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John Balaban

Visiting Poet

John Balaban

Poet and translator John Balaban is the recipient of many honors, including the Academy of American Poets’ Lamont Prize, a National Poetry Series Selection, the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award, and two nominations for the National Book Award. His books of poems include After Our WarWords for My DaughterLocusts at the Edge of Summer, and, most recently, Path, Crooked Path. A conscientious objector in Vietnam during the war who worked to bring war-injured children medical care, Balaban’s poetry combines the personal experiences of war, nature, and family life with the landscapes of other poets across history and continents. W.S. Merwin writes: “Balaban’s gift for language has been wholly devoted to his need to face directly and mine sense from the bewilderment and anguish being implicated in the history and suffering of our time.”

The author of two novels and two books of nonfiction, notably Remembering Heaven’s Face: A Story of Rescue in Wartime Vietnam, Balaban is also one of the preeminent authorities on Vietnamese literature. He returned to Vietnam after the war to record Veitnamese folk poetry, which are collected and translated in Ca Dao Vietnam, and his Spring Essence: The Poetry of Hõ Xuân Hu’o’ng brings alive the voice of an 18th-century Vietnamese concubine and one of modern Vietnam’s most beloved poetic voices. The spare, nuanced language of these translations allows the poems to retain the playful rhythm and frequent double entendre essential to their effect.

Balaban served as president of the American Literary Translators Association, and currently teaches English and serves as poet-in-residence at North Carolina State in Raleigh.

Select Poems

Screw the fate that makes you share a man.

One cuddles under cotton blankets; the other’s cold.

Every now and then, well, maybe or maybe not.

Once or twice a month, oh, it’s like nothing.

You try to stick to it like a fly on rice

but the rice is rotten. You slave like the maid,

but without pay. If I had known how it would go

I think I would have lived alone.

From SPRING ESSENCE: THE POETRY OF HO XUÂN HUONG (Copper Canyon Press, 2000) Translated from the Nôm by John Balaban

A cliff face. Another. And still a third.

Who was so skilled to carve this craggy scene:

the cavern’s red door, the ridge’s narrow cleft,

the black knoll bearded with little mosses?

A twisting pine bough plunges in the wind,

showering a willow’s leaves with glistening drops.

Gentlemen, lords, who could refuse, though weary

and shaky in his knees, to mount once more?

From SPRING ESSENCE: THE POETRY OF HO XUÂN HUONG (Copper Canyon Press, 2000) Translated from the Nôm by John Balaban

Here, where orchids scent our evenings

and the sapodilla drops its spotted fruit,

gray, gritty, sweet, I raise a glass

of the “poet’s cheap, insufficient chardonnay”

and salute your freezing northern nights,

your days in the muddy slop of springtime

when trillium unfurls its delicate tongue,

where skunk cabbage unwinds in the icy bog,

and bleeding heart trembles in Isabel’s garden.

We’ve never met and probably never will

except in the imagined land of green things

beyond your daughter’s death, beyond folly,

beyond fame, beyond indignation and pain,

toasting the first life in small things

fresh from the earth with their tentative yes.

From PATH, CROOKED PATH (Copper Canyon Press, 2006)

About John

Personal Website
Poetry Center Reading Dates: April 2006