"John Balaban’s Empires is an elegant addition to this distinguished poet’s body of work, and will surely be remembered as one of the indispensable poetry publications of its decade."Literary Matters
John Balaban’s sixth collection of poetry considers America in its innate beauty and complex ugliness, in its powerfully healing landscapes and its destructive misadventures. With a compelling lyricism and cinematic imagery, Empires showcases the pervasiveness of the human spirit across a diverse cast of characters, both modern and ancient. From the rubble of the World Trade Center to Washington’s troops crossing the Potomac to powerful insights into the Vietnam War, Balaban’s genius is in connecting the dots of history. Despite the destruction and persecution associated with empires, Balaban illuminates the often overlooked transcendent hope available through poetry, music, and an unwavering connection to the land. Through heart warming elegies, gripping narratives and new translations from several Romanian poets, Balaban’s poems shine a redemptive light amidst the darkness and chaos of changing empires.
“In a way that few poets do, John Balaban truly roams the globeand the centuries. He has his eye on empires, yes, but also on moments when different slices of history collide... His capacious poems enlarge our eyes on the world.” Adam Hochschild
“In these poems, John Balaban plumbs the recent and ancient past. His generous spirit and technical brilliance cast a very bright light. Empires is luminous work.” Elizabeth Farnsworth
|Publisher:||Copper Canyon Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.30(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
After most of the bodies were hauled away
and while the FBI and Fire Department and NYPD
were still haggling about who was in charge, as smoke cleared,
the figures in Tyvek suits came, gloved, gowned, masked,
ghostly figures searching rubble for pieces of people,
bagging, then sending the separate and commingled remains
to the temporary morgue set up on site.
This is where the snip of forefinger began its journey.
Not alone, of course, but with thousands of other bits not lost
or barged off with the tonnage for sorting at the city landfill.
A delicate tip, burnt and marked “finger, distal” and sent over
to the Medical Examiner’s, where forensic anthropologists
sorted human from animal bones from Trade Center restaurants,
all buried together in the Pompeian effect of incinerated dust.
The bit of finger (that might have once tapped text messages,
potted a geranium, held a glass, stroked a cat, tugged,
a kite string along a beach) went to the Bio Lab
where it was profiled, bar-coded, and shelved in a Falcon tube.
Memorial Park, that is to say: the parking lot behind the ME,
droned with generators for the dozens of refrigerated trucks
filling with human debris, while over on the Hudson at Pier 94
families brought toothbrushes or lined up for DNA swabbing.
As the year passed, the unidentified remains were dried out
in a desiccation room--humidity pumped out, heat raised high--
shriveled, then vacuum sealed.
But the finger tip had
a DNA match in a swab from her brother. She was English.
30 years old. She worked on the 105th floor of the North Tower.
The Times ran a bio. Friends posted blogs. Her father
will not speak about it. Her mother planted a garden in Manhattan.
In that garden is a tree. Some look on it and feel restored.
Others, when the wind lifts its leaves, want to scream.
After the Inauguration, 2013
"Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins."
--Epistle to the Hebrews, 9:22
Pulling from the tunnel at Union Station, our train
shunts past D.C. offices and then crosses the rail bridge
over the tidal Potomac blooming in sweeps of sunlight.
Except for me and two young guys in suits studying
spreadsheets on their laptops, and the tattooed girl
curled asleep across two seats, and the coiffed blonde lady
confined to her wheelchair up front next to piled luggage,
it's mostly black folk, some trickling home in high spirits,
bits of Inaugural bunting and patriotic ribbons
swaying from their suitcase handles on the overhead racks,
all of us riding the Carolinian south.
Further on, where it's suddenly sailboats and gulls
on a nook of the Chesapeake, the banked-up railbed
cuts through miles of swamped pines and cypress
as the train trundles past the odd heron stalking frogs,
or, picking up speed, clatters through open cornfields
where, for a few seconds, staring through the dirty glass,
you can spot turkeys scrabbling the stubble. Further south,
past Richmond, something like snow or frost glints off a field
and you realize it's just been gleaned of cotton
and this is indeed the South. As if to confirm this fact
to all of us on Amtrak, some latter-day Confederate
has raised the rebel battleflag in a field of winter wheat.
At dusk, just outside of Raleigh, the train slows and whistles three sharp calls at crossing in Kittrell, N.C.
Along the railroad tracks, under dark cedars, lie graves
of Confederates from Petersburg's nine-month siege, men
who survived neither battle, nor makeshift hospital
at the Kittrell Springs Hotel, long gone from the town
where our train now pauses for something up ahead.
Nearby in Oxford, in 1970, a black soldier was shot to death.
One of his killers testified: "that nigger committed suicide,
coming in here wanting to four-letter-word my daughter-in-law."
Black vets, just back from Vietnam, set the town on fire.
Off in the night, you could see the flames from these rails
that once freighted cotton, slaves, and armies.
Now our Amtrak
speeds by, passengers chatting, or snoozing, or just looking out
as we flick on past the shut-down mills, shotgun shacks, collapsed
tobacco barns, and the evening fields with their white chapels
where "The Blood Done Sign My Name " is still sung, where
the past hovers like smoke or a train whistle's call.