13th Balloon by Mark Bibbins
Author: Walter Holland
February 16, 2020
At the start of Mark Bibbins’ poetry book 13th Balloon is an announcement from the Albany, New York, newspaper The Daily Gazette dated September 14, 1992. We are told of the “Lift for Life” project, an event during which “nearly 600 balloons” were released over a nearby lake Upstate “as a visual reminder of those who have died from acquired immune deficiency syndrome and those still alive struggling with the disease.” The article also notes that “twelve balloons were sponsored for Mark Crast, 25, of Albany who died Saturday night from AIDS.”
We, of a certain older generation of gay men, saw many such announcements over the course of our youths. We read the names of the dead, our friends, our lovers, our mentors, and we watched many such events, heartfelt, poignant, statements of hope, mostly, in retrospect, naïve and futile displays that reflected more our own desperation to make sense of so much death and AIDS’ relentless juggernaut toward erasing our lives. Time has not fully healed all. Survivors now, we look with wonder at those who carry the virus but live normal lives, imagining how unfathomable it must be to them that AIDS was ever such a “death sentence.”
Our grief over watching the stricken suffer and die never goes away. It becomes in our minds a strange menagerie of oddly mundane memories, gestures, and inflections of voice; we puzzle over people in the street we see who look like persons we had once loved,with whom we shared wild years, but know are gone. We grieve in different ways. I still have my friend Joe’s bright green kerchief, the one he wore day in, day out, when he danced, partied, or marched in protest. Part of his queer East Village wardrobe, a sharp contrast to the business casual he was forced to wear at his day-job.
Mark Bibbins prefaces his book with a quotation from Gertrude Stein: “Why is there so much useless suffering. Why is there.” The puzzling simplicity of this statement, I believe, has crossed all of our minds over the years, and will continue to do so. “Useless suffering” can also suggest “useless grief.” For some of us, who knew the horrors of those days, sitting on the edge of so many hospital beds, trying to instill some measure of humor, love, dignity, or human kindness by cradling a thin, cold, unresponsive hand, knew that all was useless, and that our displays of grief and mourning, our letting go of airy balloons, would not stay off death, would not bring them back.
The thirteenth balloon in Mark Bibbins’ case represents himself. It is the balloon that goes unobserved or unrecorded, but nonetheless rises, drifting into loss. And this is the way, when a lover dies, some part of ourselves also drifts away along with language, memory and feeling, and this is perhaps the crux of Bibbins’ beautiful and powerful book. The book is essentially one shifting elision of memory, thought, anecdote, and ephemera, explored from numerous vantage points. Always in sight is that tender specter of grief released, vivid against a bright void.
13th Balloon is essentially one long in-memoriam. One could indeed call the work an elegy that has been deconstructed, tenderly disassembled, rearranged like the puzzle grief ultimately is: scattered pieces, missing linked spacings, spacings which words will not fill. Bibbins freely accepts that language fails him and logic breaks down. And despite his facile abilities as a poet, here he struggles with grief and suffering of such a complex, overpowering personal nature. After all, grief is a riddle that has no syntax, no perfect lyric force that can resurrect the dead, and least of all, provide closure.
But, do not think this book is of one highly abstract nature. It is perhaps the most traditional narrative poetry Bibbins has written in years. It is full of humor, wit and pathos. And it exhibits an amazing lyric facility that permits Bibbins his return to metaphor, irony, tension and paradox, all blended in a metaphysical unity. This unity has much in common with the that of 18th Century so-called Metaphysical Poets, a poetic movement that was “marked by bold and ingenious conceits, incongruous imagery, complexity and subtlety of thought, frequent use of paradox, and often by deliberate harshness or rigidity of expression.” And then again, there is also the connection to Frank O’Hara with his clever, conversational “Personism.” But regardless of both similarities, Bibbins finds his own unique voice—brash and brainy, satiric, clever, boyish, lost, tender, and above all sadly self-aware—aware of the mire that sentiment and cloying confession can become and also grief’s terrible addiction.
At one juncture in his poem, Bibbins writes:
I have been terrified
since learning how much they weigh
A dam collapses
but there’s no flood
the water already gone
presumably into a cloud
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 to touch
as I push it around trying
to make it say
what I want it to say
And indeed, Bibbins pushes around on the page fragment and language, remembered banalities, memorable quips of offhand conversations, and the recollections of physical moments, odd gestures “in medias res.” He concedes to us that elegy is a futile exercise, that the missing dead cannot be mysteriously returned and communicated with in knocks on a table or wavering flames. Instead the elegy is communication with only our lonely selves. Bibbins sees language as the Ouija planchette, a useless divining rod, an imperfect signal; that he can “make it say/what I want it to say” and nothing more.
The enormity and weight of those “clouds,” heavy with “the water already gone,” paradoxically drift above him, seemingly immaterial as thought, yet filled with a torrent of grief. And he fears its deceptive density. Loss has perhaps been transformed into pale memory, but it forever shadows his life.
There is a casual nature to Bibbins’ voice, an affable conversational style of anecdote and digression; kidding around, gallows humor, disarming flashes of—I won’t call it epiphany as that is far too elevated a term— finding the absurd correlatives in life. Grief, like life, has elements of randomness and chance that wax and wane as do these poems. These thoughts, these moments of opposition and negative capability, of beauty and abjection at the same time are the poet’s lot.
Bibbins refers to O’Hara, that sacred poet of queerness and of all things complicated, witty and dissembling when he writes:
Seventeen years after you died
I sat with a friend on a Fire Island beach
after midnight drinking
red wine out of red plastic cups
Upon noticing in the distance headlights
bobbing in the fog I popped up and said no way
I’m forty same age as O’Hara let’s go let’s not
be the emergency again
It was a joke but it wasn’t a joke
I knew what it felt like
to be of a generation fully
accustomed to being struck down
The power of Bibbins’ work rests not just in its shocking conceit at the end, or its marvelous compression and irony—least of which is found in the line “be the emergency again,” a clear allusion to O’Hara’s 1957 book titled Meditations in an Emergency with its clear admission of his homosexuality. The power rests in Bibbins’ poignant admission: “It was a joke but it wasn’t a joke.”
This phrase might summarize the entire pathos of O’Hara’s poetry: namely, that the predicament in being queer is in having to be seen by the world as a “joke” of nature, a trick, a hoax, a ridiculous chosen act, ripe for ridicule and cruel amusement; when in actuality to be queer is anything but a deception, rather it is to be serious, human, and real. Queerness is not a “construct” but something more “essential.” A queer’s existence, indeed his or her personal identity is not superficial or make-believe. And so O’Hara addressed his Age with a complex language of double-entendre, irony, pun, and a dizzying display of urbanity and sophistication. But all the while he was beset by his own “emergency,” an acute, lacerative assault on his heart that straight society could not or would not defend.
“Accustomed to being struck down” not only summarizes the queer experience but the entire history of homophobia and intolerance that has murdered, lobotomized, castrated, and psychologically maimed queers for millennia. Combine this with an ignored, lethal virus that would go on to kill 35 million people worldwide, and Bibbins’ ironic statement becomes reminder of a perpetual, unimaginable trail of tears.
I could continue to “close read” Bibbins’ extraordinary elegy, but I shall leave the last words to him:
There are days when everything
feels like a metaphor
for your having died
There are days
when nothing does.
By Mark Bibbins
Copper Canyon Press
Paperback, 9781556595776, 93 pp.