A Review of Ned Balbo: The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots and 3 Nights of the Perseids
A Review of Ned Balbo:
The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots
New York, New York: Criterion Books, 2019
ISBN 978-1-64177-082-8, 88 pp., USA $22.00, hardcover
3 Nights of the Perseids
Evansville, Illinois: The University of Evansville Press, 2019
ISBN 978-0-930982-78-2, 164 pp., USA $15.00, hardcover
It has been a prolific and highly laureled year for Ned Balbo. His two most recent collections—which, combined, run to nearly 250 pages—were both published in 2019, and both garnered prestigious awards. Their dust jackets catalog a sort of victor’s circuit of other fellowships, grants, and awards. No Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad could hope for better.
Balbo is admired by writers and institutions this reviewer holds in very high esteem: Morri Creech selected The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots for the New Criterion Poetry Prize in 2019; in 2018, A.E. Stallings, whose latest collection I reviewed in these pages, selected 3 Nights of the Perseids for the Richard Wilbur Award. Dana Gioia, Timothy Steele, and Stephen Kampa have all sung his praises.
Of these two collections, I will give the limelight to The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots, which includes a greater variety of form and a much more impressive range of subject material—translations, family history, theological and scriptural reflections (reverent and irreverent alike), riddles, occasional verse, and sketches of natural life and household objects; written in blank verse, sonnets (rhymed and unrhymed), rondeau, villanelle, quatrain, terza rima, and elaborate nonce forms.
The poems drawing on Balbo’s family history comprise a good quarter or more of the book’s length. These poems, which might have been collated into a single, long narrative poem, or a stand-alone section, are instead interspersed among all five sections of the book, forming as it were a sort of superstructure to the whole. A good portion of Balbo’s labor must have gone into developing these interwoven poems, and a good portion of the reader’s pleasure lies in following each thread through the book, connecting the various names and relations, each with its own hidden wound. This material stands out from the rest for its memorable portraits, carried out with feeling, but also tactful restraint.
In “The Office Girl’s Secrets” we hear the voice of Balbo’s sister. She seems to draw us aside in some corner of her father’s auto repair shop, commanding our attention and sympathy as she flits from one complaint to the next: the imposing manners of her father, her mother’s deceptive behavior, all the fragility and pain of her youth. Her raw feelings resemble the glass shavings in the shop: “fine pieces fly all over, fragments fall, / even the dust can cut you.” Her plain talk—“It’s hard to pretend you’re someone that you’re not”—occasionally veers into edgy impatience—“Some days, Elaine / (yes, she’s my mother) drops in, looks me over.” That parenthetical interjection briefly broke the spell of this woman’s discomfiting complaint; but overall, Balbo does a fine job of developing both the speaker’s voice and the narrative content itself.
“Questions Asked by Friends and Strangers” also has the reader squirming in a corner by cataloging a series of questions one might ask of an adopted child. It is not clear exactly how the reader should regard these simple questions. On the one hand, they could be simple, well-intentioned gestures of interest and concern; on the other, obtuse and insensitive: “Who were you named for? / . . . / Was it a shock?” Whatever the case, the poem concludes with the questions Balbo, presumably, has been asking all his life:
. . . Or were you so protected by denial
for thirteen years that knowing made you feel
you’d died, replaced by an unwelcome stranger
with your name, displaced, in constant danger
of betrayal, lost in time’s cruel tempo,
blessed at birth, now circling in limbo?
For more of the taut, wide-eyed honesty of these lines I would gladly resubmit myself to the awkwardness of those preceding them.
For the most part, though, these verses trade in polite and familiar pleasantries, avoiding any very striking or original phrase. Given the dramatic potential of the material he has chosen—his own quite unusual life—it is astonishing to encounter so much unremarkable, mundane utterance. Initially, the poetry gestures toward a heroic effort to recover and understand the past, requiring nuance in understanding and . . .
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