Empires (Copper Canyon Press, 80 pp. $17, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is the award-winning poet, novelist, and translator John Balaban’s eighth poetry collection. As the title implies, the poems in the book covers the globe. Balaban—a conscientious objector who volunteered to go to Vietnam during the war and wound up carry a weapon during the 1968 Tet Offensive—has not let much grass grow under his feet. In the new book, he roams the planet and the centuries.
The Vietnam War is not mentioned until page seven in the book’s second poem, but that is not the last mention. Far from it. Balaban is one of those poets who has not gotten the war out of his system. Has he even tried to expunge it? I doubt it.
The best way to communicate the purity and power of Balaban’s poetic vision is to quote from “Returning After Our War,” one of his many poems dealing with the Vietnam War. Balaban, a North Carolina State University Professor Emeritus of English, is at his poetic best when writing about that awful war that he was personally involved in, a war that was the subject of his acclaimed memoir, Remembering Heaven’s Face: A Story of Rescue in Wartime Vietnam.
I woke up to animal groans
Down in the stairwell Flynn and Stone
Were beating up a young thief
Who had broken in to steal their bikes
Bucking an M 16 against the kid’s ear
Then punching him in the stomach with the butt
Before they bum-rushed him out the door doubled over and wheezing for air.
I stammered no in a syllable that rose
Like a bubble lifting off the ocean floor.
Ten days later, they were dead. Flynn
And Stone who dealt in clarities of force,
Who motorcycled out to report the war,
Shot at a roadblock on Highway 1.
Nearly all those Saigon friends are gone now,
Gone like smoke. Like incense.
The friends and the adventure exist only in this poem and in John Balaban’s mind and memory. But for now that’s enough. It’ll be a sad day when he puts down his pen and stops producing the best poetry of the war.
Sometimes I have to remind myself that Balaban never wore an Army uniform, let alone a Marine Corps uniform. He helped wounded and hurt children. Hard to top that mission.
John Balaban is one of the very few saints produced by the Vietnam War.