Path, Crooked Path
by John Balaban
Copper Canyon Press, 2006
TCR Bookstore Price: $11.70
Buy this book
through our Amazon.com-affiliated bookstore
and support The Cortland Review.
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 thatready 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 distanceyet 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 seemsnot just on Balaban's say-soto have
some international plausibility.
Path, Crooked Paththe title suggests both an inspired errancy, Heideggerian
"poetic thinking," which meanders whither it listeth and the jolts, missteps, forward slogging of
a lifeis 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 estrangementespecially by war's dislocations, but often by the common discontinuities
of death and relocationthat 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 bestowsbecause this
("too," he might add) is what a poet can doan 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 factindeed, 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, thingsthe nouns
of the poemtake 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 acolyteonce 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
meaningnone 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 ofand yet throughthe 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.