- Empires by John Balaban
The ghost of Robert Lowell haunts John Balaban's seventh poetry collection, Empires. Like Lowell, whose fierce moral sensibility designates him as the poetic conscience of his generation, Balaban displays in this viscerally compelling book a similar revulsion to the craven ideologies that undergird empires.
Having read Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West as an undergraduate, Balaban learned early that empires have life cycles, that once they become overly ambitious, seeking to extend their influence over other nations, the consequences for people and other nations become catastrophic. As empires devote more and more of their accumulated wealth to military expenditures, they eventually reach a tipping point, a historical moment of overextension that portends the slow but inevitable collapse of power. Such tipping points, as empires break down under the burden of their own aggression, give rise to the 31 poems that comprise this book.
As the book's title implies, Balaban prefers to engage large subjects. He imagines the poet not as an anchorite but as a public figure obligated to make sense of the most urgent historical and political movements of his time. Such a poetic undertaking is not easy. Part of the difficulty is that the enormous scale of contemporary problems makes their temporal and spatial dimensions nearly impossible to translate into comprehensible language. These massive, intangible quandaries, what philosopher Timothy Morton calls "hyperobjects," affect us deeply, but their resistance to language, and thus to complete understanding, abrogates traditional coping mechanisms. How, for example, can one make sense of the psychological complexities of the Vietnam War, Plutonium, Global Warming, the coronavirus, Big Data, the War on Terror, systemic racism, or 9/11?
Balaban's solution to the problem of hyperobjects is simultaneously inventive and effective. In both lyric and narrative poems, he often uses synecdoche—that ancient trope of using part for whole—to make sense of the incomprehensible. Though his poems span centuries and cultures, Balaban investigates the meaning of empire by focusing on quotidian moments, by sorting through the rubble of collapsing cultures to find images and language that can bind us. His poems do not recoil from ugliness, but seek to understand how, from the tragedy of human history, a meager redemption might be possible.
Balaban's technique is on full display in the book's opening poem, "A Finger," which functions as a prologue to the collection. Here Balaban [End Page 146] chronicles the forensic journey of a fingertip, recovered from the dust and confetti of the fallen twin towers, as medical professionals seek to match the DNA to its owner. "Burnt and marked," this tiny fragment of a human life is "profiled, bar-coded, and shelved in a falcon tube," where it is eventually placed among "thousands of other bits" in "dozens of refrigerated trucks / filling with human debris." Balaban's language here is disquieting in its clinical accuracy, yet, as the poem continues, he carefully reminds us the finger was animated by someone who "might have once tapped text messages, / potted a geranium, held a glass, stroked a cat, tugged / a kite string along a beach." This catalogue of daily activities mitigates the language of scientific detachment and points to small, meaning-laden moments that reveal with lucid clarity the collateral damage of ideological struggle. Balaban's talent here is to reveal absence by presence, to demonstrate the emotional loss of a single human being by focusing on the common routines whose disappearance after death touches us acutely. Its owner, it turns out, happens to be a 30-year-old British woman, whom the New York Times saves from anonymity when the paper eventually runs her "bio."
Balaban's quotidian gestures carefully record how historical moments shape perception, yet much of this timely book also suggests that a continuity of human experience conjoins epochs. This universality is especially evident in his meditations on poetic or political figures who pose a threat to the dominant power structure. In "Poetry Reading by the Black Sea," for example, an aging Ovid, having already been "exiled by Augustus," dons "a helmet to defend the ramparts / as...