John Balaban’s unique experiences as a conscientious objector and eyewitness to the destruction of Vietnam’s rural population often figure into his poetry. The uncompromising picture Balban so powerfully paints details the plight of the indiscriminate war casualties among children, women, and elderly peasants. Caught in the crossfire between the belligerent armies, these groups were often victims of “collateral damage.”
Balaban’s was not a straightforward journalistic account but instead a young humanist’s response. To develop a rapport with the centuries-long tradition of Vietnamese folk and written poetry, he went back to Vietnam in 1971 and became fluent in the language of this tradition. The development of his craft came from a sense of urgency and outrage; many of his later experiences yielded poetry from early traumatic events.
“After Our War”
“After Our War,” the concluding piece of Balaban’s first volume of poetry, is a meditation in the wake of the peace agreement signed between the United States and North Vietnam on January 27, 1973, in Paris. According to that agreement, the United States military would withdraw from the conflict. The poem opens with an apocalyptic vision:
After our war, the dismembered bits —all those pierced eyes, ear slivers, jaw splinters, gouged lips, odd tibias, skin flaps, and toes— came squinting, wobbling, jabbering back. The genitals, of course, were the most bizarre, inching along roads like glowworms and slugs.
The tone is bemused, detached, and slightly ironic. The concreteness and specificity of the depiction mark the intensity of the experience. After more details of a like nature, the shocked reader realizes that:
Since all things naturally return to their source, these snags and tatters arrived, with immigrant uncertainty, in the United States.
The poem concludes with a sequence of questions:
After the war, with such Cheshire cats grinning in our trees, will the ancient tales still tell us new truths? Will the myriad world surrender new metaphor? After our war, how will love speak?
In “Gerontion,” T. S. Eliot had asked a somewhat similar question: “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” However, there is a significant difference here: Balaban’s knowledge reflects the nightmare of history. Under such circumstances, the poet asks, is it worthwhile to seek after new truths, mediated by new metaphors? Art seems helpless and impotent in the face of twentieth century genocide.
“Sitting on Blue Mountain . . .”
“Sitting on Blue Mountain, Watching the Birds Fly South and Thinking of St. Julien Ravenel Childs,” a poem from Balaban’s Blue Mountain, develops the topic of war and violence in the United States. Sitting, watching, thinking aloud, and addressing the person mentioned in the title is a common stance for Balaban. The poem bears an ominous motto from...
(The entire section is 1432 words.)