By Keith Jones
In his most recent collection, Ozone Journal (2015), the poet Peter Balakian braids the “mental thing” of which da Vinci spoke, with things, as he puts it, “on the horizon.” This new volume extends in feel and atmosphere, as well as in its tripartite form, Balakian’s previous collection of poems, entitled Ziggurat (2010), a marvelous combine, à la Rauschenberg, in which life-writing and grief-work interanimate at scales at once intimate and global. These two works — along with the long poem that inhabits the second section of each of these volumes, a series beginning in Ziggurat (as “A-Train / Ziggurat / Elegy”) and continued in Ozone Journal (as the eponymous “Ozone Journal”) — refine Balakian’s larger poetic project poignantly, with grace and verve.
If his concerns throughout his oeuvre have been with history’s traumatic shards, these recent works have an even more exquisite compression of the proximate and the far-flung, the intimacy with which the global and the earthly is now shared. Indeed a feeling for the collectively shared — a sense that all historical events leave their deposits in each of us — is the broader spirit in which Balakian’s poetry now achingly, now painstakingly proceeds. In this most recent collection, the “Historical” breaks down into personal events and experiences that, while the speaker’s own, are never his own entirely — never, as Thoreau might put it, as a “solitary agent.” Balakian’s is a poetics of the personal vividly mired in the confusions of the impersonal, of crises at various scales that belong more to the thresholds of self than to the self as such — Rimbaud’s “I is the Other” in a globally self-conscious, disaster-strewn age.
Through beautifully wrenching instances, Ozone Journal maintains world-historic specificity (“All day I was digging Armenian bones out of the Syrian desert”), while remaining attuned to the smaller fluctuations, more intimate, that impinge upon and make possible a poetic subject’s interiority. These are poems of rapturous diction — of sensuous, geographically specific, felt peregrinations, the wanderings, or dérive, in which our own historical moment would appear to bring forth a seeker confronted by and recording this, our planetary spectacle. But if it is a work in which the global body politic is crisscrossed, examined, anatomized and exhumed, it is simultaneously a work attuned to the most minute genealogies of self, of personal histories, of a kind of biologism at once vulnerable, fraught, ever undergoing erasures, blurs, and disappearances.
We strolled over the river,
as the ultraviolet rays split off chlorine atoms
Ani wrapped in infant pink and white;
at 161st we found the bleachers
where the lights blinded the moths.
Dominican boys ran from scalpers/MLB
cowhide on the hand and heart —
Later walking back over the Macomber Bridge —
chlorine monoxide left us lighter.
The poem’s speaker and his daughter, Ani, are the “we” of this section within the long poem, “Ozone Journal.” At the upper edge of a mid-1980s Manhattan Island they pass into the Bronx at the same scale as “rays” and “atoms,” innocents seemingly untouched by the deaths of moths, the slaughter of cattle, euphemistically marked, but recorded all the same. Even the “Dominican boys” seem lightly threatened by something unnamed, their only salvation pledging allegiance to a game that would not have them but for those things, “hand” and “heart,” it extracts from them as tribute. Back over a bridge, in indefinite space, the speaker will say, “chlorine monoxide left us lighter,” and here we have that sense of a radical particularity and porousness of form that is Ozone Journal’s theme.
Throughout the long poem “Ozone Journal,” the attention turns exquisitely, granularly particular, alive to that very something in the air we moderns breathe, as if sub rosa.
accidents, river haze, CS gas, we moved
with whatever floats — dispersions of self and industrial manna,
the shirtless exiles walking up 158th
along the river where your jewelry was stolen in an apartment
with jerry-rigged fire escapes, an inside job done by
mild-mannered tenants who disappeared into soot fumes
and the nanoparticles of spray-can mist;
by the time we realized what happened
they were in another state.
The particularity here involves as much “nanoparticles,” or, (as in other invocations of the atmospherically molecular elsewhere throughout the poem) CFCs, ultra rays, UVBs, and ultraviolet, infra-CO2, as it does something as fine as a dissolving “mist” at once of graffitists and cat burglars. It is as if the Don DeLillo of White Noise and the Alfred Hitchcock of To Catch a Thief teamed up to shoot a caper in the old Hollywood style. But what is disquieting here is the weight these various “dispersions” take as the last word, full stop (“state”), speaks not of territoriality, which is at first glance part of the pun, but of a total dematerialization of the agent or agents responsible for the theft. This “state” the thieves vanish into, of course, is spatial, the city itself and its warrens. But at a trace level what we have is the rendering of a whole “industrial” era, “whatever floats” literally in the aether of the Anthropocene, “tenants” into “fumes.”
Part of what is so astonishing in these poems is that even with their attention on the granular and their alertness to the slightest fluctuations within or at the edges of things, they neither veer into reductive thought nor posit a crude or heavy-handed equivalency. In an early poem of this collection, entitled “Joe Louis’s Fist,” the riots and their aftermath in “Detroit in ’67” remind a state trooper of “Berlin in ’45,” but these seemingly discrete instances are summoned not as correspondent but as orbital, a constellation of temporalities shattering the chronological presumptions, and assumed linearity, of “History.” In such a mesh or weave, these poems let things flit past, meanings pouring through like water or light; events get stuck or caught or shape-shift before our eyes, dissolve at the tip of our tongues. At one point in “Ozone Journal” the page becomes a tree, the tree becomes like lungs, leading the poet to say that the “yellow haze of the Jersey side” was a “greenhouse-sky” where, canopied along the river, “trees breathed in our respiration.” No thing, no person, no event, no “state” appears fixed or permanent. Even the recurrences of the speaker’s wife and daughter, his cousin, his father and uncle, underscore this impermanence. Neither they nor he recur as coherent, stable selves. All is flux, people even more so than events. For where, as these poems suggest, can the intensity of events — or even the historical as such — be said to reside if not in “the hidden abode” (in Marx’s great phrase) of subjectivity?
The final poem of Ozone Journal, entitled “Home,” stages a series of displacements. It opens in radical disjuncture: “Driving Route 20 to Syracuse past pastures of cows and falling silos / you feel the desert stillness near the refineries at the Syrian border.” In Balakian’s poems, no place — no space and time — is singular. We are at once in upstate New York, the Middle East, the Hamptons, New Jersey, Australia, Jerusalem, Kolkata, London, the Ivory Coast Cyprus, and Manhattan Island. The poet’s felt sense of place names, tied as each is to his own (or his family’s) peregrinations, spins the globe on the head of a pin, where, in a different episteme, there were once angels dancing. But because ours is a world of interpenetrating worlds, the poet moves us from “fallen silos” to “desert stillness,” from Syracuse to Syria, with the ease and speed of a line break. The itinerary here concerns his uncle and leads as well to flashes of his father. Such restless displacement is the diasporic subject’s share, “never returning to / the Armenian village near the Black Sea.”
What is “Home,” the poem asks, but a kind of memory palace, a building haunted by nostalgia’s evocations? And whose “I” is the I remembering when one’s inheritance is a permanent state of dispersal, of bloodlines wherein memory itself functions ethnographically, transpersonally, as something akin to a forensics or ventriloquism of lost peoples, places, sensitivities or sensibilities, at the edges of encounters, instants, sensoriums, events, with time itself a misplaced or misbegotten thing? In keeping with this puzzle, the “you” of the poem is without a shored-up referent. At one point, the poem’s speaker and his uncle fuse, merge into an atmosphere of dispersal. No “you” is one’s alone, as the poem makes clear. What confounds is whether the “you” of a topaz ring seen at first in Aleppo and then in a pawn shop off Lexington Ave., and the “you” at the beginning and end of the poem were or are or could ever have been identical to its various appearances or iterations. Significantly, at poem’s end — which is the end of this collection of poems — “Home” as a place of arrival vanishes even as its “entrance” appears:
at the big glass entrance door, you’re walking through wet grass, clouds
clumped on a hillside, a subway station sliding into water.
In this final line, we are left with a moving image of banishment, the speaker staring at or into the place he can never wholly enter or be absorbed by. The wall of glass he walks into is the wall of glass he is ever walking out of and away from, the place of desire a place of fleeting refuge. In this sense, “home” is never a place of origin but rather a threshold site where one crosses over and returns to first instances; a place, in other words, always returned to in an effort at reconstruction. Whatever its meanings, “Home” lies forgotten or buried, is belated and previous to and yet lying before us, requiring no end of restless, even phantasmal, summonings to enter. Indeed, “at the big glass entrance door,” we are reminded that all place is for us, finally, an inner geography — that “walking” is but a kind of mood or habit of mind, one which literally lies interstitial to the phenomenological world as such, ontologically and existentially. The “wet grass, clouds / clumped on a hillside, a subway station sliding into water” is neither pastoral nor a-pastoral, but an attunement to the kind of architectural there-ness that the poetic I’s imagination is, the reflection of “the big glass entrance door” as real as reality itself — a thing of the mind as much as of memory and no less significantly there for being a “mental thing” (da Vinci). This threshold encounter is emblematic of all that the poet leaves behind even as he is “walking through,” passing over but not into, staring directly at while looking away from desire, from what or where it ought to be, but never is. Such is the zero-degree of these poems, those places or sites or instances in which “O” is at once a number prior to numbering and an utterance at the threshold of language and yet containing all of its expressivity, from terror to awe. It is also the “O” in ozone, the oxygen without which no speaker speaks. At the cusp of ozone depletion, the poet says, “no plankton, no world — who can take in the dread.”
These subtle shifts in tone and feel and scale are what Balakian is a master of — the drifting, split-second mirage, the cinematic dissolve and cross-cut as well as the sculptural, statuesque moment chiseled out of consonant blends and an imagistic, jazzman’s ear for vowels. There is a textured, nuanced music in his jagged motifs, in the quiet, intimate transfigurations of his lines, as if in keeping with what the speaker of these poems tells us Miles Davis once said, “the softer you play, the stronger it gets.” The grandeur and force of Balakian’s Ozone Journal recalls, too, what Agnes Martin once said in praise of Mark Rothko — that he “reached for zero so that nothing could stand in the way of truth.” These are poems of fulsome, kind, painterly perceptions, their truths our truths, beautiful, haunting, plaintive, urgent. In our dying world’s age, these poems legislate a vital comportment to the demands of our shared present, timely and untimely both.
(Keith Jones is the author of Fugue Meadow (Ricochet Editions 2015) and Surface to Air, Residuals of Basquiat (Pressed Wafer 2012). His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Chicago Review, Denver Quarterly, Flag + Void, Let The Bucket Down, No Infinite, Sundial, Verse, and The Winter Anthology. His chapbook manuscript, “The Lucid Upward Ladder,” was named a finalist for Verse Magazine’s 2015 Tomaz Salamun Prize. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts. This review originally appeared in Consequence Magazine.)