Issue 19: John Balaban


               Writing poems about writing poems

               is like rolling bales of hay in Texas.

               Nothing but the horizon to stop you.

                —Ruth Stone, “Always on the Train”

1. The Poets

descend on us like locusts

wings filmy, bright, whirring ambitions

with mandible greed for green expanses,

for tended lushest leaf, all foliage,

the fury of their wing-beats

deafening and familiar.

A swarm out of Egypt

eating everything in their path. 

But some sing.  The Cicadidae,

burrowed deep in dark earth for years,

crawl out to creep up trees, eating nothing,

just inching towards sunlight,

abandoning dry husks, pitching out

cascades of calls from sunlit treetops.

2. Country Scene

The waterfall plunges in mist.

Who can describe this desolate scene:

the long white river sliding through

the emerald shadows of the ancient canopy

... a shepherd's horn echoing in the valley,

fish nets stretched to dry on sandy flats.

A bell is tolling, fading, fading

just like love.  Only poetry lasts.

—Hồ Xuân Hương (c. 1800), translated from her Vietnamese here:

Tức cảnh

Thấp thoáng đầu ghềnh lún phún mưa

Đố ai vẽ được cảnh tiêu sơ

Xanh om cổ thụ chon von tán

Trắng toát tràng giang phẳng lặng tờ

Còi mục thét lừng miền khoáng dá

Lưới ngư giang gió bãi bình sa

Chuông ai đất nối bên kia tá

Ương lở chung tình một túi thơ.

3. A Visit From His Muse

“... the goddesses said to me — the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who holds the aegis:

‘Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.’

... and they plucked and gave me a rod, a shoot of sturdy olive, a marvelous thing, and breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things that were aforetime; and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally, but ever to sing of themselves both first and last.”

                                                 Hesiod, Theogony, 1.22

“Honey,” she said, “well, here we are again.”

She plucked at a hole in her panty hose.

“A run-down room in a backwater town

and you, love, want to dance in light.”

He shuffled his shoes and muttered

he was “eating salads and laying off the booze”

and hoped she’d bite, agree to stick around

and set things right in the wretched room.

“Baby” (she said), “you even know what you want?

’Cause maybe you need another kind of girl.

You can’t make time with your Muse. Oh, my.”

She fluffed the pillows, smacked the sheets for fleas.

At dawn the doves were cooing on the ledge.

A fading moon slid softly from his bed.

John Balaban’s books of poetry have received two nominations for the National Book Award. His Locusts at the Edge of Summer won the 1998 William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. His latest book of poems is entitled Path, Crooked Path. His Words for My Daughter was a National Poetry Series Selection. Balaban is the editor and translator of Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong. Recently he was awarded a medal from Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture for his work in translation and preservation of ancient texts. Balaban is Professor Emeritus of English at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.