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 War, Words for My Daughter, Locusts 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.

Poetry Center Reading:

Spring 2006

On Sharing a Husband (By Hồ Xuân Hương)

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

Three-Mountain Pass (By Hồ Xuân Hương)

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

A Note to Hayden Carruth from Miami

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)

Van Gogh

              translated from the Bulgarian with the author,
              Lyubomir Nikolov

Well, he lived among us and hated winters.
He moved to Arles where summer and blue jays
obliged him to cut off his ear.
Oh, they all said it was a whore
but Rachel was innocent. When cypresses
went for a walk in the prison yard
he went along and sketched them.
His suns surpassed God’s.
He spelled out the Gospel for miners
and their potatoes stuck in his throat.
Yes, he was a priest in sackcloth, who hoped
that one day humans would learn to walk.
He willed mankind his shoes.

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