John Balaban’s Empires: The Poetry of Witness

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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.

The figure of empire brings together the many different landscapes in which Balaban’s imagination is at home. These include the United States under late capitalism, the Ch’ing Dynasty as remembered through a porcelain serving platter on which three scholars dance, the Persians under Darius, and some of the states of the former Confederacy. The volume has a special preoccupation with Empire’s edges and outposts, as in “Poetry Reading by the Black Sea,” where the memory of Ovid, exiled to “‘the last place’ among barbarians” is overlaid upon a reading of contemporary poetry at Tomis, the site of a Roman imperial strongpoint in present-day Constanta, Romania. Balaban has long acquaintance with the city formerly known as Saigon, where three empires inscribed themselves and came to grief. The volume ends with a series of mysterious poems whose setting is the Chinati Mountains, a small borderland range in northwest Texas: an ambiguous landscape of phantom stars and Border Patrol headlights where a promise of violence contends with the hope of some mystical reveal among the Ocotillo and Greasewood.

There is a supernaturalist element in several of the collection’s most striking poems, like “A Miami Moment” where an ordinary suburban afternoon is made suddenly sinister by the appearance of a kettle of vultures in the backyard sky. In “Down Under,” Balaban engages with an evil twin or, more properly, a chthonian doppelgänger, and considers the dark agency of that other John Balaban in the world. “Chasing Out the Demons,” one of the Chinati Mountains poems, follows a lost soul (“a bad case”) as he rages on a dirt bike in an empty slot canyon until the ghosts of two Yuroks (“…pulses of wind and moonlight”) come in his sleep and lead off the unclean spirit that has been tormenting him:

And then they were gone, and he cried.
Sobbed hard because it was goodbye,
goodbye to the spirit that had raged in him by day ….

Supernaturalism is all over the place in contemporary poetry, of course, often appearing in service of an ideological position or an absurdist manner. Balaban’s supernaturalism is more deluxe than a lot of what’s out here in these realms of gold today; his effects are so deftly managed you can almost forget they are supporting a trope.

Empires continues a project of witness that has been central to Balaban’s writing since the Vietnam years. This is a poet committed to looking squarely at the world’s violence and moral disorder, no matter how intently the world’s beauty might insist on his attention. The project of witness is everywhere in Empires, from the translations of French and Romanian poems by Benjamin Fundoianu, poet and philosopher, victim of the Nazis, to “A Finger” which, too big a deal for paraphrase, is one of the three or four best things  in prose or poetry Americans have written about 9/11. And, yes, that includes Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.”

A suite of four poems called “Returning After Our War” will be the center of the volume for readers who know Balaban’s memoir, Remembering Heaven’s Face: A Story of Rescue in Wartime Vietnam (2002), or who associate Balaban with the counterculture journalists and “lysergic Buddhists” made legendary in Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977). These poems capture long time-horizons in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and L.A. (hub of the post-war Vietnamese diaspora) in a meditation on war, friendship, and memory. There is just a whiff, in “Returning After Our War,” of a Graham-Greene, opium-pipe, orientalist nostalgia for the romances of wartime Saigon. But because these are John Balaban poems (recall that one of Balaban’s novels is called Coming Down Again) the reader is brought right back down to earth, where earth is understood to be the place of violence and moral disorder.

Coming down is exactly the subject of Balaban’s extraordinary poem “The Opium Pillow,” which is occasioned by the traditional ceramic headrest of Asian opium culture:

a hollow bolster on which to lay
one’s head before it disappears
in curls of acrid opium fumes
slowly turning in the tropical room….

The speaker of this poem recalls awakening from an opium sleep to witness two of his American friends, two of the legendary ones, engaged in an act of brutality. Powerless to stop them in the moment, Balaban’s speaker, who has outlived the legendary friends, is left with his memories of the Saigon friendships compromised by the memory of violence. “The Opium Pillow” does not so much affirm the moral imperative of bearing witness to the world’s “clarities of force,” as it acknowledges that, for this poet at least, it is impossible not to.

Several of the richest poems in Empires are making a new appearance after having been included in one or another previous volume, notably Balaban’s 2003 “new and selected” volume, Locusts at the Edge of Summer. These returnees include some of the poems discussed here as well as what might be the most charming piece in Empires, “Anna Akhmatova Spends the Night on Miami Beach,” which also appeared in Locusts. It is a copy of the Stanley Kunitz translation of Akhmatova’s Selected Poems, not the Soviet modernist herself, that has spent the night on the beach, left behind by some careless undergraduate, but we follow Balaban’s speaker as he follows an imaginary Akhmatova “with her black dress, chopped hair, Chanel cap” through a night of decadent Miami revelry at “the end of the American era.” All Akhmatova wants, the speaker reassures us, is ourselves:

…the one person in ten thousand
who could say her name, who could take her home,
giving her a place between Auden and Apollinaire.

All of the older poems appearing in Empires have been reworked in greater or lesser degree. The changes to “The Opium Pillow” are significant, and constitute a true revision of the poem.  Balaban completists (I aspire to be one) will find the revisions engaging in their own right. I cite them here to demonstrate the persistence of those early poems, both in Balaban’s sense of his oeuvre, and in the culture at large.

Three last things to love about Empires. The collection includes two beautiful poems about Xenophanes of Colophon (570-478 BCE), Greek philosopher, poet, and rhapsode, in whose exile under the Persians Balaban finds the model for a skeptical politics of endurance. Balaban has always written with mastery about the non-human environment, practicing the old poet-tricks of analogy and defamiliarization with particular brio. In Empires’ poems about the Chinati Mountains and the seacoast of the southeastern U.S., the landscape occasions some stunning turns, as when in “At Nora’s House, Shepard’s Roost, Atlantic Beach, NC” Pelicans skim over the surf, their wing tips:

brushing the tattering crest as if to feel the herring
running inside the green lung of the recoiling wave.

Finally, and this is on p. 37 if the reader wishes to proceed directly to the rich creamy center, in a poem called “The Poet Retires,” whose epigraph comes from Roethke’s “Dolor,” (a byword among English teachers), Balaban name-checks and quotes Iggy Pop. John Balaban’s Empires is an elegant addition to this distinguished poet’s body of work, and will surely be remembered as one of the indispensable poetry publications of its decade.