Image of Empires
Release Date: 
September 17, 2019
Copper Canyon Press
Reviewed by: 

“Balaban satisfies all in this collection of permanent memories, memories of war, showgirls, coyotes, and so many more.”

John Balaban creates worlds within worlds in his latest collection, Empires. Each poem is enriched by cultural images that compel us to dive into their landscapes and experience unusual scenery so engaging that they become special worlds of multifaceted delights.

“Returning After Our War” is a sentimental poem in five movements about the poet’s experience during the Vietnam War. It starts with a narrative about how metropolitan Saigon has transformed since the war, and then moves to reflections on opium, an abandoned house in Saigon, Hanoi street traffic, and then a final farewell to Hanoi’s central lake. Balaban creates a sentimental metaphor for melancholy and loss from his memories, as if traditional Vietnamese culture has been forgotten since his war-time encounter. It is captivating.

“A Miami Moment” captivates through the absurdity of life in Miami. Peace transforms to chaos when a man relaxing in a pleasant tropical setting where “A flock of parrots mutters / in the sea-grape tree. The ylang-ylang / has put on its evening perfume” is suddenly quashed by “maybe fifty vultures circling, / wings underlit by the setting sun / in a swirl of slow turning light. // The magic in the realism / never far away.” There is always a twist in poetry, a transformation. And here Balaban creates a sense of irony through “realism,” as no landscape is truly serene. 

Poems spark revelations with metaphors and images. They must be precise to eliminate confusion, especially in shorter poems. “El Mercado” is one long run-on sentence in two stanzas, which creates a steady stream of consciousness. The landscape is an old market with a “big display of flyswatters / next to the dusty ketchup bottles, / the aisle of chips and salsa . . . the rotting avocados . . .”

Balaban creates senses of calmness and sympathy in “El Mercado” by transforming a scene of absent shoppers, and how no one has visited for a very long time, thus buyers won’t find what they are looking for. Time has permanently stopped in this scene, and Balaban captures its permanence with precise images.

At 88 pages, Empires is a quick read, yet readers will frequently return to the collection. Each poem is multilayered, which enables multiple interpretations. There are many ways to enjoy poems, and Balaban satisfies all in this collection of permanent memories, memories of war, showgirls, coyotes, and so many more.