Book Review

Something Must Happen by Ned Balbo. Georgetown, KY: Finishing Line Press,
2009. $14

Reviewed by by Ross Losapio

Ned Balbo’s poetry is defined by precision. His debut collection, Galileo’s Banquet, delves into his personal history, unabashedly dissecting the poet’s secretive adoption and the complex relationships that arise from it. Despite the deeply emotional content, Balbo is able to approach these matters from a patient and reflective stance that acknowledges the past without lamenting it. His second book, Lives of the Sleepers, is a more universal study of humanity through a number of historical, cultural, and biological explorations. This collection also contains elegant verse that makes sacred the commonplace, a trait that the poet has made his trademark. Balbo’s latest chapbook, Something Must Happen, carries on in that vein: beautiful poetry that is deliberate in meaning and in its conveyance:

Something must happen; that’s the source
of all suspense. The town’s main drag,
innocuous, slips past, bright colors
bearing new risks, new intrigue,
plot-twists that viewers catalogue
at every turn. Or else the clutch
is just a clutch: speed through the fog.

—from “Actors Talking While They Drive”

This chapbook, by virtue of the title alone, is anticipatory in nature. As each poem comes to a close, the reader is left breathlessly waiting for what comes next. Balbo, however, is not necessarily concerned with that; his work pays tribute to the moments before action, those events, locations, and feelings that precipitate dramatic change. Something Must Happen follows the trajectory of those moments. It contains the last straws, awkward pauses, and childish inclinations that inform the choices people make and the paths they follow in life. Though Balbo’s poems range from Baghdad to the backyard, Times Square to the Titanic, they compliment the theme through a loose confederation.

The poet’s greatest strengths are detail-oriented. The word choice and line breaks that he employs add additional layers of meaning to his work. “Ouija for Beginners” is a particularly apt example:

in recognition, cold hands quivering,
our wavering

connection to the dead a revelation.
Will a vision

welcome us, tonight, into the dark?
What else might lurk

—from “Ouija for Beginners”

The breaks imposed on the reader create just enough separation for divergent meanings and implications to form. The result is a multi-faceted poem that exists just as much in the empty space of the page as in the ink.

Balbo is not hasty, as evidenced by his writing style. He knows each subject fully before committing it to paper and has no qualms in pulling details from an acquired technical knowledge. In doing so, there is an inherent risk of losing the reader in minute details, but he composes with a confidence that the necessary information will be faithfully communicated:

as when a subject, told to think ‘subtraction,’
demonstrates in his prefrontal scan
the very patterns we record as well

in subjects solving problems at a desk.
From math to murder, traffic lights to love,
each thought provokes a corresponding image

—from “Breakthrough”

There is an endearing enthusiasm throughout Balbo’s work. A new development in neuroscience delights him in the same way that the dead crow in “A Nonsense Name” captures his speaker’s attention; each is a discovery that is emphatically shared with the reader.

The chapbook format affords the poet the opportunity to take greater risks than he might in a more formal collection of poetry. “The Woods,” for instance, is a lengthy, six page effort that surges forward with child-like exuberance, only to double back and revisit details such as the neighbor’s sealed garage or a friend who doesn’t quite fit the mold of suburbia:

The world was not a place that offered shelter
to men like yourself, not then or now.
One day, a last blow sent you out at last,
clothes stuffed inside a duffel bag, the shapes
of trees unnerving as you stormed outside
alone, or met a friend and drove away,
your mother’s shadow passing at the window
nervously, the locked garage still locked.

—from “The Woods”

The speaker, in this case, is only able to reveal important elements tangentially because of his relationship to them. It may take two or three passes at each image to fully understand the gravity of these things, but the poet makes sure the reader arrives at it and that the journey is a pleasant one.

Something Must Happen also exhibits carefully personalized examples of form. Sonnets, such as “St. Joseph’s Struggle” and “Holy Wars for Us” bear Balbo’s mark. He is not afraid to toy with their characteristics to suit his own needs and sensibilities. In addition, the poet may repeat stanza lines, as in “A Dog and a Wolf,” or hint at a rhyme scheme in a way that just consciously registers with the reader, who then spends additional time seeking out such patterns. The result is a playful aesthetic that requires a certain degree of active participation, ultimately providing a rewarding experience.

Ned Balbo’s Something Must Happen displays the sincere and honest work of a poet pushing his own boundaries.  Balbo continues the tradition of eloquent, carefully assembled writing that he has established in previous collections, striking a delicate balance between his own past and a diffuse range of subjects. This chapbook embarks on a theme that is ambitious in its disposition and would be unwieldy in less skillful hands. The final product is best served by a leisurely reading that encourages reflection of the work at hand and of the self.

Ross Losapio is a New Jersey native and graduate of Loyola University Maryland where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Writing and English. He will be enrolled in the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University beginning in the fall of 2010. His poetry has formerly been published in Soundings East, Italian Americana and, most recently, in the Fall 2009 issue of Interrobang?! Magazine. He has also self-published a chapbook of poems entitled The Measure of Healing.