DECEMBER 13, 2019
DURING THE VIETNAM WAR, John Balaban was working toward a career as a scholar and poet. He was a graduate student at Harvard University, studying Old English and working with Robert Lowell in his famous Sunday morning poetry circle. One day he walked out of Widener Library and came across an enormous group of students surrounding a limo. Inside was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a guest of the Kennedy School of Government. Balaban watched as McNamara, stuck in the narrow, crowded alley, surrounded by shouting protesters and the Secret Service, climbed on top of the car and berated the students. The next day, Harvard apologized for the students’ behavior and “that enraged me,” Balaban said in a phone interview.
I had a student deferment, but I decided then that I would become a conscientious objector. I was interviewed, and was asked only one question: “Would I be willing to go to Vietnam?” I responded, “It’s not about willing. I am going to Vietnam whether you like it or not.” They thought I was an odd boy, and they approved my status.
So John Balaban became a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese call the American War) and he did go to Vietnam. He taught in a university until it was bombed during the Tet Offensive and shrapnel wounded his shoulder. He returned to Vietnam several times, continuing his service as an objector, giving medical care to wounded children and collecting and preserving Vietnamese poetry and folk culture. Decades later, at a state dinner in Vietnam, President Bill Clinton commended Balaban’s translation from the Vietnamese, Spring Essence: The Poetry of Hồ Xuân Hương (2000), as a model of the cultural exchange we need in the future: “When we open our doors, we not only let new ideas in, we let the talent and creativity and potential of our people out.” In a 2001 interview with The New York Times, Balaban said,
Imagine a Vietnamese walking up to an American farmhouse during the war and knocking on the door, introducing himself, and saying, “I wonder if you would sing me your favorite poem.” […] Instead of being driven off with a shotgun, I was welcomed.
These anecdotes reveal Balaban’s deep moral character, which shone through when cast against forces of geopolitical violence. In his new book, Empires, he once again demonstrates a piercing moral vision of humanity broken by colonialism and war and ethnic violence, yet he also offers possibilities for healing. The book begins with a poem entitled “A Finger,” which traces the journey of a fingertip found scorched and detached from the body in the ruins of the World Trade Center. It is transported and cataloged and dried and matched by DNA to a young woman who worked on the 105th floor, and all the tragedy of that day is told through this fingertip, a body scrap whose DNA encodes a whole lost life. So it is in all the poems in Empires, poems that tell their stories of slavery and terror in body scraps, fingertips of history now dead but through which we can touch and feel a past removed from us by times of violence and the violence of time.
In keeping with its title, the first long section of Empires is an elegy for and an indictment of empires in decline, including our republic in these divided times, “towards the end of the American era.” The haunted self and the haunted past ghost through these poems. “[T]he past hovers like smoke or a train whistle’s mournful call,” Balaban writes in “After the Inauguration, 2013.” The speaker is taking a train south with celebrants of the Obama inauguration, “mostly black folk,” past lynching sites where “some latter-day Confederate has raised the rebel battle flag in a field of winter wheat.”
One of the key texts behind this book is Oswald Spengler’s classic The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes, 1918), which speaks of empires as having a lifespan and a death. Over the phone, Balaban recalled his first year at Pennsylvania State University, where John Barth was his faculty advisor:
He was very sweet and welcoming and I was snotty, not wanting anyone to tell me what to take. He asked me what I’d been reading, and I said Oswald Spengler, and he looked over his shoulder and said to his office mate, “Well, we’ve got a live one here.”
“Again, I was an odd boy,” Balaban laughed. Because of Spengler’s world-historical vision, “It didn’t seem odd to me to be writing in one poem about riding the Carolinian home from Obama’s second inauguration and then in the next poem to shift to sixth-century BCE Ionia about the philosopher Xenophanes.”
Balaban shows us viscerally the traumatic times in which we live. PTSD is a subtext throughout the book. We see how the brutality of empire is visited both on our bodies and our minds in “Down Under,” a punning title. In this poem, he tells the stories of the doppelgängers who share his name, the murderer John Balaban of Australia and the “road-raged wacko” John Balaban “who attacked a carload of drunks.” He writes, “I guess I could say / that was my doppelgänger, not me, but that just confuses / the supernatural with having a bad temper.” Though “Down Under” is written in the first person, the last section of the book in which it appears details in the third person how the tormented self chases out its demons, and, as Balaban says, “Sometimes the third-person poems are actually first-person.”
The move to third person at the end of the book may be a way of showing a Buddhist detachment from the angry and anguished self that we see in “Down Under.” That traumatized past self also appears in the third person because, by beginning with 9/11, Balaban asks us to recognize the trauma in all of us, and how it can drive us to act out of fear and anger instead of contemplation and grace. For example, in “Chasing Out the Demons,” two Native American ghosts visit a tormented man in his sleep:
He shouted when the woman smoothed his hair.
And then they were gone, and he cried.
Sobbed hard because it was goodbye,
goodbye to the spirit that raged in him by day
and now was traveling across the canyon creek
led off by the ghosts, the two
who had come to calm him.
In our phone interview, he acknowledges that perhaps unconsciously he added to the story an echo of the end of “Facing It,” the classic Vietnam War poem by Yusef Komunyakaa:
In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.
In both Balaban’s and Komunyakaa’s poems, the poets make themselves vulnerable to their harrowing past with the gesture of the woman smoothing hair, incarnating maternal tenderness versus masculinist heroics and violence.
In the book’s middle section, Balaban asks how one can live in the “crashing sea” of history. In the lovely poem “Tide Pool,” he writes of the “fishbowl,”
for little lives in their amorous wriggles,
for the crashing sea punching holes below the shelf
flushing innocent worlds, leaving only
a stone stage for watery dramas beneath the sky,
an existential entertainment, an opera mimicking
our desire for an imagined home, in a place
forever perishing, a place to live.
The three-part arc of the book’s narrative moves from seeking history, to seeking home, to seeking peace. The rage of the doppelgänger self is calmed by art and Buddhist spirit manifested in gorgeous descriptions of the natural world, especially of water. Yet at the end of the book, in “Back Then,” the protagonist recalls,
Looking for some peace of mind
was like searching for a cricket in a field.
And in “Christmas Eve at Washington’s Crossing,” he questions,
What words could call us all together now? On what riverbank?
For what common good would we abandon all?
Peace, both personal and historical, is hard to find. Yet in “Xenophanes in Exile in Greece and Sicily” and other poems, Balaban presents the poet as a kind of solution:
Such is Xenophanes, aged rhapsode and lover of wisdom,
who looked into all things of earth and heaven
and made of them a song, sung in a time of barbarians.
This book is a testament to the power of poetry, of song, even when the poet might seem, like Xenophanes, “an amusement to strangers.” In his ars poetica, “The Uses of Poetry,” Balaban writes about the poets in their failed humanity who “descend on us like locusts / wings filmy, bright, whirring ambitions” and “eating everything in their path.” And yet, “some sing.” In the last poem in the book, the down-under doppelgänger self becomes a bat-filled cave and a blasted tree that turn back into themselves, free of traumatic metaphor. And the poem ends with a bird singing a searching song, just as Balaban’s book does:
At dawn the bats were pocketed upside down
in hollows of the canyon wall rinsing in pink light
and he saw the burros grazing wheatgrass and sage.
At the canyon head, a cave yawned open
but empty of the voices that muttered in the night.
And the blasted tree, high on the mesa rim
— that writhed at dusk like a man crucified —
was a tree again, rocking in the wind.
Stars gone, the sky streaked in sunlight.
A canyon wren, perched in a willow,
plied the dawn with inquiring song.
After so much trauma of the self and the storminess of empire, the bird inquires, and hopes to make “poetry, the delicate thing which lasts.”
Aliki Barnstone is poet laureate of Missouri. She is the author of eight books of poetry, including Dwelling (2016), Bright Body (2011), Dear God, Dear Dr. Heartbreak: New and Selected Poems (2009), and Madly in Love (1997).