8 PUBLICATIONS by MICAH BALLARDGUILLERMO PARRA Reviews
Micah Ballard’s poems in 6x6 #5
(Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2001)
Negative Capability in the Verse of John Wieners by Micah Ballard
(San Francisco: Auguste Press, 2001)
Absinthian Journal by Micah Ballard
(San Francisco: Old Gold, 2002)
Bettina Coffin by Micah Ballard
(Portland: Red Ant Press, 2003)
Scenes from the Saragossa Manuscript by Micah Ballard
(Snag Press, 2004)
Unforeseen by Micah Ballard
(Cambridge: Faux Press, 2004)
Death Race V.S.O.P. by Micah Ballard (co-written with Cedar Sigo and Will Yackulic)
(Portland: Red Ant Press, 2005)
Evangeline Downs by Micah Ballard
(Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2006)
Regarding Micah Ballard
I first became aware of Micah Ballard’s poetry at the end of 2001, when I read his work in issue 5 of 6x6 magazine. That issue opened with Frank Lima’s stunning poems in response to the events of September 11th. Soon afterwards, 6x6 #5 became a collector’s item when most remaining copies were destroyed in a fire. Since being introduced to his work, I have associated Ballard’s poems with the rarity and power of that particular issue of 6x6, destroyed by fire, clothed in archaic stanza forms and inhabited by ghosts we might not perceive as such, unrecognizable and camouflaged in the sweetest of lyric pulses. Ballard’s sparse stanzas (one poem in sestets, the rest in tercets) contrast nicely with the effusive torrent of imagery and allegorized grief in the longer lines of Lima’s work. In Ballard’s four poems for that issue, one finds a fully developed writer, his tone formal and elusive. Ballard is assured of his own sound, and he allows the reader to share in that bravery, that generous confidence. The first of his four poems, called “Of Yours,” begins thus:
What I’ve become is nothing
other than what I used to be
soon as you place me there.
Neither now nor ever
have I been anyone, besides
that who you wanted me to.
Which is to say, Thanks to You
I am more myself today
than I have been any other.
It is this easiness & prodigality
wherein again I lose myself
that I give you what you want
& so am sitting here, crotch
in hands, alone, wanting to be
just that. Or somewhat in this way
of speaking, manage to turn into
great personages so shaped by you.
What astonishes me when I read Ballard’s 6x6 poems is how he situates each text as an intimate collaboration with the reader. We are kept at a distance (“…alone, wanting to be / just that…”) yet still drawn into a type of communion with the lines, asked to stay close, to listen and watch the lines make their music. This direct address to the reader reflects the poet’s conception of reading and writing as forms of friendship. One befriends the poet through his or her work, delighting in commonalities and disagreements via the magic of the page, held up by the poem’s architecture. In “Impromptu,” he reminds us that poems hold a type of time-machine power in their structure:
& smoke, so I have
one more drink
bring out the bottles
take another toke.
Then back to books
& onto the street for looks,
where I find my friends
especially, the old ones
who no longer live
but are alive
in someone else’s heart.
In the spring of 2004 I showed my 88-year-old grandmother, who was a painter, a copy of Ballard’s Absinthian Journal, published two years earlier in San Francisco by Cedar Sigo’s Old Gold imprint. After flipping through the book, she chuckled and commented on the ever-diminishing amount of absinthe in the bottle portrayed in seven drawings by Will Yackulic that accompany the sequence of sestets. She mentioned how many of her favorite XIX century French painters often indulged in that turquoise liquor. She also noticed the skull that appears on the empty bottle’s label in the final drawing. As an artist, my grandmother often noticed the smallest details in a work of art, and she was aware of how those tiny moments can sustain an entire work. Now that my grandmother is no longer here, I fondly recall that afternoon together at her home outside Boston, as we flipped through the pages of Ballard’s book together for a few minutes. I’m pleased to think she might have noticed the enchanting, jagged rhythms and imagery of the opening poem in Absinthe Journal:
Tripped into a turquoise
tomb garden & suffering
from a nervous exhaustion
again I am eaten by the remains
of that classic pain red love
now burnt black. Out of all beauty
Death is a dynamic, almost inspirational, presence in much of Ballard’s writing. Not necessarily in an anguished or lamenting mode, but rather in the spirit of the realism so often invoked in hip-hop culture. Ballard is, as I read him, a hip-hop poet. And I’m not insinuating that one read him within a musical or pop culture context, though those elements can be found in his poems. By hip-hop, I mean he invents and thrills through minimalist Romantic techniques, street-hardened yet always ready to divulge an earnest vulnerability in his verses.
The beautiful, hand-made Old Gold edition includes green end paper that allows one to read the title page through a filter of solid absinthe. Before the book begins, one is already immersed in the intoxicating effects that Ballard’s poems depict and induce. Beauty does not, however, imply an escape from reality or suffering. Ballard is not an escapist, though his poems can often transport one beyond material reality. When I associate him with hip-hop culture, I’m trying to point out the extreme realism that inhabits his fantastical stanzas. As when he writes, again in Absinthe Journal:
into those shadowed places
of vague horror where doubled
in subterranean removals
the moon bleeds white crosses
across the sky & the colors
of sorrow soundsear in fear
Had my grandmother been able to sit down and read the poems in this book more closely, I imagine she would have approved of their painterly quality, the wash of colors and emotions Ballard can invoke for the reader on every page. In his poetry, one never knows what image or sound might appear next. He tends to work in fixed, or traditional, stanza forms. This might be as a way to assure his visual imagination is provided an adequate stage to perambulate. Again, the hip-hop I associate Ballard’s aesthetic with is rooted in ancient cultural techniques, that can be found in the archival poem-songs of African griots or the political and social commentary of Shakespeare’s multitude of characters.
Besides the audacity and beauty of Ballard’s poems, what excites me about his writing is that he works exclusively in semi-secretive, one could say epistolary, forms of publication, including limited edition chapbooks, magazines and web publications. It is thrilling to know that his poems live and breathe in such hand-made, organic editions. One is reminded of the humble, utilitarian folios that actors used for memorizing plays in the Elizabethan era, talismans the reader can carry anywhere.
Portland’s Red Ant Press has published two texts by Ballard. The first of these is a long poem in eleven parts called Bettina Coffin. While I am looking at Ballard’s work more or less chronologically here, this book reminds one of the consistency and timelessness of his poetic project. Born in Louisiana in the 1970s and now a resident of San Francisco, where he works at the New College of California, Ballard does make specific references to time and place. And yet, I keep noticing an effort in his poems to write verse that will not be contained by local or chronological factors. Instead, it is an allegiance to his “friends / especially, the old ones / who no longer live” that animates his work. This is where the reader is provided free reign within his poems, invited to participate in a ritual that transcends our limited decades of physical existence. Ballard is writing for the archive, acknowledging our temporary nature, even while singing of his own relative youth. He writes under the sign of a Keatsian self-awareness that sees youth’s illusory nature, “this living hand” the poet stretches out to his lover, and by extension to his readers.
The first section of Bettina Coffin, which I quote in full below, opens a conversation that could be heard as frantic, or maybe as being deeply engaged with a person beyond the poem’s reach:
Who is that shouting at me? Is
it you old friend
turned back from dust
Down. Is it now I come see
look who else is in
for the chanting. Through
& through I knew you then
as you do me
somehow right now.
This is Ballard’s method for invoking a listener beyond the stage of the poem. It might be us as we read his work, or it could be ancestors or friends from distant regions. What remains clear is Ballard’s belief in the poem as an invocation, a ritual that can transport and protect specific moments chosen for their power to move us. In this respect, I associate Ballard with a Romantic tradition that balances pleasure, poise and solitude, the intimate relationship a poem can provide for friendship and companionship, across the street and across decades or centuries. This transcendental impulse is never frivolous, perhaps because Ballard maintains an awareness of how fragile a concept lineage can be. The poet writes to continue a tradition that is never completely safe from the threat of annihilation. In part VI of Bettina Coffin, he refers to this link between self and past:
Loyal to death
my knowledge of the Cult comes
from my African Ancestors
“& this is Charles the Grinder speaking,
one hundred & twenty two years after
Marie Laveau has died, June 16, 1881
on St. Anne Street. & I have come
with the moon in the sky
percolating & simulating according to
certain mineral matter which I expose
The second Ballard book published by Red Ant Press is the more recent Death Race V.S.O.P., written in collaboration with Cedar Sigo and Will Yackulic. Composed as those poems are in a spirit of communal anonymity, one can still make out Ballard’s distinctive voice among the short, violent lyrical bursts of that collection. Poetry is understood as an “encrypted order” that the reader and writers are inducted into through the process of composition and reading. As the three poets dissolve themselves in collaboration, likewise the reader is included as yet another component of the verses. One can think, for instance, of Rimbaud’s direct address to his readers throughout Une saison en enfer. These poems carry that same intense playfulness, violence and irony that Rimbaud employs in his final book.
Jack Kimball has done us all a favor by releasing Ballard’s Unforeseen (2004) as part of his series of online books for Faux Press. Anyone with access to the Internet and a printer can have a copy of this great book. Before you finish reading this review, go to the link above and print it out. Unforeseen has several poems that are published elsewhere. I’d like to cite an entire poem from this collection, one also included in Evangeline Downs, because it so clearly delineates Ballard’s allegiances:
right pec & serpent
with jaws open
on left shoulder.
with Exodus 18:11
across back, Playaz
on nape of neck.
Christ in crown
of thorns & flames
on left biceps
Heartless with skull
& crossbones on right.
50 Niggaz over sternum
Fuck the World
in script across shoulder
blades & trapezoids.
Laugh Now with mask
of Comedy on lower
sides of back, Cry
Later with mask
of Tragedy. Outlaw
down left forearm
Thug Life with bullet
The poem is obviously, at first glance, a portrait of slain rapper and pop culture icon Tupac Shakur. I must admit I was never compelled by Tupac’s style and I found his death to be a predictable, if tragic, result of a life lived dangerously and foolishly. So, ostensibly this poem should mean very little to me, as I prefer a version of hip-hop one might find in figures like Jean Grae, Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Ghostface or Nas on his first LP, rap experimentalists who continually fuck with form and the lyric impulse, contradicting themselves and challenging the listener. I’ve always found Tupac’s work to be dull and commercial. And yet, I keep returning to this poem for its elegiac portraiture and in turn I’m taking the time to reconsider Tupac’s value as an artist fully immersed in his particular era, the 1990s. As Ballard portrays him, he is archived through the tattoos that grace his magnetic but doomed body.
The enjambments of these stanzas echo the hard edges of his short life, lived as it was under the imperfect glare of fame and a commodification that helped to destroy him. Ballard has reminded me why that particular rapper resonates so deeply with millions of listeners across the globe. His contradictions and ancestry written out across his body in tattoo script, he is poetry brought to living fruition. When I read the poem, I think of him in his brilliant role in the film “Juice” (1992), where he portrayed a charismatic criminal who was ruthless yet sweet, poised between survival and generosity. Through Ballard’s homage, I can stop to appreciate Tupac as a poet immersed in life, an artist who embodies the contradictions and brilliance of an autochthonic and visionary art form.
Since finding a copy of Scenes from the Saragossa Manuscript a couple years ago in New York, I’ve tried to hunt down the film the title refers to, directed in the mid-1960s by the polish director Wojciech Jerzy Has, who in turn adapted his work from a novel by Jan Potocki (Poland, 1761-1815). The story concerns a French officer during the Napoleonic wars who discovers a manuscript in the Spanish city of Saragossa. Ballard’s ekphrastic sequence of 10 poems in unrhymed quatrains is printed in a beautifully crafted edition by Snag Press, with an inside cover displaying a scene from the film: a man hiding his face behind a human skull. I’ve also tried to find out who edits Snag Press and from where but to no avail. So, for me, this manuscript is clouded in bibliographical mystery, though if anything that serves this sequence of poems quite well.
Rereading this book, I’m immediately drawn into its oblique drama, the pull of the semi-archaic language Ballard employs in his carefully chosen lines. The texture of his language is what keeps me informed despite my lack of knowledge about plot details and references to the film. Ballard is writing an ars poetica at times in these quatrains, asking the reader to remember that poetry should be an adventure, a dangerous and exhilarating excursion. One that begins or rests on the page but which is never limited to that precinct alone. Section “III” of the poem brings us to ideas encountered in much of his work: the relation between poetry and death, not as a melodramatic or nihilistic bond, but rather as a spiritualized one. I quote in full:
But to sit on the throne in Tunisia
among harems, gardens & fountains
in the company of Golemez women
as to have drunk from their chalice
this potion. At mercy of crows
& unknown powers am I still too young
to be a cabalist? Tho I carry also
the same rope ‘round my neck. Yet
to experience poetry w/out ghosts
hang a mirror outside the door
shunning gypsies, informers of barren
words whose tone I hone. So now
to choose position of beggar as it does
not dim a nobleman’s jewel, be endowed
by contradictories which I know not what.
Is it that voice from above that must order
this astray, unless of testimony to lead
one away from countless worldly sins
hands & feet bound to the boards of this
upside down tree, cross I too must carry.
I delight in Ballard’s willful obscurity, which is enacted not for the sake of pretension or atmosphere, but as a reminder that poetry must be taken as a living force, one that directly concerns both reader and poet. Ballard’s latest work is a pamphlet with a beautifully designed glossy cover by Will Yackulic, yet another inimitable release from Ugly Duckling Presse, a publishing house that always manages to read their authors very closely, designing covers, pages and font that accurately reflect each book’s individual spirit. Evangeline Downs begins in a disaster zone, the poet’s native Louisiana on November 25, 2005, weeks after the devastation of hurricane Katrina. But the book is not merely a direct lament for a horrible devastation. It is also a stage where Ballard’s continuous interplay between the living and the dead is performed. In these poems, he is speaking to us and beyond:
There are two red chambers
& you are on the other side
only ashes. The vines along
the wall tell all, but what
remains? Old habits return
nightlife wanes & ordained
to find the source we scan
the sky for her war-torch.
Children of the Dead, House
of Napoleon, cobra & carnelian
where do the dawns draw out?
Far off & legendary
may the voices recall their lives
the brides remain lost to hide
for there is no age here
just these walls of ivy
with single trumpets
Notice the way he builds towards such pointed questions in these stanzas, so as to seem so effortless, colloquial in their mourning, yet powerful in their evocation of a loss that is not mythologized or transformed. It is a loss written out in blood along the walls of a devastated city, a snapshot of the countless desperate graffiti murals so many of us saw scrawled all over New Orleans on our TV screens. Ballard takes on the poet’s task of remembrance and creation in this book. Not in some false redemptive or populist manner, but by reminding us that we constantly walk with death in its most banal yet cosmic manifestations. There is no time for elegy or frivolity in Ballard’s latest book, although one will find much pleasure and homage in these poems. There are, for instance, the appreciations of how family and friendship can sustain and nourish us. As we find in the penultimate poem, “Night Chant”:
Bring to his bed
company, so that
he might rest again.
Lay them down
one after another
& let them leave
or enter all as to
their own coming
or going. See
that his beard be
trimmed, tab paid
& poems printed.
I want to keep quoting entire poems from this book because it’s so magnificently sequenced all the way through. Even poems one has read earlier, in magazines and elsewhere, take on a new sheen in this collection. This is a slim, pocket-sized book one can easily carry on a bus, subway or airplane. The poems are short yet demand repeated visitations. I trust that eventually a publisher will release an edition that would include all these publications I’ve been discussing in one single, perfect-bound volume. And yet, there is so much pleasure in knowing these miscellaneous texts exist each in their own particular universe, pockets of glimmering sound stretched across half a decade and an entire nation’s landscape.
To conclude this all too brief foray into Ballard’s poetry, I return to the year I first read his work, when he published an essay on John Wieners. Negative Capability in the Verse of John Wieners was released by Auguste Press, which Ballard co-edits with his wife Sunnylyn Thibodeaux in San Francisco. I don’t know if Wieners was able to read this essay on his work before his untimely death in 2002, but if he did he surely would have appreciated the close reading Ballard gives his poetry. While Wieners continues to be hugely influential on several generations of American poets, at times it can feel as though his work has been banished from the academies and libraries, not to speak of newspapers and magazines. Very few critics seem to engage with his work in the sustained manner it deserves. Ballard’s essay is a necessary evaluation of Wieners’s writing in relation to John Keats’s well-known theory of “negative capability.” Ballard quotes extensively from the letters of Keats (the 1990 Oxford University Press version edited by Elizabeth Cook), and from all of Wieners’s major work, including the marvelous edition of his journals published by Sun & Moon Press in 1996.
Ballard assumes that his reader is familiar with the poetry of both Keats and Wieners. This works well for the essay, since it allows Ballard to immediately begin exploring the fruitful parallels between both authors. One can imagine that for many Keats scholars or readers, John Wieners might be considered a bit too obscure to consider as an equal to the young English poet. And yet, as Ballard proves in his eloquent essay, Wieners's own radical contributions to postmodern American poetry are very much rooted in certain traditional aspects of the English canon. Like Keats, Wieners is often concerned with the confluence of truth and beauty. Keats’s famous dictum on those two elements is often misinterpreted or dismissed as a naive visionary notion. Ballard attempts to dispel that misreading of Keats by discussing the young English poet’s 1817 letter to his brothers, where he outlined his theory of negative capability. Ballard begins to outline Keats’s theory in the following manner:
Though knowledge and reason are requisites and educators of the
imagination, only through the abolishment of what Keats termed
intelligence, or “consequitive” reasoning, can the unconscious, an
intense, intuitive and instinctive force, function as the intellect of
the imagination. Here, with half-knowledge and the use of the senses,
phenomena of the actual world are sympathetically welcomed,
conceived, and united equally to the mind. Moreover, by letting
sensations be the representative power of all nature, the imagination
can remain as the central force in the mind, heart, and human soul.
Ballard’s essay turns to various aspects of Keats’s theory, as delineated in his letters. This intuitive approach to the poetic imagination is not directly superimposed onto the poetry of Wieners, but is instead drawn out through careful consideration of the latter’s work over several decades. This essay made me remember the scant amount of critical work that has been produced on Wieners, not to speak of a properly researched biography. I mention this because the poems Ballard quotes from are related to such a wide cultural stratum of English and American poetic traditions. As much as Wieners is read as an outlaw poet (and I do believe his work challenges so many literary and social conventions) he was also deeply aware of himself within a specific continuum of poetic practice. When he spoke of himself as a Boston poet, he did so both ironically but also with a deep love and respect for the history of that place, which is the history of the United States. So, I find Ballard’s analysis of John Wieners within the context of John Keats’s poetic theories to be a proper acknowledgement of his importance as a poet.
Looking back at what I’ve written here about the books by Ballard I’ve managed to procure, I feel I’ve rushed through them too quickly. I can only entreat you to go find his books. I have no doubt his poems and essays will one day be widely available at bookstores and libraries. But for now, we will have to track down his work, text by text across the country.
Midway through his essay on Keats and Wieners, Ballard quotes from the journals the latter kept while he was living in San Francisco in the late 1950s:
come to me out of your graves,
it is the day
the dead shall rise and populate
In a sense, this resurrection is what Ballard is attempting in his own poetry. He is doing it in an esoteric, classical and humble idiom. In his poems, one encounters that same “intense, intuitive and instinctive force” he identifies in the work of John Keats. I look forward to seeing where he takes his readers in the future, and I trust you will find as much pleasure as I do in Micah Ballard’s dynamic verse.
Guillermo Parra was born in Cambridge, MA in 1970. He is the author of Caracas Notebook (Cy Gist Press, 2006) and he lives in Durham, NC.