Book Review

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

Reviewed by by Lisa Vihos

In Something Must Happen, Baltimore poet Ned Balbo gives shape and heft to the formless, fleeting past—both historical and personal—through his rich language and formalist tendencies.

Balbo employs traditional forms but takes liberty with them to good effect. There is a meditation in couplets on the mystery of the Ouija board, several sonnets—two of which spring from Biblical references, and a series of six poems based on postcard images of Times Square from different eras. The forms of Balbo’s poems never overpower, only provide a subtle underpinning to the emotional landscape through which he guides us.

From the very start of this chapbook, the poet takes the reader by the hand and introduces a variety of intriguing places and situations, putting meat on the bones of people that once were. A long elegy, one of the more seemingly personal poems in the collection, is set on Long Island in the late 1960s. Balbo creates a young boy’s world through image, smell, sound, taste, and touch, telling the story of a once-close friend who suffered his father’s rages for being gay.
A feeling of melancholy pervades the entire collection, as is often the case when the subject is everything that has passed: friends lost, opportunities missed, the drift of time. In the poem “Already Seen/Always Seen” the poet asks:

What is the feeling
when the past, more urgent than the present,
presses forward to exact attention
from the world that holds our real lives?

Often, Balbo’s poems begin with a found snippet that sets the stage for what follows. We can picture the poet stopping in his tracks upon finding a newspaper headline, antique postcard, or vintage advertisement. We see a light bulb firing over his head, illuminating a story that he shapes into a poem. Whether or not his story is the actual truth of what happened is of little consequence. Balbo helps us to see a potential truth through his carefully chosen words and complex rhyme schemes that are often irregular and thus always musical and surprising.

The gift to the reader in each poem is the possibility that Balbo’s version might be what could have transpired. Something must happen, something did happen, what was it?

The poem “A Dog and a Wolf” begins with an excerpt from the New York Times dated December 10, 1879. The newspaper clipping announces, “John Wolf, a 7-year-old son of a butcher…wandered away yesterday afternoon from his father’s shop, and could not find his way back. He was accompanied by a large yellow dog.”

Balbo delivers the story in the first six stanzas, as young Wolf is followed

by the dog that acts as his familiar,
guardian mongrel to the core,
barking at passers by who pose no danger,
growling at those who only want to help.

As dog and Wolf journey through the Bowery squalor, they meet a policeman, are taken to “headquarters,” and are befriended by “Matron Webb,” the great-grandmother of all modern social service workers who has seen many lost boys and whose brief encounter with this particular boy gives rise to this thought:

What life will young Wolf have—
What life did she have caring for the brothers
lost so long ago she can’t remember?

Although boy and father are ultimately reunited and all is seemingly well that ends well, Balbo leaves us on a minor chord in the seventh stanza, a reiteration—with slight alteration—of the end lines of the previous six stanzas in their order of appearance:

Growling at those who only want to help,
the dog, eyes watchful, follows past the squalor
that neither prayer nor poverty redeems,
as if this final stand, this last resort
would bring delight to father and young Wolf
lost, once, so long ago he can’t remember.

The chapbook is bracketed beginning and end with poems that offer images of gently falling snow. In the opening sonnet, we experience a freak snowfall in Baghdad that underscores how a sense of wonderment can ripple through even the most unlikely of settings. The collection ends with a poem called “For the Next-to-Last Survivor.” Here, icy flakes fall on a 10-month-old baby girl in a lifeboat who survives the sinking of the Titanic. The image of the child’s father “scrubbed and dressed” waving to his offspring from the ship as it goes down is a haunting one.

One may be a hapless friend, a lost boy, a doomed father, or a cuckolded husband (as in the lovely sonnet about St. Joseph, husband of Mary). We may think we have no say in what happens to us, but, like seekers of meaning with our hands quivering on the Ouija board, we might. Our unspoken intentions and subtle maneuvers just might be contributing to the truth of our lives as we tumble through time.

Something must happen; that’s the source
of all suspense.

Like the actors in the poem “Actors Talking While They Drive,” Balbo tells us what the past (and the present) keep telling us: Watch the road! We happen. We matter. We do.

Lisa Vihos worked for twenty years as an art museum educator and is now the Director of Alumni Relations at Lakeland College. Her poems have appeared previously in Verse Wisconsin, and in Free Verse, Lakefire, Wisconsin People and Ideas, Seems, and Big Muddy. She resides in Sheboygan and maintains a weekly blog. See her poem in the Work Issue.