- 3 Nights of the Perseids by Ned Balbo, and: The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots by Ned Balbo
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...