The Light Endures: 13th Balloon by Mark Bibbins
I love how Copper Canyon Press leaves those little no-postage-necessary-if-mailed-in-the-United-States postcards inside every copy of their books. “What do you think?” the card inquires in a pretty, serif font. There’s one line for the book’s title, then four lines for comments, then a check box to indicate if the press can quote you.
I was two pages deep in the draft of my handwritten comment before I realized I would never be able to excise the gist of what I wanted to say about Mark Bibbins’s 13th Balloon. Maybe Mark Bibbins couldn’t either. Maybe that’s why he wrote a book-length poem as capacious as this one. Poetry should be hard to summarize, shouldn’t it? Poetry should resist being “boiled down” or confined “in a nutshell” at all costs.
So, instead of a book-length comment, I printed this note on the card: I loved this book so deeply and undeniably I knew I had to review it for The Rumpus. Please find a much fuller catalog of my comments at www.therumpus.net.
I’m using three forward slashes as dividers for the sections of this review because that’s the way Bibbins separates his sections in 13th Balloon. We’re used to poets using asterisks, Roman numerals, or extra white space—even tildes and infinity signs—as section breaks, but these three slashes helped me visualize the page differently. Suddenly, the page was recognizable as the window it is. We the readers regard the poem in the act of regarding its subject matter, so I suppose there are two windows, actually, pressed together like double-paned glass.
Bibbins’s slashes remind me of window-blinds. The slats are what lets the light in, of course, but also what keeps the light out. There is darkness in this book-length elegy, but the darkness is filtered by and tempered with light. Also: consider the cover, designed by Bibbins himself. Where does the sea end and the sky begin? the image seems to ask. It’s hard to say if this is sunrise or sunset, but the light endures across every splice, and the slatted lights remind me of blinds.
Sometimes, of course, we close the blinds because we want to shut out the world. But not Bibbins’s speaker. Not in this book. These blinds are wide open—a mirror of the speaker’s outlook, his gaze bent toward illumination regardless of corresponding pain. See here:
made every morning
by terrible jaws of sunlight opening
to swallow a song I could never
hold for long but wanted you nevertheless
and always to see.
And then the three forward slashes again, for emphasis, the form reinforcing the content: “///.”
Like all the best books, even small symbols and stylistic choices are multivalent. I look again and see how these three slashes might also represent the relationship (tilted, at an angle, capable of crossing) among past, present, and future. Bear witness with me to one section of this poem in its entirety:
William S. Burroughs said cut
into the present and the future leaks out
When I cut into the past
what leaks out is you
Memory is a game of pick-up-sticks. How do we, how can we, pick up the past without unsettling the present, the future?
The forward slashes are past present future; they’re also the game itself.
The “you” referenced above is the speaker’s lover who died of AIDS when the two men were in their twenties. It’s an act of trust that the poet places the key, contextualizing artifact—a clipping from a newspaper—on the back cover of his book. Does everyone read the back cover first, looking for clues to the contents they are about to encounter? The clipping reports that “Nearly 600 balloons floated over the Washington Park Lake [in Albany] Sunday [early 1990s] as a visual reminder of those who have died from acquired immune deficiency syndrome and those still alive struggling with the disease.”
The news clipping is three paragraphs long. Maybe /// is meant to serve as a visual reminder of how small the records we make of death actually are when compared to the vastness of each individual life. Third paragraph of the news clipping: “For some the event coincided with personal tragedy. Twelve balloons were sponsored for Mark Crast, 25, of Albany, who died Saturday night from AIDS.”
So we open this book like opening a window—to let the air in, to feel on our skin what we have only just begun to process with our minds. The book is an elegy from one Mark to another. The book is comprised of marks made by one Mark in memory of another. Soon, we’ll read between the covers themselves:
You and I never called each other
by the name we shared
It would have been like eating an echo
each of us checking
opposite sides of a two-way mirror
for fog left by his own breath
This book is a poignant love song to a lover nearly three decades’ gone./
This book is a brilliant meditation on the nature of mourning. /
This book is a stunning compendium of recommendations for further reading./
/1— poignant love song to a lover nearly three decades’ gone
Think what it means to narrate the story of a beloved’s life, to tell him about it like two people reminiscing about the past—only one of those people is no longer there to recall. It sounds like this:
Before we met you had moved to Manhattan
but then you moved back
to the crappy capital that birthed us
How many of us did this
floating up and down
the Hudson like little Moseses
who couldn’t make up our minds
That space you see between “Before we met” and “you had moved to Manhattan”—that’s not a typo, an accidental extra space made by this reviewer. It’s a spontaneous caesura made by the author. This book is full of them. Evidence, certainly, of the porosity of text, the built-in breathing room like a rest in music. (And make no mistake: this book is music. To me, this book is a symphony.)
Pause. Breathe. This visual command might be for the reader, the writer, the speaker, all.
These caesuras also make me think of double-paned glass, which provides good insulation. I remember this from my years living in a cold place up north. (Pittsburgh might not have been so different from Albany.) There’s a little space between the two panes. That’s the space between where the poet’s writing of the poem ends and where the reader’s reading of the poem begins. One pane/pain on either side with something soft and warm between them.
This might also be a space set aside symbolically, or spiritually occupied—whichever you believe—for the missing Mark to listen to (t)his story. I went to a wedding once where seats were reserved for deceased members of the bride’s and groom’s families. Which reminds me of another moment in Bibbins’s book:
Is there any song and if there is
what is the name of the song that goes
Now I am your widow
Who never was your bride
/2—brilliant meditation on the nature of mourning
Think what it means to tell the lost beloved how it is to reckon with that loss. This poem presents an intimate analysis of absence performed in search of understanding—possibly peace—but with the understanding that peace may not be possible. It sounds like this:
Since you died a thousand birds
have flown daily through me
each leaving behind an egg
some of which rotted
some of which hatched
releasing more birds that pecked
at my skull
but not generating the noise
and pain one might expect
It’s more like hearing
someone typing an endless suicide note
in a room at the end
of a carpeted hall
Nothing is more powerful for me as a reader, and also as a person, than a resonant analogy. Nothing draws me closer to the speaker than when they can say “this thing I am experiencing [most often an abstraction/concept] operates in a way you will recognize if I show you this completely different thing [most often a specific entity/gesture/activity].” It happened to me in philosophy when Nietzsche characterized the abstraction of oblivion as the concrete and memorable “concierge of the mind.” It happened to me again in feminist theory when Chela Sandoval characterized the concept of differential consciousness as akin to driving a manual transmission and shifting gears strategically, according to the conditions which exist on the road/in the life at the time.
What Bibbins gives me, time and again in this collection, are many ways of visualizing—and consequently facing—grief. When left to its own abstract devices, I find grief remains inscrutable, even tyrannical. Grief begs to be analogized, not to be tamed exactly, but somehow made approachable. The wonder of Bibbins’s book is how it has taught me how to fear grief less by inspecting grief’s machinations more closely.
Or—by analogy: Bibbins holds the flashlight, and the speaker and reader squint together into the softly receding dark.
/3—stunning compendium of recommendations for further reading
Writers referenced in Bibbins’s 13th Balloon include Gertrude Stein, Frank O’Hara, Paul Celan, William S. Burroughs, Mary Jo Bang, C.D. Wright, Susan Sontag, Paul Monette, John Ashbery, David Markson, Don Delillo, “wretched old Pound,” and Jorge Luis Borges. Their presence here comprises a literary constellation—more light by which Bibbins’s speaker attempts (for we can really only attempt) to read in the dark.
Other artists appear in the text, too—actors, painters, photographers, philosophers—for Bibbins’s is an interdisciplinary consciousness. Still, it is literature, his own chosen medium of expression, about which he writes:
When I look into my life I cannot name
the trees but when I touch the books
on my shelf it’s as if I might
feel the trees in them
Do you recognize this sentiment, fellow reader? Reader of this review, and hopefully—imminently—reader of 13th Balloon? (I do. Oh, how I do!)
And what about this gorgeous image-glimpse the poet/speaker gives us of the contents of his shelves? (Ours too, perhaps.)
color sucked from the spines
of books by the sun
I’m thinking now of the metaphorical imperative Leave no stone unturned. In making this prodigious elegy, Bibbins leaves no word unturned, no prospect for sense-making unturned. He consults his touchstones and pivots from them, as in:
C.D. Wright said that elegy is a site
of not loss but opposition
nevertheless if anyone asks me
about death I try
to be optimistic I say yes
there is death
For me elegy
is a Ouija planchette
something I pretend not to touch
as I push it around trying
to make it say
what I want it to say
Sometimes I look at the slashes in this book and am reminded of bowling pins. Bibbins has been writing about the loss of one beloved set against a pandemic of lost beloveds. Bowling is an apt metaphor. Love bowls us over sometimes. It knocks us down. This can be a good thing, a joyous thing. But what did it mean to come of age under Reagan, then Bush—men who denied the existence of AIDS, leaders who denied the existence of queer people, who fought against the reality of their lives and deaths and also, worst of all, the reality of their* loves:
You’d lift your head a little
and say Hey what’d you bring me Boo
and I’d climb into the bed
with you and say Nothing good just me
*///I say their above, but I mean our. I was alive then, in the era this speaker describes. Though I was still a child in the 1980s and the early 1990s, I remember Reagan on television, and later Bush on television. I remember learning in second grade that the basketball legend Magic Johnson had AIDS. I remember learning not long after that a teenager in Indiana named Ryan White had AIDS. I did not know about any gay people who had AIDS because I was not supposed to know about any gay people back then. Most of all, I was not supposed to know that I was one of them.///
I knew what it felt like
to be of a generation fully
accustomed to being struck down
Strike. Spare. This book is about both: what it means to be struck (love-struck and struck-down in the prime of life/love) and also what it means to be spared.
Instead of victim
we say survivor unless
the survivor did not
This speaker is a survivor who did. This book is also a reckoning with what it means to live through a pandemic and then keep on living.
Throughout this review, each time I have typed the slashes—Bibbins’s three or mine emulating his—I mistakenly hit the Shift key and end up typing three question marks instead. You see, the question mark and the forward slash share the same key. Is this a coincidence? Maybe. But it is no less true or salient that every place the slashes appear in this book they could just as fittingly stand in for questions the poet-speaker has yet to answer, may never answer—questions he is only beginning to recognize as the essential questions they are.
Take this moment in the text, which I drew a box around, starred three times, and then wrote in the margin: Crux!
Out of the body come
the usual questions
How are we supposed to tell
the difference between stories and poems
between author and speaker
between terror and meaning
between owners and dogs
between all of us living
and all of us dead
I don’t have answers, not really, though I give myself permission to posit here:
I think this story is a poem and this poem is many stories at once.
I think this author and speaker are the same person.
I think terror and meaning are two answers to the singular question posed by death.
I think no one can own a living thing, and even our memories of living things are on loan.
Most of all:
I think this book bestows simultaneous blessings—and I don’t use the word “blessing” lightly—in the form of a profound contemplation of death on behalf of the living and a luminous tribute to life on behalf of the dead.
Which is to say: In the early 1990s, twelve balloons were released in memory of Mark Crast. In 2020, a thirteenth balloon was released, this one in the shape of a book. I have an impulse to tie a string around it and tether it to my wrist—to keep it with me always. I have an impulse, fellow reader, to do the same for you.