...the landline's cut & no one's listening -Ned Balbo, from "Vortex"
The imaginary book party below is the twelfth in a spontaneously invented series–how did this milestone come so fast? In March, events I’d planned to launch The State She’s In fell apart, which in some ways felt like the very smallest loss in an enormous crisis and in other ways was hard. Through this blog feature, I hoped I could do a small good thing for other writers in my position. I’m having fun with it, but it’s a little crushing that we still need to conduct most of our lives virtually.
Reading Ned Balbo’s sixth collection is a powerful and eerie experience right now because of its mix of isolation and intimacy. The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots, winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize and published in December 2019, takes its title from a poem about plants at the Cylburn Arboretum. A companion shows the speaker how leaves recoil at human touch. After they walk away, he wonders about “green fronds unfolding till/ the surface of their sea is calm again”–as if ease can be restored after an interval of shocked separation. Balbo’s title phrase recurs in a poem called “With Magdalene, near Daybreak,” when a resurrected god tells Magdalene, Touch me not. Balbo wonders why Jesus would return only to “order her away” and how she would have felt: “she who’d grieved already,/ shocked, stopped where she stood,/ the world strange, unsteady// though he was radiant…” This book, written well before the novel coronavirus, is about social distance.
Many of the poems in this (paradoxically?) touching collection come from the intimate-yet-distant process of reading other writers; Balbo is also a translator and some of these pieces, especially in the resonant opening sequence including “Vortex,” “began as translations but were transformed along the way,” as he writes in the notes. The book’s middle section focuses on Balbo’s tangled family and I found it, too, intensely moving. Balbo writes often about being raised by his birth mother’s sister, whose story he didn’t learn until his teens. Here he tells of a sister born fifteen months earlier who was raised by their grandmother as a daughter, then later worked in her father’s business–as his “sister.” “There’s just so much/ to carry and keep hidden,” Balbo writes in her voice, “…knowing he exists/ makes me feel more alone…”
I don’t mean to make it sound, though, as if The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots is all about ill-omen and the failure to connect. Loss often frames, and makes more meaningful, romantic closeness rescued from ruins, and Ned’s compassionate imagination illuminates the book. You’ll also see from his answers below that he loves cats, music, and a nice Montepulciano.
If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?
It depends on the poem. For “In Baltimore, 2004,” which takes place in an apartment above Baltimore’s best-known Indian restaurant, I suggest something from their menu for your meal with a friend: Kashmiri naan, two entrées (chicken korma, for carnivores; benghan bhartha for vegetarians), and rasmalai for dessert (sneak it in from a different Indian restaurant that serves it). And wine—definitely wine. Maybe a Montepulciano.
For “Social Drinking of a Solitary Couple,” one stanza of which is about a long-ago Long Island New Year’s Eve: tall whiskey sours with maraschino cherries (the cherries are a must).
For “Rondeau: ‘Meaningless Sex,’” gin and tonics (or gins and tonic, for you grammar buffs): sipping a few with the right person is what the poem’s about, after all.
Finally, “For the Garden’s Architect,” which takes place partly in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and partly in its aftermath (i.e., Hell), anything and everything you can gobble or guzzle. You’ll be ending up in Hell anyway, so carpe diem, as the poets say.
If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?
Fortunately, yes, I’m writing, though the ripple effects of our universal lockdown and general chaos are having their influence. My new poems are marked by plague masks, wild animals running around the spaces we’ve abandoned, corvids of bleak omen (“corvid” is only one letter away from you-know-what), and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine’s 2019 exhibition, “The Value of Sanctuary”—a theme that was more prescient than anyone could have imagined.
As to how I am really, it depends on the day and the time of day. But I’m finding refuge in music, as usual: these days, Roger and Brian Eno’s collaborative ambient album Mixing Colours, Andrew Bird’s Echolocations: River, and Sufjan Stevens’ Planetarium, a collaboration with James McAlister, Nico Muhly, and The National’s Bryce Dessner.
How can your virtual audience find out more?
My website’s collection of on-line links is good for convenient one-stop browsing and is more inclusive than my inexcusably dormant Facebook author’s page. There are also two readings that might pass the time for friends sheltering in place: one that Jane and I gave just about a year ago at the Cross Cultural Center in Williamsburg, Brooklyn [poet and essayist Jane Satterfield is Balbo’s partner], and one from a month earlier at the Newburyport Literary Festival where I was paired with the always magnificent January Gill O’Neill.
And since The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots is partly a book about family, you can learn more about mine (and meet Wyatt, our trusty polydactyl guardian) at Eileen Tabios’ Poets on Adoption blog.