The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems

Ned Balbo

Story Line Press: Oregon, 2010

ISBN 10: 0978599721

ISBN 13: 978-0978599720

Reviewed by Lucas Jacob

The writer we know by the name Edgar Allan Poe famously refers again and again to a central fear of being buried alive. Ned Balbo—who shares with Poe some vital bits of biography, most importantly having been taken in at a young age and raised by parents not his own—has in the Donald Justice Prize-winning collection The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems rechristened the father of American gothic literature with his birth name, and has tethered the poems in this appropriately haunting collection to a different end-of-life fear: that of being buried unclaimed. The emblem of this terrifying possibility is a literally nameless infant identified by a “concrete marker” “in deep woods” in New York City’s potter’s field on Hart Island—and by Balbo’s central poem about the island—merely as “SC-B1 1985”: “New York’s first child/to die of AIDS,” described by the poet as “A body set aside/in fear, forgotten: no one’s son or daughter.”

Indeed, it is the long narrative poem “Hart Island” that is the easiest wedge into Balbo’s book, for three reasons. First, there is the straightforward narrative shape of the poem as it tours the island in ten clear-cut sections introducing various bits of the history of the place and the people who have worked it, visited it, studied it, and been buried in it. These characters tell poignant bits of story, related with the poet’s empathy, which must by necessity be rendered with less intimate pain than that which characterizes the more personal—and occasionally confessional—lyrics in the other two parts of the volume. Second, there are the speech-like rhythms that, while not always adhering to the strict blank verse of a line like “the ferry landing’s flag at Fordham Street,” do tend toward conversational five-beat lines and feature the kinds of soft alliteration and assonance found in that passage. Finally, and perhaps most instructively, there is the figure of Jacob Riis, the “reporter and amateur photographer/appalled by slum conditions” who “found the means/to bring the truth [of urban poverty] to light” in the late nineteenth century and used photographs of Hart Island as object lessons for his well-heeled audiences, who flocked to church halls and “ate…up” the combination of horror, guilt, and schadenfreude that came with Riis’s first-generation slide shows.

Riis is a figure about whom the speaker in “Hart Island” is understandably ambivalent. The irony of making one’s fame and fortune out of the anonymity and poverty of the lives of others is inescapable:

Soon the world would see,
         captured on glass plates, grief and poverty
         few knew beyond the multitudes who lived
         its daily deprivations. People paid
         to hear Riis lecture.

However Riis is the most instructive figure in “Hart Island,” even more so than the nameless infant, because he is the poem’s version of Balbo-the-poet. A reader can find in Balbo’s description of Riis’s slide shows a way of understanding what Balbo himself is doing in the poems in Parts I and III of The Trials of Edgar Poe. Pick up where the passage above left off:

         Riis lecture[d], while his “magic lantern,”
         one view fading while the next appeared,
         projected on church walls or linen screens
         the lives of those he’d now illuminate:
         mothers in bare rooms, seated next to barrels,
         bellows or buckets, babies in their arms;
         “street arabs” (orphaned boys) locked arm in arm.

In a book in which the “magic lantern” of verse is used to “illuminate” the lives of mothers (both birth and adoptive) and fathers now lost and of an infant who would grow up into the speaker of many of Balbo’s poems—a speaker who at his lowest moments fears that he is in fact an “orphaned” boy—this passage stands as an oblique ars poetica.

Read in the context of Riis’s “fading” images of “real life,” Balbo’s justly-celebrated renderings of pop-culture-infused boyhood memories become even more poignant. The collection opens with the wordplay-rich “The Universal Monsters,” dedicated to the poet’s adoptive father, Carmine. The poem shifts between memories of sharing a hospital vigil with Carmine and memories of watching werewolf and mummy films and working with Carmine on models of the films’ creatures. It is literally of Lon Chaney, Jr.’s werewolf character that Balbo writes, “the beast below/his skin would surface, howling in the rain,” but the reader knows that it is the fear of a parentless life that keeps rising to the surface of the child’s mind, causing him to feel that something more awful than a Hollywood monster “ha[s] attacked [him].” The “universal monster” of “The Universal Monsters” is the possibility of having been cast alone into a strange world. Balbo tells Carmine, years later and across the gulf between life and death, “I felt you’d lifted me/from some long-cursed sarcophagus adrift/in sand and catacombs.” But even salvation is fragile; the poem’s penultimate line, in which the speaker’s world has become a film like the ones on late-night TV, asks, “How would it end?”

That question is Balbo’s invitation into the rest of the book and the very personal stories that follow in Part I find the poet doing the Jacob Riis-like work of capturing and holding still the most unguarded moments of family life. At every turn the reader feels the tension between being grateful for the love and work of adoptive parents and being frightened that familial stability is a fleeting thing. Just as Balbo plays with the word “universal” in the first poem, so does he play with the word “enterprise” in the second poem, “Elusive Enterprise,” in which the “enterprise” in question is both the Star Trek starship on TV and the speaker’s adoptive parents’ attempt to fend off a legal challenge to their status as such. The slant rhymes of this modified villanelle are easy to admire, as is the longing created by Balbo’s line breaks as he writes of “parents who’d raised me, theirs/alone almost from birth” and describes himself as “legally/no one’s, perhaps.” Manipulating structures of line to bring weight to words and phrases like “alone” and “no one’s” is perhaps the most captivating facet of Balbo’s use of forms; verbal and situational ironies like those that drive “Hart Island,” “The Universal Monsters,” and “Elusive Enterprise” are perhaps the keys to understanding Balbo’s rhetoric. All of this is on display in the sonnet “The Invisible Man’s Escape,” in which the speaker as a boy can relate all too well to the movie figure’s awful, ironic dilemma: in order to be safe, he must unravel the bandages that are the only thing giving him form, making him known as an existent human being. The ending couplet is heartbreaking, as the character onscreen must undertake an action that will cause him “to feel not fear/but only certainty that nothing’s there.”

It is the primal human need to be certain that something or, more accurately, someone IS there that drives the poems in Part III of The Trials of Edgar Poe. Five of the last seven pieces in the book pay direct homage to the speaker’s adoptive parents, and each of these five is an elegy of sorts for the father Carmine or the mother Betty. The scenes are simple and domestic: a mother gardening, a father and son sharing a meal at a diner during the father’s old age. Again, the primary tone is one of gratitude for love given and hard work done. In “View of a Gardener’s Daughter,” Balbo remembers how Betty would “[turn] the soil/first with a hand-held spade, then with [her] fist,/picking stones out one by one,” and we know that that kind of care—not the fact of biological birth—is what makes a parent. But Balbo’s precise, efficient images never stray far from the loss and fear of loss that haunt the book like images of premature burial haunt the works of Poe. In “A Diner on the South Shore, 1987,” Balbo reminds us that even once he is claimed, he is not claimed forever, since all parents are, naturally, mortal:

         The cash drawer slides, bangs shut; dishes clatter,
         steel doors slam: only one dinner in hundreds,
         though one, someday, will be the last—

Of course, Balbo knows that no one is claimed forever, regardless of where, how, and with whom one lives one’s life. In the last lines of “Hart Island,” he writes of the “nameless dead” that “their term [is] like yours uncertain, short years served/upon an island you must not call home.” This reminder that no mortal being has a permanent home—spoken bluntly to the reader, in the second person—would be stark almost to the point of being maudlin were it not for the fact that Balbo so often also reminds us of the grace we find in our time with each other on this “island” of life on Earth.

He closes his book, fittingly, with a poem after a work of science fiction that might have been called “pop culture” had the term existed in the nineteenth century: Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth. The poem is entitled “The Whispering Gallery,” after the twenty-eighth chapter of Verne’s novel, in which the hero is saved from a life-threatening situation via an intimate conversation with an uncle who is over four miles away at the time. What miraculous fact allows this? The “whispering gallery” effect whereby the two characters’ voices can meet over a distance that does not allow their corporeal selves to touch. Balbo’s last line, delivered in the voice of Verne’s narrator pleading with the uncle character to keep up the life-saving conversation, is of course also Balbo’s own plea to his parents (both by birth and by adoption) who have passed on before him as well as his last reminder that words themselves are one of our best weapons against our fears: “Don’t dare fall silent. Lead me home again.”