—and full of mercy. In 3 Nights of the Perseids, the blank-verse narrative “My Birth Father’s Mug Shot” is heartbreaking but resolves to Balbo’s mature forgiveness of his birth parents. It ends:

A hundred bucks will take the mug shot down,
proof of arrest expunged. In time, I’ll pay
as if to clear my conscience, or your own,
for what we never shared: who knows what wrongs
weigh heavily on you, what costs you bear,
whose words would tip the balance in your favor?
And yet, I’ll wait: it’s comforting to know
there’s somewhere I can look at you sometimes,
the image unmistakably your own
rising with every search that bears your name,
a brief flash seen before it disappears—
your face amazed, remorseful—one last time.

“A Fluke, a Borrowed Life,” in The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots, steeped in Balbo’s quirky-but-graceful lines, documents the alienation he felt upon discovering that he was not who he thought he was because his family was not what he thought it was. The dedication reads, “For my sister Evelyn, and John, her foster father/step-grandfather; ca. 1975,” and the poem concludes:

Our guardians are gone, our parents estranged
……from us, yet we hold on …
……That starfish, I remember,
clung fast to its hook, closed like a fist,
……reluctant to let go,
till, pried off, it was flung back to the bay.

“The Cabinet,” in Cylburn, is the final poem in an entire section about Balbo’s family’s dynamics.

This cabinet is carved quite carefully.
The odors we discover when it’s open
tell us that its locked doors shut away
not empty jars or inexpensive wine

but fragile things collected, mended, sewn—
a life, you’d say. Someone’s, at any rate.
Remainders: scraps of linen not our own,
torn recipes, lace remnants folded flat—

the eagle on a headscarf, standing guard.
Religious medals, photographs—the weird
detritus of years past and, weirder still,

dried flower- or fruit-smells, even locks of hair
preserved and waiting for the perfect spell
to summon back the dead, whose things these are.

This poem’s lineage traces directly back to Arthur Rimbaud. (Balbo’s experience includes his 2017 NEA grant, which funded his translation from the French of Paul Valéry’s 512-line “La Jeune Parque.”) Rimbaud’s poem, “Le Buffet” (“The Cupboard”), is clearly the forebear of “The Cabinet,” which is a reinvention with a newly imagined ending. This is one of fifteen poems in Cylburn which the Notes section says “began as translations but were transformed along the way.” This poem effectively represents not only the predominantly reflective mood but also the skill in these collections.

The second important aspect of Balbo’s poetry is his formal inventiveness. His attitude toward traditional poetic tools is respectful but self-assured and not overly scrupulous: he works within often-nameless forms, or nonce forms of his own invention. He bends formal rules and sometimes deploys slant rhyme with an efficacy surpassing true rhyme’s capability. Rules are made to be broken, when breaking them is best. Taste is a judgment call, and Balbo is an almost unerring judge.

Complexity of meter and rhyme is everywhere in his poetry. In fact, in some of these poems, the rhyme scheme is so complex that it’s not easily discernible as rhyme. On the rhyme complexity spectrum, there’s a line which, if crossed, turns rhyme into no-rhyme. How far apart, and how slant, can rhymes be before they become useless as rhyme? (And of course rhyme is closely related to meter. The etymological origin of rhyme is rhythmos—“measured movement.”) Consider the opening stanza of “Moonglow” from Cylburn:

Outside at dusk, watching the full moon inch
beyond the treetops in a sky still blue,
I find myself appreciating speed,
……time’s tidal passage leading back,
each new phase surfacing, a sky still black
……beyond the blue, and you
……singing the tune “Moonglow”
……in our split-level ranch,
your voice and gentle strum produced by memory’s need.

Because the first four lines do not rhyme, the reader or listener, arriving at “back” at the end of line four, will conclude that the poem does not rhyme. But wait: at the end of line five we come to “black,” and the hunt is on—for those who are interested. This poem has five stanzas, each using the rhyme scheme ABCDDBBAC. Some of the rhymes are far apart—note the “A” rhyme in particular—and slant. The listener won’t hear them and the reader who doesn’t search will miss them, too.

Also in Cylburn, a blank verse poem, “Elegy for One Who’ll Never Die,” uses not end-rhyme but pairs of anagrams—lives/Elvis/veils/evils, rats/tars/star/arts, stone/notes/tones, saw nothing/Washington—which are not all cozied-up in couplets. It’s a clever poem about Elvis Presley, and the anagrams take on unexpected meaning: but do they improve the poem as a poem? The jury is still out.

From 3 Nights of the Perseids, here’s “The CEO’s Annual Report”:

Welcome! and greetings from the cutting edge.
This past year we’ve made strides and great leaps forward,
finalized commitments, forged a bridge
between our old friends and our adversaries—
(wisely, for who knows which is which these days?)—
and having defined new goals worth striving toward,
we’ve tossed out all the old ones, tattered selves
cast off, vaguely distasteful with the whiff
of yesterday’s now not-so-Great Ideas.
And yet, there’s much to do. The world revolves
upon an axis fit for re-invention
every so many years. Do not be stiff,
unyielding, or too slow when Change sweeps in
to clean the last few cluttered areas.

This funny poem, filled with employee-meeting clichés handled expertly and irreverently, sounds at first as if it’s blank verse—but no, it offers seven pairs of rhymes, true and slant, in a fourteen-line labyrinth: ABACCBDEFDGEGF.

All of this playfulness does seem to serve a purpose: as the starter of Balbo’s poetic engine. Complexity seems to be his modus operandi, allowing him to challenge himself in an almost mathematical way. In the poems with ultra-complex rhymes, the complexity’s value to the poem is open to debate but the complexity itself seems undeniably to have played a part in the poem’s engendering. Complex games of eye and ear seem to help Balbo be Balbo: intelligent, multilayered, playful, and often virtuosic.

The longer of these two books, 3 Nights of the Perseids, has four thematic sections: outer space and other places, music, academia, and loss. The title poem is a sestina that uses lots of slant end-words—one way to outfox that often-tedious form—and this sestina works. The Perseids are a showy meteor shower visible each year, in the northern hemisphere, in early August. Balbo and his wife are on the balcony with a telescope to watch. He is teaching in Iowa; his wife is visiting him and must soon leave for their home and her job on the East Coast. Their time together is as lovely, brief, and sad as the meteor shower. Every flaming particle burning its way brilliantly through the atmosphere to die is “a casualty or lost cause,” and the couple is, Balbo says, “saddened by the radius / our jobs impose, no quick fix in our power…. / We live with it.”

Resignation to what cannot be changed and appreciation of beauty that will not last are long-standing Balbo themes, and the entire book has an elegiac feel: not morbid, just realistic and slightly, appealingly wistful. The music and culture of the 1960s through the 1980s—Balbo’s coming-of-age decades—figure prominently. Topics include the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Charles Manson, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Robyn Hitchcock, Patti Smith (“Patti in Orbit” is an adroit sapphic ode), and 2001: A Space Odyssey. For decades, Balbo inhabited the purgatory of academia, and the ordeal produced in him some worthwhile poetry; “Leya’s Ghostly Cats” stands out here as the cautionary tale of Balbo’s grad school classmate and faculty officemate, an accomplished long-time adjunct forced out of her position by envious tenured faculty. The few political poems have a moralistic bent, but those poems are more than outweighed by elegant nature poems—Balbo has a delighted, careful eye—and poems such as “What Words Survive,” a villanelle occasioned by an article describing the twenty-three words that linguists say are the oldest in the world, originating from the same language fifteen thousand years ago:

What words of ours survive both ice and fire
crackling while predators watch us from afar?
Concealed in our very speech is who we are,

the world we named beneath a glacier.
Mother and Man. At night, we heard a river
flowing and flowed, far from both ice and fire—

The river the old men woke us up to hear,
cold surge they said was deepening every year.
Concealed in our very speech is who we are:

Hunters who broke the earth and spoke a prayer
in praise of the worm. We looked toward the evening star,
seeking a word that fused both ice and fire,

or pulled back our hands from a blaze that leapt too near.
Black ashes and embers spitting, we’d poke and stir—
Concealed in this very speech is who we are:

Gatherers of words and worlds, huddled together,
braiding the bark we stripped into rope and wonder.
Give thanks we survived, you and I, both ice and fire—
Not as flesh, but as words in the very speech we are.

A strict traditional villanelle allows for only two rhymes, in a fixed scheme, throughout the poem. Here Balbo has played his complexity game once more, allowing himself only one “rhyme”—words with final “r” consonance, only some of which rhyme—for each of the nineteen lines. Notice that despite this concentrated repetition of end-sound—and the villanelle’s requisite two repeated refrains—the poem never grows tiresome. Balbo is that good.

The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots, within its five sections, contains poems that are, very generally speaking, more lyric than those in Perseids. The blank-verse title poem describes a stop at a bed of touch-me-nots during a stroll through the Cylburn Arboretum in Baltimore. Touch-me-nots are plants that instantly withdraw their leaves from even the gentlest touch and then reopen a few minutes later. (No poet in his right mind could resist working that name, that unexpected physicality, that behavior, and that beautiful metaphor into a poem.) The poet’s companion’s hand moves to make many plants draw back: “rippling in the raised bed, leaves withdrawn, / like seawater parted by the wind.” The two continue on their way, but the poet ponders returning: “Perhaps we’ll watch / shy leaves reverse and make their stand, unhurt / by touch or threat, green fronds unfolding till / the surface of their sea is calm again.” It’s unclear which of the two people is the touch-me-not, or whether they both are, but it’s manifest that the issues of the title poem are fear, trust, patience, and hope, all themes of this collection.

The book includes abundant splendid nature poems and love poems. “Crow Hour” is superbly skaldic: “The hour of trading places, hour of secrets / roosting at rest. Hour of blackest vision, / shoulder to shoulder, drawn to this haven’s height.” In “Miraculous Spirals,” Balbo uses another odd-but-beguiling rhyme scheme to gather a galaxy, a nautilus, a wave, a hurricane, a diving raptor, an insect circling a light, and “the eye’s corneal layers,” and asks, “What joins us to all these?” The answer:

…………………………Time’s pulse; the spirals’ laws
…………or hidden presence, marvelous

…………& all-pervasive, measureless.
The nautilus, left on the sand to freeze,
holds thirty chambers, small eternities
…………………………that no one occupies,

…………yet time & space are limitless
…………& time itself may have to pass
before we learn the same geometries
reside in our unfolding destinies.

Like “The Cabinet,” discussed earlier, “Autumn Prayer” is another of this collection’s fifteen “translations that were transformed along the way.” (Each of these poems is discussed briefly in the Notes section.) This poem is derived from the German of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Herbsttag” (“Autumn Day”). The stanza lengths and even some of the rhymes are directly from Rilke, yet the ending makes the poem Balbo’s own.

Time for a prayer. The summer lasts too long,
the sundials steeped in shadow afterwards …
Let no one decipher right or wrong

in fields just harvested, grapes on the vine.
Two afternoons of sun are all they need
to ripen, swelled with juice before we read
a blessing in their flavor, in the wine

pressed from their pulp, and other small rewards.
It’s time to move back to the make-believe
shelter of memories we never leave—
letters transcribed in which we are the words
friends treasure, read, and nobody discards.

For Ned Balbo in particular, childhood memories of being treasured, understood, and not discarded are indeed “make-believe.” These are humankind’s oldest, deepest, most impossible desires, and they belong to all of us. In these two collections, he moves our heavy burden along through the music and power of form.