The Cortland Review


Maurice Manning
Dark Matter: You Ain't Seen Nothing, Chet A trip to the Dollar Store inspires this meditation on the 'dark matter' of physics and poetry.

Maurice Manning
Four new poems.

David Rigsbee
David Rigsbee reviews John Balaban's Path, Crooked Path.

Paula Bohince
Kris T Kahn
Jesse Waters

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of five collections, including The Dissolving Island (BkMk Press, 2003). His newest volume titled The Red Tower: New and Selected Poems will be published by NewSouth Books in the spring of 2008, and Word Tech will bring out two collections: Cloud Journal: Two Sequences (spring 2008) and Two Estates (spring, 2009). His work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Southern Review among many others.

Path, Crooked Path: A Book Review


Path, Crooked Path
by John Balaban
110 pages
Copper Canyon Press, 2006

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John Balaban is not for the fashion of these times. He would have us believe, in a world characterized by ever-new peaks of cruelty and curtailment, even as the means of cultural custodianship become more and more readily available and sophisticated that—ready for this?—"only poetry lasts." How you feel about the blunt force of such a claim will probably determine how you approach his new collection, Path, Crooked Path. I, for one, find it refreshing, even courageous, that one of our most prominent poets would offer humanistic reassurances and suggest that the continuous, "universal" urge to sing in poems and song makes up, all by itself, an alternative, supplemental vision to the way most of our fellows make and prize meaning. It is equivalent to Wittgenstein's rope that runs through culture: continuous, but without any one thread going the distance—yet all hemp. And this without the smudge of sentimentality.

Thus Balaban finds himself equally on the old fashioned side of a number of other issues: poetry is a universal; the upper reaches of poetic culture are linked to the equivalent stratospheres of other languages and literary traditions. No wonder, armed with such a belief, that he has moved with such a sure touch in his Englishing of classical Vietnamese poetry. This set of opinions sets him at least (pace Auden) still in possession of the idea that poetry, if it does not improve, at least shows that praise and elegy are twinned instruments performing therapeutic and consolatory duty. That this is not a current attitude, now that the care of the art has been overtaken by scholasticism, would be an understatement. Be that as it may, it fits well with the literary mind and moreover seems—not just on Balaban's say-so—to have some international plausibility.

Path, Crooked Path—the title suggests both an inspired errancy, Heideggerian "poetic thinking," which meanders whither it listeth and the jolts, missteps, forward slogging of a life—is constructed around and moves by way of contrasts. In our postmodern moment, he is to be found among the ruins of the classical world, eastern Europe, or Asia. He is the avatar of Ovid, whose misfortunes at Caesar Augustus' hands landed him the hard durance of geographical and linguistic exile, of Akhmatova receiving the terrible charge to remember standing outside the frozen walls of Lefortovo Prison. Often it is the fact of estrangement—especially by war's dislocations, but often by the common discontinuities of death and relocation—that drives these poems.

Balaban begins his new collection in one of the most reverberant of American cultural grooves: Highway 61, extending that mythic route into the post-9/11 era, where, picking up a mugged soldier returning to base and later encountering a crippled man, the speaker observes, "I knew I was on the right road." And yet the road less traveled ("I turned into a less traveled road") turns out to be a variation of this beaten path, as all converge on dessicated flatland, "old haunts of raiding Apaches" and "Home of President and Mrs. George W. Bush." Compared to this scene, the classical ruins of "Looking Out from the Acropolis, 1989" offers a clarified view ("the New World Order the President / praised that winter"). The distance between the stoical gazes and the roiling events on which they look (Yugoslavia, Chernobyl, the West Bank, etc.) and the villains (Pol Pot, Shining Path, German skinheads) deny the comforts of objectivity. And that is the pity of poetry, isn't it? Sweeping moral judgments can look like mere lyric victories, mere words. Balaban's acknowledgment of the fact is one of the strengths of this book.

Elsewhere this political poet queries his lyrical means for their ability to render convincing representations of change. In "On the Death of His Dog, Apples" he bestows—because this ("too," he might add) is what a poet can do—an Elysian Fields for a beloved animal ("I dreamed for you an upland meadow"). Similarly, in "If Only," which also figures a faithful canine presence, he imagines a scene of ordinary peace:

Dinner simmered on the stove.
Pulling weeds in the garden, she smiled,
hearing his tires pop gravel and clamshells
at their rutted land's long winding end.
The dogs leapt up, loped out to greet him.
This is how it should have been.

Lots of animals, especially dogs, inhabit these pages. The creatures take on fuller-than-usual representation (you sometimes feel the attractive pull of the fable), while remaining blessedly free of the sins but full of the virtues that have often characterized them in the pages of literature. In "Some Dogs of the World" mutts enable street-level perspective for cities and inhabitants that have likewise become part of the cultural and historical imagination (for example, Venice, southern California, Transylvania, Hanoi, Paris).

The whole street's shouting
in Magyar and Romanian. And the dogs scatter.
Later, on the road to Bucharest, a bay horse
lies dead in the roadside gravel
where a Gypsy cart got smashed by a car,
a wild dog yanking at its tail and hocks.

In so politically inclined a poet, the lyric and the political engage in a mating dance in which each is eventually to be seen in terms of the other. Zigging and zagging between the imagined and the factual, Balaban's work suggests how readily the lyric mode offers alternative narratives to what the pedestrian brain registers. In his work, the image trumps the historical fact—indeed, makes peace with the fact possible. This contest puts us among familiar distinctions: the stolid past versus the ironic present, history versus memory, the personal versus the civic and the national. Meanwhile, things—the nouns of the poem—take leave of their singularity to become comparable to other things. But if this happens, how can the moralist escape from the wildfire of endless significations? The question is not merely academic. Flaubert's way was to give the nod grudgingly to the bourgeois family from which the artist shrank ("They're right, you know"), and Tolstoy understood that the slippery over-and-under of poetic rendering degraded truth: he argued for straight-ahead, one-to-one correspondences between word and thing. Else morality had no means of defense. But Balaban's poems suggest other approaches.

Many of the poems touch on professional relationships: other poets, living and dead, put in an appearance (Georgi Borisov, Carolyn Kizer, Hayden Carruth, Ovid, Anna Akhmatova, Stanley Kunitz). Presiding over all is the spirit of the late Roland Flint, James Wright's (another champion of dispossessed humanity) chief acolyte—once larger-than life, now sadly smaller than death. These relationships, by the very nature of their origins in love and influence, tend to erode the distinction between the factual and the imagined, just as they span times and geographies, healing separations, suturing wounds. Balaban's premise seems to be that these webs of association reweave the fabric of commonality (they also assume there is a commonality), so that politics, war, and the mill of history are more easily endured. "The Great Fugue," with its titular suggestion of Baroque praise, puts it this way,

Easter, and I am playing the Grosse Fugue, hearing
the faded voices of those good people
who did not want to see me falter, but took me in,
schooling me in an intertwining of spirits
that like music can fill a room, that is a great fugue
weaving through us and joining generations
in charged, exquisite music that we long to hear.

The cities of the world shift the scale from personal to social, but still bear personal meaning—none more so than Miami, Balaban's previous home. This city of towering promise, made suspicious by the shadow of Cuba by drug violence, environmental degradation, and generally what Sartre put down as "false consciousness," stands as the subject of a series of elegies. The most arresting of these, "The Butter People," tells of tribes of malleable Golems whose survival equates with their shifting, a quality like butter. In the Miami context, they are sex offenders, the lowest of the low, who melt into the poet's neighborhood in a parody of successful assimilation.

In "Eddie," the poet discloses that a crippled homeless man of the poet's acquaintance has been run over by a red-light-running truck. The poet wonders in a surmise that resets the poem in compassionate recompense, answering the objection that he might be better off dead:

His legs were a mess
and he had to be lonely. But spending days
in the bright fanfare of traffic and
those nights on his bench, with the moon
huge in the palm trees, the highway quiet,
some good dreams must have come to him.

"Remembering Miami" registers the last word: "The damn place never made any sense." The final poem of this section, "Anna Akhmatova Spends the Night on Miami Beach" suggests in spite of—and yet through—the incongruity of the title, a means for poetry to re-achieve the honor of work, by means of the work of a poet as far removed from Miami Beach as is imaginable. But imagination takes it in nonetheless: it is her book (Kunitz translation) lying on the beach. She is "she," made palpable beside "these trivial hungers/at the end of the American century."

The note of elegy struck in "The Miami Suite" continues in the final section. The lovely "Varna Snow" recounts Ovid's exile. The poem ends,

But, now, acacias
fragrance our evening as poplar fluff drifts
through imperial rubble. Only poetry lasts.

The last sentence quotes, not Ovid, but a classical Vietnamese poet.

The sentiment is not incontestable, as the poet knows, but remembering such a line increases the possibility that art's redemptive claims will be recognized and numbered among humanity's other deeds of power. "Driving Back East with My Dad," his biological (but estranged) connection to Romania, puts the same point in Eliotian terms:

How I wish for a lyric ending to this prose tale:
a moment when the travelers, going in the direction
they faced, found they had already arrived.

Would it be impertinent to note that Path, Crooked Path is well written? Balaban's charm is to be at one with his occasions: there is no reaching after effect, though the distances of time and place involved are often considerable. The poems benefit from their sense of incarnate devices and leave the cumulative impression of a life lived and grown into, without the poet's succumbing to the belletristic. Having said that, I will point out that very occasionally he sounds a hortatory note that undermines the textual integrity of the poem. The long, already-mentioned "Looking Out from the Acropolis, 1989," an otherwise engaging poem, seems to tip its hand to find the poet replaced by the stump speaker ("It was snowing in Chicago, snowing on the cardboard huts/of the homeless in the land of the free."). That and the rare whiff of clubby professional familiarity deflate slightly the poet's alternative honor roll of admirable poets. But these are caveats to the final impression of a poet assuming his place on a larger stage, one for whom artistic and moral are aspects of the same übertext. The marginal, the despised, and the low lyrically engage his vision in ways that the mighty, who also always claim to forced enlargements of vision, come up short.

The persistent urge still to get it right in the hum of late capitalism is another form of irony, but the poet knows that irony is always, without exception, in the secondary position. Balaban's poems include not only modern and recent wars and atrocities, but American banalities of all sorts, as well as our mounting reacquaintance with the environment, to go along with the seemingly unswerving fate of the dispossessed. In the face of this he brings a consolatory and therapeutic faith in the power of poetry to clarify and unite. God knows it is easy to decry the efforts brought on poetry's behalf when the art is itself under constant siege, not only from censors and ideologues abroad, but from levelers and taste-makers at home. Balaban's poems take cognizance of these, and then resume the effort to push the rope through, which is why he may be our most astute and compassionate disillusionist.



© 2005 The Cortland Review