John Balaban

John Balaban is the author of eleven books of poetry and prose, including four volumes which together have won The Academy of American Poets' Lamont prize, a National Poetry Series Selection, and two nominations for the National Book Award. His Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems won the 1998 William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. He is the 2001-2004 National Artist for the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society. In 2003, he was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship.

His books on Vietnam include Ca Dao Vietnam: Vietnamese Folk Poetry, Vietnam: The Land We Never Knew (with the photographer, Geoffrey Clifford), Remembering Heaven's Face, a memoir, and Vietnam: A Traveler's Literary Companion (co-edited with Nguyen Qui Duc), as well as his acclaimed Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong.

Balaban is Poet-in-Residence and Professor of English at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

 

After the War

Decadence amid art deco fit nicely
with her black dress, chopped hair, Chanel cap.
What killed her was the talk, the empty eyes,
which made her long for the one person in ten thousand
who could say her name in Russian,
who could take her home, giving her a place
between Auden and Apollinaire
to whom she could describe her night's excursion
amid the loud hilarities, the trivial hungers
at the end of the American century.

 

For the Missing in Action

Hazed with harvest dust and heat
the air swam with flying husks
as men whacked rice sheaves into bins
and all across the sunstruck fields
red flags hung from bamboo poles.
Beyond the last treeline on the horizon
beyond the coconut palms and eucalyptus
out in the moon zone puckered by bombs
the dead earth where no one ventures,
the boys found it, foolish boys
riding their buffaloes in craterlands
where at night bombs thump and ghosts howl.
A green patch on the raw earth.
And now they've led the farmers here,
the kerchiefed women in baggy pants,
the men with sickles and flails, children
herding ducks with switches--all
staring from a crater berm; silent:
In that dead place the weeds had formed a man
where someone died and fertilized the earth, with flesh
and blood, with tears, with longing for loved ones.
No scrap remained; not even a buckle
survived the monsoons, just a green creature,
a viny man, supine, with posies for eyes,
butterflies for buttons, a lily for a tongue.
Now when huddled asleep together
the farmers hear a rustly footfall
as the leaf-man rises and stumbles to them.

 

Anna Akhmatova Spends the Night on Miami Beach

Well, her book, anyway. The Kunitz volume
left lying on a bench, the pages
a bit puffy by morning, flushed with dew,
riffled by sea breeze, scratchy with sand
--the paperback with the 1930's photo
with her in spangled caftan, the back cover
calling her "star of the St. Petersburg circle
of Pasternak, Mandelstam, and Blok,
surviving the Revolution and two World Wars."

So she'd been through worse...
the months outside Lefortovo prison
waiting for a son who was already dead, watching
women stagger and reel with news of executions,
one mother asking, "Can you write about this?"
Akhmatova thought, then answered, "Yes."

If music lured her off the sandy bench
to the clubs where men were kissing
that wouldn't have bothered her much
nor the vamps sashaying in leather.
Decadence amid art deco fit nicely
with her black dress, chopped hair, Chanel cap.
What killed her was the talk, the empty eyes,
which made her long for the one person in ten thousand
who could say her name in Russian,
who could take her home, giving her a place
between Auden and Apollinaire
to whom she could describe her night's excursion
amid the loud hilarities, the trivial hungers
at the end of the American century.