PATH, CROOKED PATH
Paper, 77 pages, $15
Path, Crooked Path is a poetic journal of John Balaban s journey through diverse cultures around the world. He begins with Highway 61 in America, continues with a long suite on Miami, stops for a view from the Acropolis in Athens, drinks vodka with a Slavic poet in Paris, wanders with stray dogs on a street in Romania, translates one of Ovid s poems on banishment, spins the tale of a medieval Arab emissary s encounter with Vikings on the Volga, and translates Bulgarian poems, one of which contains the haunting line So quiet one hears the footfalls of the dead. This eclectic collection contains many ghosts, some of which still loom large from Balaban s early years in Vietnam, as in this magnificent poem, Lunch with a District Chief, Outside Hanoi:
My American friend, who is vegetarian but not making concessions,
thinks the translator said, Can you eat dark meat?
But, of course, it is dog, not dark. Puppy, not poulet.
By the third or fourth bite, the translation is corrected,
and my friend swallows, smiles, and says it s good
out of deference to our host, a decent man
who was shot through the lungs during our war,
who was sent home to die, and who is now smiling
at the chance, at last, to talk to these Americans.
To survive such a war, our attempt to kill the enemy, and then sit across the table from the man who would have killed you, who you yourself would have killed, with only the desire to talk this is a matter to be understood not after war, but before war.
As Balaban eloquently says in Varna Snow, not far from Tomis where Ovid lived out his remaining years in exile, where Roman ruins lie, where Huns, Turks, Russians, and now the U.S. Navy have provided temporary occupation, Only poetry lasts. Balaban, at his rare best, writes that kind of poetry.