Johns Hopkins University Press
Reviewed by:
  • 3 Nights of the Perseids by Ned Balbo, and: The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots by Ned Balbo
3 Nights of the Perseids, by Ned Balbo (University of Evansville Press, 2019), 164 pp.
The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots, by Ned Balbo (Criterion Books, 2019), 88 pp.

Three aspects of Ned Balbo's work come up in almost every discussion of his poetry, and for good reason. Balbo's technical wizardry as a formalist, the tender but unflinching gaze he directs toward his own family history, [End Page 157] and his encyclopedic knowledge of American popular culture have, throughout his enviable career, driven his most memorable poems and poem cycles. Balbo's two 2019 collections—the Richard Wilbur Awardwinning 3 Nights of the Perseids and The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots, which won the New Criterion Poetry Prize—are not exceptions.

From their respective opening poems, "Rare Book and Reader" and "Crow Hour," both books find Balbo bending the sounds and rhythms of his lines to the poems' varied needs. The wistful narrative of the former poem is unveiled patiently across eight octaves that contain a tour de force mixture of true end rhyme, slant end rhyme, and internal rhyme. The more impressionistic latter poem, an efficient 18-line lyric describing the space between night and day, employs consonance and alliteration to drive its sentences across nimble tercets:

Hour to be wary, aware, no voices, no carsthe sky pale violet; to view, with a scavenger's calm,intruders below whose faces they notice and know

but heed not at all the coming of strays and stragglers,hour of caws and cause beyond our ken,hour of kin who soar over power lines . . .

There are in these collections the sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, and other received forms at which Balbo has long excelled, as well as forms that riff on classic modes much as the two poems named above hint at ottava rima and terza rima, respectively. For a deep dive into the formal structures of the poems in these two collections, please see New Formalist critic Jane Greer's excellent essay "Form is the Engine, Family the Freight" in Literary Matters.

The family history that is a recurring concern in Balbo's body of work is a complex one. As a child, Balbo was raised by an aunt and uncle he believed to be his birth parents, while his birth parents played the role of aunt and uncle to him. Prior to Balbo's birth, they had relinquished a daughter also, whom Balbo knew as the "uncle's" much-younger "sister." Two brothers—born much later, after Balbo's birth parents married—he knew as cousins. The truth of these various relationships was only revealed to him when he was 13. The building, reconsidering, and rebuilding of relationships and memories that are unavoidable in such a situation drive Part III of The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots.

On the one hand, the surprisingly unempathetic disembodied voices of people who did not live in the family described in these poems dominate "Questions Asked by Friends and Strangers": "You weren't theirs, but when did you find out? / Was it a shock? Did you have any doubt / you were the person that they said you were?" That is the unflinching Balbo. On the other hand, the touching vividness of specific childhood events [End Page 158] animates poems like "Panther" and "A New Moon for Neptune." In the former piece, dedicated to Balbo's birth mother, Elaine, the speaker says, "It's fifty years—/ I'm waiting for that surge to cool / into this verse," and we know that he does not simply mean the "surge of molten metal" used to shape the titular die-cast animal. The latter poem is dedicated to the poet's adoptive mother, and here again the tender Balbo reigns. The speaker details Betty's cherished collection of issues of The News Outline's My Weekly Reader, from her middle-school years, and imagines her "childhood kept close on each fragile leaf / where time stopped, yet resumed each time [she] read / those pages to become [herself] again."

Although 3 Nights of the Perseids deals less with Balbo's family than does The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots, the honesty and the empathy characteristic of Balbo's family-history poems have rarely been more artfully joined than they are in the elegy "My Birth Father's Mug Shot," toward the end of Perseids. The speaker of this remarkable poem shows his birth father to be "ruthless," and yet acknowledges of the mug shot, "I know that look—surprised, a little dazed—/ because I've seen it on my own face, too."

The Ned Balbo who is simultaneously an adoring fan and an astute historian of pop culture can be found in both books, as well. While Cylburn is more consistently concerned with Balbo's family story than is Perseids, the reverse is true when it comes to overt explorations of music and film. The overarching structure of Perseids is laid out in the prologue poem "Rare Book and Reader," which finds the speaker remembering being a college freshman searching library archives for the materials necessary to understand the closing track of an Al Stewart album. The second section of the volume is all pop music, all the time. It opens with an epigraph from David Bowie and a poem dedicated to Prince Rogers Nelson, and then contains poems entitled "Charlie and the Beach Boys," "Patti in Orbit," "Major Tom and David Bowman"—and so on.

One of "The Ghosts of Thunder Road" serves as the speaker of that particular poem, and ruminates about "whatever future / endless highways, bars, and beach roads hold/ for this New Jersey Romeo, leather-clad / in his Camaro, where a beat-up Fender / waits, responding to his touch, or not." The characters in the Boss's songs are brought one remove away from the legendary tunesmith, and are allowed to stand outside the songs that gave them life. They observe their surroundings like any of us might in the face of "bright snow descending through" the "frozen frame" of a disused Ferris wheel. Figures as larger-than-life as the Beatles receive the same gentle treatment in "The Afterlife of Beatles" and "Live from the Dakota"—a poem whose title alone brings with its irony a pang of recognition of the mortality our musical heroes share with all of us.

Cylburn deals less with such icons of the rock and roll age, and yet one of its delightful tongue-in-cheek slice-of-a-day-in-the-life vignettes, "Moonwalker," finds a middle-aged speaker admitting to himself, "yes, just one more beer would make me willing / to confront the bass line, [and] take the risk / of gliding in reverse across a dune." Fortunately, com [End Page 159] mon sense rescues him, as he asks himself, "But what would I be doing on the moon?" The speaker senses that the wonders of outer space are the province of the Michael Jacksons and David Bowies and Patti Smiths.

So, these two newest collections continue the rich, ever-evolving work Ned Balbo has done to excavate his own history and to pay homage to a shared pop-culture experience, all while effortlessly gliding from one formal rhythm and rhyme to the next. Either book would be a rewarding introduction to a skilled poet's oeuvre. And yet, none of that captures the single best reason for a reader in this country, at this time, to reach for copies of The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots and 3 Nights of the Perseids. The most remarkable thing about these two books is the way that they celebrate human togetherness as a necessary balm against the kind of ache that particularly characterizes these pandemic days (and that will linger with us into whatever is next).

First, Part II of Cylburn repeatedly delights in and gives thanks for the love that two people might be lucky enough not just to find, but to sustain through the work of the heart. Balbo has never shied away from sentiment, but the section epigraph from Donne is particularly naked in its vulnerability: "I wonder by my troth, what thou, and I/ Did, til we lov'd?" If the pun can be forgiven in the case of a poem that proclaims "Love isn't fire," Balbo's section-II speaker in Cylburn has been burned often enough to ask, "But love's not like the rest / of these, is it? –the final things, that last." This follows hard on the heels of the jokey "Rondeau: 'Meaningless Sex'" and "Poetry and Sex," and might seem initially to suggest that, indeed, love is no more than sex—one of those things that does not last.

But no: the rest of section II finds Balbo's speaker—it is difficult not to read most of these poems as being spoken by the same speaker—giving himself over entirely to the belief that love indeed does, or at least can, last. The history of a single relationship is laid out, from an early date in "Near Halloween" ("What if we hadn't leapt aboard that night?"), through the first giddy realization that the beloved feels the same way in "In a Mock-Tudor High-Rise" ("What moment was it when I understood?"), to the fullness of beginning to make a life together, in "In Baltimore, 2004." The last stanza of that poem contains what at first seems to be a rhetorical question: "What more could anybody need . . . ?" But the question is not rhetorical. The poem ends with the answer: "Why, / you who love me, you alone." The love poems of this section of Cylburn are not all about what might be called small-r "romantic love." But a majority are, and the way those poems set their I and thou against the hardness and vagaries of the world makes them seem to have been written specifically for a time in which couples find themselves isolated together in their homes in the midst of a worldwide crisis.

Perhaps even more apt to this moment is the way the entire structure of 3 Nights of the Perseids highlights the fact that we here on Earth all share in a collective need to connect, to care for one another, and to tell and hear one another's stories. Perseids is broken up into four parts, and on [End Page 160] one level, each section contains key through-lines regarding the poems' contents (music in II; the academic and political worlds, and the academic arena as a political world, in III; and so on). But perhaps more illustrative of what Balbo is doing here is the way the book plays with the temporal markers we give not just to our experiences, but to our lives.

The Al Stewart album that the young protagonist is investigating in the opening poem of Perseids is called Past, Present, and Future. The speaker, looking back at himself as a young man in his college's library, asks overtly for the moral of his own story, and then provides it:

What else had I learned?That where the distant future is concerned,no language equal to it can existnor is there language clear and unadornedto show how time recedes into the past.

These sound, indeed, like the lessons that might be learned by a college freshman. But as Balbo's speakers in Perseids age, they take up again and again the question of whether, perhaps, language can in fact be equal to the future, the present, and the past into which that present "recedes." The wiser the speakers become, the more often the answer is "yes."

Part I of the collection opens with a series of poems in present tense, in which the speakers are hyper-aware of the passing of time ("My hair falls, grayer still with every haircut"). The epigraph for Part II is from a David Bowie song about the end of time, and the deaths of Bowie, Prince, John Lennon, George Harrison, Elliott Smith, and Patti Smith haunt these pages. The final section of the book begins with a pair of epigraphs about the nature of the future. So, at first glance, it's all there: intimations of mortality; the question of what lasts; the undeniable answer that, eventually, all things must pass, at least in a literal sense. In the words of the Part I poem "To Genesis and Back," "A Genesis subtracted down to silence / as in its beginning, at its end." It's all—we're all—as fleeting as any meteor in the Perseids' annual show.

Right? Not exactly, no. Not in Ned Balbo's current vision. The speakers of the four poems that end Perseids know something that the teenager in the book's opening poem perhaps does not, yet: that the stories, words, and music we create bind us to one another here and now, to those who came before, and to those who will follow. This is a version of the "so long lives this, and this gives life to thee" idea to which one might simplify Shakespeare's defeating-mortality-through-verse sonnets, but with more of a focus on the collective than on the individual.

"Heirs of Knossos" ends, "The strands you hold will lead him from the dark," which is in itself a reference to the one-on-one relationship between a goddess and the Minotaur. But along the way the poem has tied all of us to these "strands," from "Minoans" and the "Dionysian Cults" to any [End Page 161] one viewing a terra cotta sculpture in the Molecular Biology Building at Iowa State University. "What Words Survive" is a dissertation on exactly that: the so-called "ultraconserved words" that bind together all human language dating back to the Ice Age. "Artificial Age" looks to the distant future and proclaims, "Yes, Prince is still alive & we'll believe / whoever's there to wake & welcome him." The "we" is everyone who comprises the future collective of the species. "For the Voyagers," an homage to the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts that have carried our human message out into the reaches of space for more than 40 years, says it best:

Come visit in the futurewhen, eons away, we'll be long gonebut (knock wood) our descendants will be waitingstill, with open arms, our message etchedin what, to me, looks quite suspiciouslylike Neolithic drawings on cave-walls,mysterious symbols of a long-lost world,abstract designs, crop circles, petroglyphs—our cuneiform of longing, and our song.

The "we" here is of course much larger than the two-person unit of the love poems in Cylburn. But the power of this "we" is just another form of the power of the smaller, localized one. Loss and change and pain are inevitable. Sharing them, singing about them, and then sharing, in turn, the songs we've made of them, can make all the difference here in the evermoving space between past and future.

More than anything else Balbo has written, these two books celebrate intimate human connection as the best chance we, as individuals, have at attaining a state of grace. And they simultaneously make the perhapsradical argument that our shared cultural experiences might even help us to attain a more collective state of, if not grace, at least understanding, no matter how dramatically events and our history seem to suggest that this is impossible. These are poems of a radical faith, the kind we all could use right now. [End Page 162]

Lucas Jacob

LUCAS JACOB is the author of the full-length collection The Seed Vault (Eyewear, 2019) and the chapbooks A Hole in the Light (Anchor & Plume, 2015) and Wishes Wished Just Hard Enough (Seven Kitchens, 2019). His poetry and prose have appeared in journals, including Southwest Review, Indianapolis Review, and RHINO.

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