Ned Balbo’s “Something Must Happen”
Ned Balbo, Something Must Happen, Finishing Line Press, 2009 $14.00
Editor’s Note: We accepted this review last spring, before Balbo’s full-length collection was published, so it’s our fault this is a bit late.
Ned Balbo’s chapbook is prefaced with two quotations: the infamous lines from Auden’s ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’, which include the statement that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, and four words from Kay Ryan: ‘But sometimes / something happens’. Fitting, then, that the first poem, the sonnet ‘Snow in Baghdad’, should be about nothing really happening when it feels as though everything should be going off at once:
Americans in desert camouflage
Stationed conspicuously, brushing snow
From shoulders, guns, while snowball fights ensue…
The unexpected scene is not beautiful so much as it is sinister: the subsequent ‘spatter of white / on impact’ comes across as an explosion to be thankful for because it is not something else. Something Must Happen, cries the title of collection; the poem moves on with a sense of relief that nothing much did.
Balbo gives over a good third of this little book to evoking his native New York City in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A sequence of six poems called ‘Times Square Post Cards’ is central to the collection, and this follows ‘A Dog and a Wolf’, inspired by a Victorian article from the New York Times. Considering the amount of space given over to portraits of yesteryear in this slim collection of thirty pages, perhaps Balbo’s main achievement should be to make vivid, fleetingly, a vanished world, warts and all, and compare it to our present. And to this end Elizabeth Spires sings his praises from the back page, asserting that he does and admiring him for confronting ‘the present’s inadequacy’. But I cannot help feeling that there is hardly any real substance to most of these poems. They can be very interesting, particularly on historical matters: readers are deluged with titbits of information for those ‘did you know?’ moments at certain social occasions. However, too many lack any significant originality of thought, or literary dexterity. In fact, though Balbo’s work is never sloppy metrically, the language can be flatter than the billboards of Times Square:
…Once, he gave
his shoes to some poor soul trapped on a breadline
outside the hotel, once sang the anthems
of three nations from a balcony
to mark the Armistice. Astor himself
had passed from earthly life in 1912…
With line breaks removed, this could almost be lifted straight out of a textbook.
But Balbo saves his best for the final third of the collection. The double-sonnet meditation ‘Already Seen / Always Seen’ is a minor triumph, accomplished and forthright, imploring us not to dwell on the past but look to the present and future. It is a pleasure to read despite its occasionally forced rhymes, but (to almost-quote Basil Fawlty) I’m not sure how it isn’t a statement of the bleeding obvious:
To feel the past’s more present than the Now,
the Soon-to-Come Reward, or what-you-will,
is to concede that everything we hear
is only noise, faint shadows closing in
that fade in fast retreat, as shadows do,
the treasured past more visible, more true.
‘The Woods’, by far the longest single poem in the collection, rambles from a description of suburbia pushing against wilderness into a memoir that does not quite earn its right to 230 or so lines of blank verse, but can be beautiful nonetheless:
I looked for goldenrod, sun-yellow rows
that split green stems: disliked, but everywhere,
while dead leaves crunched like gift-wrap underfoot.
And the volume ends with two more sonnets. The penultimate, ‘Holy Wars for Us’, is a response to Robert Frost’s ‘No Holy Wars for Them’: ‘States strong enough to do good bring, instead, / more wrong than he imagined’. And the final one, ‘For the Next-to-last Survivor’, is a touching tribute to Barbara West Dainton, one of the two last survivors of the Titanic. This is the finest poem here, and throws readers with a jolt from her survival as a ‘helpless’ infant in 1912, when she left ‘the ill-starred ship / listing below the iceberg’s greenish light’, to her death in 2007, ‘in a future / inconceivable’. This powerful final poem gives cause to be sad that the rest of the volume could not match it, for Balbo clearly has talent.