Ned Balbo’s 3 Nights of the Perseids, winner of the 2018 Richard Wilbur Award is a collection that gazes upwards and outwards, as well as inwards, to the heart. It’s the lauded poet’s fifth book, one of two published in 2019 (along with The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots, winner of the New Criterion Prize) and Perseids delights. Balbo’s work is sprung with tight form and awe; the reader can almost see the joy in Balbo’s eyes as he composes; it's palpable.
The speaker of the title poem is anchored to the sky, separated from loved ones. Here the falling stars and the wheeling cosmos above do their part. The spiritual exigency, separation from home, moves through the poem on its many wheels. In this poem, our smallness in the face of the universe is rooted in our love of family. As the speaker looks up, the perseids have already passed by the East Coast, where home lies. A jet cuts the sky on its night flight to somewhere else. It's a lonely moment for our speaker, but one pinned with cosmic geometry. Balbo’s use of “radiant”, and “radius”, in the sestina, evoke the radial shape of the universe where both the speaker and his lover gaze, looking up at the same sky, separated by miles and money. Yet, they can be connected, through the stars, through the jet crossing the skies. It's hopeful, yet aches with longing. Balbo's diction evokes the cyclical calendar of the cosmos, and of course, the ways in which relationships grow or move or both in cycles. “But you saw, sharp and clear,/a stubborn gaze the best ingredient...here in Iowa...saddened by the radius/our jobs impose...we live with it...” It's one of several poems that take aim at the exploitation of the academic class at universities across the globe, yet this poem does not preach, and instead focuses on the stresses of working within the confines of the system, and achieves a poem not only about the stars, but a poem about work, and love, and the emotional work that goes into being a relationship. The poesy’s sharp, and Balbo makes it come off easy.
Pop culture is disposable, cyclical, and in many ways not all that much different from the perseids. Much of pop culture cannot be touched, it is to be chased as it dazzles briefly before fading. Balbo marvels with poems about Prince and the film, Forbidden Planet, to name a few. One of the gems is “Choose Your Own Adventure” which is not actually a poem about the popular serial pulp YA novels which were hot in the 80s, but rather a poem structured like the online quiz that inspired it, the Colorado tourist guide quiz. It’s a joyful poem, light, yet also serious in the way the speaker teases about our precious ego, which is the entire point of online quizzes, which in many ways function as interactive horoscopes. The poem is built in two parts, part one the quiz, part two the results. Balbo’s quiz structure as a kind of self-interview where questions frame the stanza. The poem surprises by both being direct, “Risk is something I avoid/I watch for the traffic on its slow advance” to imagistic, “the skeleton beneath my skin/emerges from its cage of flesh”. The results also move from the direct to the sublime, and Balbo spends the most verse on “The Photographer”. “What do you see? ...everything goes dark...waiting for years for you to capture them/and turn your back...” .
Throughout Perseids, Balbo pokes fun at our follies and interests and celebrates our trivial loves. Facebook and social media get skewered in “deadbook”, and later in part two Bowie, Prince, the Beatles, sing out of the poems, which function both as spiritual/emotional diagnostics and radio. Perseids recalls halcyon afternoons with the windows up and the radio on, a voice reaching you from somewhere far off it might as well be from outer space. But it doesn’t matter, those notes and those voices harmonize, strike within us a procreant urge, or offer relief in the form of temporary escape. Elliot Smith is elegized, Robyn Hitchcock appears, as well as some dozen other rock gods and goddesses. One of the more ambitious poems/monologues in this vein is “The Ghosts of Thunder Road” where the haunting speaker laments regrets and urges Mary, from the Springsteen song, to leave. “Maybe a hoodlum is your best escape...I’ll be waiting when you come back home/alone, or not---when every other ghost/who’s lost someone or gotten lost himself/emerges from barren woods to stand and watch...dreaming of life, in awe of what it holds.”
Like great pop culture, Balbo sneaks in poetry’s own past, Easter Eggs such as Browning’s “Duchess”, Coleridge’s “cavern stream” bump shoulders with a rollercoaster, “a railway straight up to the sky”, or other delicious popular escapades. Balbo understands that on some days we are what we listen to, what we read, and what we consume. I can imagine him in a record store or video store holding court discussing the merits of Johnny Marr’s guitar work or Elliot Smith's imagery. The title, 3 Nights of the Perseids, is also a sly, if perhaps unintentional nod to Three Days of the Condor, a political thriller pitting Robert Redford against CIA rogue operatives stirring trouble over oil. While Perseids isn’t a unified political collection, per se, Balbo addresses injustice, in its many forms, focusing on meritocracy’s failings in collegiate academics, not to mention Flint’s water problems, and the current right-wing grifter running the country, and how we should act to counter such injustice.
And it’s not that Balbo isn’t a personal poet, on the contrary, he is wholly personal. He skillfully weaves the “I” through the compositions whether he’s crafted a poem the Beach Boys, or about Prince Rogers Nelson’s philanthropy or getting lost using GPS. And what we learn about is that Balbo is in awe, wonder-struck, honed in on the “cuneiform of longing” whether it’s pop music from a long-gone club or the way a diseased sea star melts away. Perseids is focused upwards, but Balbo gazes everywhere, to loved ones, to politicians, and to rock stars. The marriage of the low and the high brow culture are unified through Balbo’s skill and formal choices; this collection did win the Richard Wilbur Award, after all, and Balbo’s verse is tight, polished, and slippery when needed. 3 Nights Perseids leaves the reader in awe of the world, the cosmos , and art.
Stephen Scott Whitaker's poems have been published in Oxford Poetry, Grub Street, The Scores, and other journals. He has a broadside available from Broadsided Press. Mulch, a novel of weird fiction, is forthcoming from Montag Press.