The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems
by Ned Balbo
Story Line Press, 2010
Ned Balbo's latest volume, which won the Donald Justice Prize this year, is a tale of two adopted sons: Balbo himself and Edgar Allan Poe. It's also a chronicle of pop culture from Balbo's childhood, weaving together images from television shows like Star Trek and Batman and films like The Invisible Man and Vertigo. This collection of elegantly crafted narrative poems raises difficult questions about home, about the relationship between parent and child, about a society's responsibility to its poor. In poem after poem, Balbo and his alter ego Edgar Poe ask, whose son am I?
The collection, arranged roughly in chronological order, consists of very personal poems divided by a long poem called "Hart Island." Hart Island is the New York version of Potter's Field; used as a cemetery for the city's destitute, including many children, the island also held the kind of institutions no one wants in their back yard: "a madhouse, workhouse, women's hospital"; one concrete marker "warns off those who approach New York's first child/to die of AIDS." Although largely written in blank verse, Balbo's careful word choice gives the poem the music of internal rhymes and slant rhymes like "visit-escort, "shells-walls," and "die-hillside." The cumulative effect is a poem that dresses an ugly bit of history in great beauty. The poem closes with an ironic statement about this island, the final resting place for so many, that "you must not call home." Home is also the last word in the first section and the next-to-last word in the book.
This detailed attention to structure is reflected in the stunning craftsmanship of all the poems. Balbo uses a variety of received forms, but he tweaks them to prevent the music from ever becoming sing-song. The title poem is a sestina about a funny episode from Poe's childhood—he covered himself with a sheet and startled a roomful of guests in his adoptive parents' home—that Balbo transforms from a simple biographical sketch into a commentary on the boy's relationship with John Allan. Filled with Poe's own language, words like tragic, specter, gaunt, ruined, grave, Balbo rhymes "tale" with "vital," "battle," and "brittle," and morphs "grave" into "graven" and "gravestone."
Poe is one of many characters in this book, some real like Joe DiMaggio, others fictional, like B-movie monsters, but the most poignant are those of Balbo's family: both his birth parents and his adoptive parents. Balbo illuminates these complicated relationships in scenes from daily life in a blue-collar Long Island neighborhood. An interior monologue in the voice of his birth father in "Adversities of Fatherhood" gives us one perspective:
he's raised in your own house or given shelter
elsewhere, nor how long…
Another comes in "A Mockingbird":
when danger nears. If she does,
she isn't one; if she stays, it makes her one.
The anger and frustration felt by each member of these families is offset by poems of understanding, even forgiveness, made possible by a poet who as a grown man, can see these individuals not just as parents but as people. Their pride and their unfulfilled desires are seen in poems like "Boiling the Core," in which an automobile radiator serves as a metaphor for personal relationships and their "small fractures healed/by drops, white-hot, wounds/filled with burning silver," and "The Sugar Thief," in which the poet acknowledges that he is "implicated/in your pleasure, crime, and poverty." But their love and sacrifice is also evident, as in "A Diner on the South Shore, 1987," in which the poet acknowledges that "when I visit,/we go out & order anything we want," knowing that afterwards:
kielbasa, charity-mostly his sister's,
whom he visits long weekends in Staten Island
& who sends him home with meatballs, gravy,
A.E. Stallings, who judged this year's Donald Justice Poetry Prize, called these poems "vessels of almost uncontainable longing." And what gorgeous vessels they are! Whether villanelle, pantoum, sonnet, ottava rima, ghazal, or blank verse, these poems exhibit an expertise that makes the form at once foreground and background to the story. A common ballad is given a fresh twist in "Ballad in Borrowed Language," which is about, and constructed with, an older generation's slang:
he'd cut off some "jalopy,"
or race some "coffee grinder" changing
lanes on Southern Parkway—
A strange sight to behold!—in slang
that promised, literally,
the quest for "Easy Street" would end
in ease, "the life o' Riley."
Language and longing also intersect in a terza rima poem titled "Live-Forever":
survive our memory? But August, too,
brought forth, row facing north, your live-forevers:
sedum telephium's flowers, dew—
quenched, close to ground, small clusters purplish-white,
opening more each day. I thought of you,
Not gone a year, who'd brought them, living freight,
from house to house, each time we'd had to move:
they'd thrive, and spread, divided at the root
Into as many as you needed, love
and fury joined in labor through the years.
Like the flower and the woman who transplanted it, The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems is full of the "living freight" that accompanies all family relationships: loss, regret, remembrance, and ultimately, love.—Patricia Valdata