Wednesday, April 10, 2013

BPR LIT TRIP 10 with Ned Balbo

Sonnets are typically associated with love, given that the first sonnets written in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italy celebrated romantic love and the love an artist had for his patron. For today’s journey in the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40, the Steiny Road Poet will examine one of two sonnets written by Ned Balbo.

Initially “Belated Aubade” caught the Steiny Poet’s eye since the word aubade is a song for lovers parting at dawn. However, having listened to critic Marjorie Perloff on the April Poetry Magazine podcast comment on fourteen-line poems that follow none of the rules of classical sonnetry, the Steiny Poet decided   “Advice from a Friend” looked more like a traditional sonnet. And perhaps, Balbo does not call “Belated Aubade” a sonnet but his unrhymed structure does not follow the troubadour prescription for aubade either. Such is the trend of contemporary poetry that in trying to make the writing of poetry new (as Ezra Pound counseled), poets have come to a pale vestige of the original poetic forms.

“Advice from a Friend” with no particular metrical structure (classical sonnets typically adhered to iambic pentameter) is a nonce sonnet using for the most part near rhyme except for the last two lines that use words that visually look like they should rhyme but don’t. The rhyme scheme is abba cddc efe fgg. The end words are:




Balbo takes his inspiration from Paul Valéry’s sonnet “Conseil d’ami.” Being desperate to find Valéry’s poem and having no luck with Google or telephone reference services, the Steiny Poet threw protocol overboard and contacted Ned Balbo who graciously responded immediately. While a reader can enjoy what Balbo has written without reading Valéry’s poem, the questions that arose in the discussion of Carrie Jerrell’s poem “Before Being Euthanized, Barbaro Speaks to His Trainer” stand tall again— how many layers of understanding would the reader like to be offered and how much work is the reader willing to do?

Without the French text, the Steiny Poet had no idea Valéry’s poem was a sonnet and that Balbo was not just taking inspiration, but also giving his own interpretive translation. Paul Valéry’s sonnet, also a nonce, follows this rhyme scheme abba cddc eef ggf. So here are the two poems, Balbo’s creative interpretation and Valéry’s original.

A variation on Valéry’s “Conseil d’ami”

The color of a woman’s hair won’t matter

when you’ve lit a fire and poured pure gold
into a tumbler; when the book you hold,

more lasting than her touch, or any letter,

carries you, lost, from page to page, through time—

To her, you appear the same: a faded scribbling
missed or misunderstood. Is it more troubling

that some old tomcat, gazing at his cream,

startles at his reflection, at the voice

purring that he should sleep, sleep off the past?

The fire that warms, burns, too: music is noise

to those who love silence best…I still insist

that solitude with a drink by the fire, alone,

is proof against time, and pain, till both are gone.


Verse en un pur cristal un or fauve et sucré.

Allume un feu Songe un doux songe et fuis le Monde.

Ferme ta porte à toute amante, brune ou blonde,

Ouvre un livre à la pure extase consacre.

Délicieusement imagine.—Et Calcule
Que Rien peut être, hormis ton Rêve, n’est Réel…
Caresse ton vieux chat, et regarde le Ciel

Dans ses yeux, verts miroirs du rose Crépuscule.

Puis, écoutant parler l’intérieure Voix,

Évoque le  Passé. Sommeille, lis ou bois,

Et n’ayant nul chagrin, car tu n’as nulle envie

Sens à travers tes jours paisibles mais divers
À travers les printemps, les étés, les hivers

Paresseusement fuir le fleuve de ta Vie!

What the Steiny Poet particularly admires about Balbo’s version is how grounded the poem is in tangible details versus the dream world Valéry’s friend advocates that shuts out the various brunette and blond lovers. Balbo invokes a flesh and blood woman who touches even as she is being replaced by the lover’s book, drink, and fire, which the friend counsels will last longer than any human relationship. Without the original poem, the Steiny poet thought the color of the woman’s hair might reflect her age, indicating that relationships fade as partners go gray and die versus good books, which are immortal. Perhaps that isn’t an invalid interpretation, but it seems misogynistic and it puts more weight on the man getting old himself and how he relates to women—“To her, you appear the same, a faded scribbling/missed or misunderstood.”

Balbo’s old tomcat has personality—he gazes at his cream (how milk has taken on a sexual shading!) and mirrors the man being counseled. Despite Balbo’s cat not being in the room as he is in Valéry’s poem where the friend counsels the man to stroke his cat, Balbo’s cat with his startle reflex activated and his purring seems real while Valéry’s cat seems just a prop.

Both poems end with the human end in view. Valéry’s sonnet speaks about the lazy coursing of the river of life and invokes Guillame Apollinaire’s “Le pont Mirabeau”—the Seine River flows under this bridge—where ephemeral love flows like a current of water and does not return. It’s a tall order to translate this lyric passage but Balbo does it handsomely by working with fire, sound versus silence (“music is noise//to those who love silence best), and a drink in hand topped off by the visual rhyme of the words alone and gone. It’s a strong and impressive but a decidedly different end to the poem.

This lit trip with its unexpected access to the text of the poem under review makes the Steiny Poet wish the BPR had more poems from this issue online on their website.

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