JANUARY 1, 2021
IN 1992, 600 balloons were released in Albany, New York, to raise awareness about AIDS and to honor those who had died or were fighting the disease. Twelve balloons were released for Mark Crast, 25, who died shortly before the event. In 13th Balloon, Mark Bibbins’s ambitious fourth collection, the author continues to commemorate Mark Crast and their complicated relationship bound by deep devotion.
13th Balloon stylistically diverges from Bibbins’s previous work: a book-length poem, it is relayed in fragments, with each piece untitled and linked through forward slashes. The sections are not chronological, but there is sense to their sequence: they coalesce into the arc of elegy, albeit an elegy disassembled and fragmentary. Despite the shifting and exploratory nature of the book, Bibbins utilizes strong closural techniques so that each individual piece feels complete. Throughout, Bibbins favors the closing statement that contains repetition: “If death is a test I fail // If death is a test I pass,”; “There are days when everything / feels like a metaphor / […] There are days / when nothing does,”; “all the books come back together / all the books come back.” The success of these strong, duplicative closures is in the way they work against the fragmentary nature of the book’s structure; these endings slow the reader down while the overall structure propels forward, and the resulting tension of movement allows Bibbins to successfully explore a capacious emotional terrain that encompasses both the past and the present with ease.
The book also diverges thematically from Bibbins’s previous work: 13th Balloon gets personal. Whereas at times in his previous books Bibbins uses lyric complexity and ellipticism to create distance, here the reader is brought close through direct language and narrative. This does not mean the writing is spare or less inventive, but rather that there is a level of vulnerability in these poems that sears the page. For example, in an early section of the book, the speaker of one poem describes finding an ambiguously alive animal inside a box on his stoop. His beloved has just died and for reasons he isn’t quite sure of, he throws the box into the river: “I have never so much / as in that moment the box went under / the surface of the water / […] wished that I were dead.” In the hands of another writer this statement could be melodramatic, but here it is a moment of bristling, earned intensity. Bibbins invites the reader into these ugly feelings through a conversational lyricism that is irresistible in its sincerity.
Though this book is an elegy for the beloved, it is also an elegy for the self. Bibbins was in his early 20s when Mark died, and the book maps the loss of his youth in the shadow of the AIDS crisis. Sections of the book interrogate his childhood and his struggle to hide his sexuality in a rural town, which layers the book with multiple reflections on the past. Many of the pieces about youth grapple with the friction of wanting to look and wanting to look away, of the fear of being seen and of being invisible. In an early section, the speaker is with other boys in a fort passing around pornographic magazines and the speaker tells his childhood self: “Don’t look at the other boy / in case he sees me looking at him.” In another section, the speaker relays the experiences of hearing jokes about AIDS in school and wonders: “Which boys / among us had just been watching / our friends in the showers.” In these pieces about Bibbins’s childhood, the speaker contends with the tension of feeling different and having to hide that difference. Yet later, in another piece about childhood, the speaker attempts to make his difference visible by intentionally rubbing poison ivy on himself. This portion continues to describe the child-speaker’s attempts at self-harm:
Another year on the day
of class photos
I scratched at my face
with a sharpened popsicle stick
no blood just a few pink lines
that didn’t read
I wanted a cast on my leg or anywhere
I wanted braces and glasses
and my tonsils out
I wanted scars
I don’t know when
or whether I figured out the difference
between wanting to be damaged
and wanting to be healed
The child of this poem looks to physical damage to mark his difference, but his desire for these wounds is located in the realm of the juvenile and the fixable: crooked teeth, broken bones, even poor eyesight. The wish to look different in a school picture encapsulates the naïveté of this speaker, who does not know what injuries await in adulthood. But the strength of these pieces is that childhood is not treated as some foolish, jejune past, but rather as an important part of the self to be mourned. The book is haunted by the poet’s lost adolescence, a childhood vanished in the unsought encounter with the illness and trauma of AIDS.
Though the book contains self-elegy, the primary narrative is between the poet and his beloved, Mark. The most moving pieces of the book take place in hospital rooms, where the poet visits Mark as he suffers with AIDS. These poems of hospitalization recall the best poems of Thom Gunn’s seminal The Man with Night Sweats, though what these poets share in subject matter diffuses wildly in form. Whereas 20 years ago Gunn addressed the illness and death of his beloved in tightly rhymed couplets, Bibbins’s formal approach explodes open on the page. Punctuationless and full of caesuras, these poems capture the fragmentation of the experience: the difficulty of remembering and reckoning with the death of the beloved. These are contemporary poems of watching and waiting for illness to progress in a loved one, and that experience’s attendant hopelessness, all set in the strange and tragic landscape of the hospital bedside:
the nurse called and told us It’s time you should
come now he’s getting ready to go
Ready to go after how many times we thought
you were going or were ready
to go or had gone
after how many times I’d arrive
at the hospital
thinking it would be the last
only to find you
sitting up doped up cockeyed grinning
You’d lift your head a little
and say Hey what’d you bring me Boo
and I’d climb into the bed
with you and say Nothing good just me
Is it embarrassing to admit in this review that I can’t read these lines without tears? The intimacy captured here, particularly in the verbal exchange between the speaker and the beloved, is raw, self-deprecating, and real. The speaker of these poems is a witness — coming to the hospital to watch his beloved die — and is always aware of both the failure and the necessity of that witnessing. These lines are also darkly funny. At his best, Bibbins injects sly humor into dire circumstances with ease, offering the reader a reprieve. Though this speaker might characterize himself as “nothing good,” he is also “just me.” That personal vulnerability, to present oneself nakedly on the page, flaws and all, is what makes this book impossible to put down. This section is also emblematic of one of Bibbins’s obsessions throughout book: the disconnect between what is idiomatic and what is actually meant. Here, for example, the nurse tries to soften the truth of the beloved’s death by saying colloquially that he’s “ready to go.” Bibbins latches onto this, repeating the phrase and attempting to make sense of it; the caesuras here work to turn the phrase over and over, trying to reconcile the words with what they represent.
Language haunts Bibbins throughout the book, with memories marked by indelible words. For example, when Mark first calls to tell him he tested positive, Bibbins reflects “I remember the weight of the phone / in my hand and thinking as I looked / […] that crepuscular was one of the ugliest words / I could think of.” Elsewhere, someone brings Mark a gardenia before he died and the speaker reflects: “For years I would say magnolia / when I meant gardenia / and would flinch whenever I smelled one.” Sometimes the slipperiness of language serves for humor too, as when the poet recounts the first man he kissed who told him he was bi: “his drawl made him sound / like a handsome sheep bah.” A recurring motif throughout the book is how Bibbins’s beloved, Mark, shares his same first name. In perhaps the most protracted section on language, Bibbins grapples with language’s limits, dwelling on how words fail to approximate the relationship between the poet and his beloved:
We didn’t have a word for us but what
could have been the word for us
though we loved
Not boyfriends though we were
friends and still
boys in most ways when you died
Not partners though we parted
These last two I realize
are false cognates
the first of which derives from sharing
the second from taking leave
I have only language for you now
that morphs like a virus
to elude to survive to connect
but still I don’t
have the word
The confusion around language is a reflection of the speaker’s dilemma: How do we grieve someone who meant something to us that is indescribable? How do we grieve loss in the realm of the intellect? And yet, language is all we have access to, deficient as it may be. Language, in Bibbins’s rendering, is an illness; a fatal affliction we all must suffer from and endure. It escapes our understanding, is never enough, and will outlive us all.
As we are in the midst of a pandemic that is being largely mishandled by our government, 13th Balloon reminds us of another epidemic the government failed to respond to — and that a large portion of our country turned away from. Hundreds of thousands of people died in the AIDS crisis, but Bibbins brings into focus the death of one man. Through this close-up view of tragedy, we can see the way this disease changed and still alters the lives of the people who died and lived through this epidemic, which was once unacknowledged, as well as those globally who continue to contract the disease. As Bibbins writes of his beloved: “How many thousands / of stories like yours / have been told / and forgotten.” This isn’t a question. 13th Balloon asks you to remember, to not look away.