Book Review

The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems by Ned Balbo, Story Line Press, 2010. $14.95

Reviewed by Estella Lauter

This is an unusual book for the present moment in the history of American poetry.  It is a book of stories at a moment when the poetic image is ascendant, at least in the Midwest. The stories are deeply personal at a time when confessional poetry is risky.  References and contexts are supplied with epigraphs and footnotes in the manner of T.S. Eliot, and they indicate that the man has done a lot of research for this book at a time when direct experience is at a premium. Balbo’s explanations fly in the face of another current tendency to cut words free from their contexts even in the sentence or the paragraph. The language is contemporary vernacular, as A.E. Stallings notes in her blurb, and it is often saved from prose only by clever use of traditional forms.  Further, the direct experience in the stories is framed and re-framed not only by the distant biography of Edgar Allan Poe but also by television horror movies and science fiction. And finally, the poem at the center is political! How did a book that breaks so many “rules” win the Donald Justice Poetry Prize?

The answer is: it works. The book tells a great love story to anyone willing to piece it together. The author’s birth mother, Elaine, left her first husband and became pregnant by his birth father, Don. The as yet unmarried couple asked her sister Betty to take the child in secret, pretending that it was her own. Betty and her husband Carmine, a non-union plumber on Long Island, raised the child but were not allowed to adopt him. After the birth parents had become wealthy, they wanted him back, but by then, neither the child nor the adoptive parents believed that “blood” was thicker than the bond they had formed. The monsters from films the boy saw on television while he stayed with his supposed aunt and uncle during his adoptive mother’s hospitalization became associated with the birth parents.  Images from Star Trek on a set in the lawyer’s office when his adoptive parents signed the papers for their house blocked out their conversation about adoption.  Later, the character Madeleine (“Mad-eleine”) from Hitchcock’s Vertigo merged in the poet’s mind with his birth mother in a Shakespearean conflation of identities that is decidedly not comic, although the poem is “For Elaine.” The story didn’t end in 2000 with the son beside Carmine’s hospital bed but continues in voice of the nephew in Jules Verne’s A Journey  to the Center of the Earth, who closes the book with these words to his uncle: “Don’t dare fall silent.  Lead me home again” (p. 78). Although emotion is managed differently than it was by Anne Sexton in her early poems that spilled the beans about her own dysfunctional families, this book fuses love and anger to the same degree.

Balbo’s title remains something of a mystery to me despite the three poems about Poe’s life. It refers to the fact that Edgar Allan Poe was also not-adopted by the Allans who were entrusted with his care, but the parallel ends there—except for the emotional anguish of living in such a limbo, and the possibility of feeling empathy for one man as a result of knowing the story of the other. The title may be a strategy for diverting attention from the author to his more famous counterpart, or vice verse. Alternatively, it may be the poet’s means to imply the source of Poe’s genre of horror fiction. 

Even more surprising at first reading is the long multi-sectioned poem, “Hart Island,” that Stallings says is the book’s “tell-tale heart.” Making a sharp turn from personal to social history, the poet also introduces a more meditative, melodic line in sections that alternate with historical narrative, complete with a few gulls “whirling” over the ferry landing at Fordham Street in Manhattan at the beginning (p. 31) and Canada geese nesting, rooting, wandering and taking off from the rocks at the end (p. 42).  The island, Stallings says, is “New York City’s potter’s field, an island of the nameless and unclaimed dead, orphans, the homeless, convicts.” The poem recounts its history from the present, when prisoners dig the graves of “those without a family,/ those in exile, those who die alone” (32), to the distant past when Siwanoy and Wappinger Indians were driven from the island, and through the stages of its use as a training ground for Civil War soldiers, depository for a Cold War missile base and debris from the Dodgers’ Stadium, home for severe welfare cases, and site of “graves exhumed/ each quarter century, the same earth used,/ dug up again” (p. 41).

Balbo explains in his notes that the poem was inspired by Melinda Hunt and Joel Sternfeld’s book of texts and photographs titled Hart Island, and that additional resources include books and articles by and about Jacob Riis along with the web site of the New York Correction Society.  Indeed, Section II of the book begins with a hair-raising quote from Melinda Hunt that details the changes in burial record conventions from the 19th century, when full names, causes of death and countries of origin were given, to  the 20th century when female children were recorded under the mother’s name, then first names were lost, and finally the cause of death was left blank.  The island is accessible only to those who have permission and an official escort. Balbo implies by his epigraph (and by ending Part I with a poem spoken in the voice of Frankenstein’s imprisoned son) that he was drawn to this history by the terrible loss of identity and humanity it has marked.  A doctor friend told Riis that often a mother would cry “as  much for where she’ll find the burial money/ as for the death itself. So human sorrow/ dies, too, in the slums” (p. 40). 

The central image of “Hart Island” is Jacob Riis’s “magic lantern,” the new technology he used in his public lectures to raise awareness of the “Other Half” of society after he visited the New York Morgue, Blackwell Island’s Penitentiary, the Lunatic Asylum on Ward’s Island and Hart Island.  Balbo’s poem is the poetic equivalent of that lantern, and thus it qualifies as political poetry—not in the sense  of pushing for a particular solution to a social problem, but by illuminating its existence and pressing the human spirit to make room for understanding. By embedding “Hart Island” in a book about his own abandonment  and grace, he writes perhaps the most acceptable kind of political poetry for our time. He is someone who might have been born to a rejected mother on Long Island, or treated as an orphan and therefore led a life that pointed to or ended on Hart Island. Who has a greater right (or responsibility) to call attention to the fate of others who were not as lucky or as blessed as he was?

This is a brilliant achievement.  It requires a lot of its readers and challenges us as poets to dig deeper into our lives for our subjects—not to worry so much about the “rules.”

Estella Lauter is Professor Emerita at UW-Oshkosh and lives in the Door Peninsula. Her first chapbook, Pressing a Life Together By Hand (2007) appeared in the New Women’s Voices series from Finishing Line Press, and was nominated for two Pushcart prizes. The Essential Rudder: North Channel Poems was released by FLP in 2008.