Poems by Jesse Ball, Grove Press Poetry Series, 2004
by William J. Neumire
Jesse Ball’s debut, March Book, speaks from a voice I have never heard before, a voice I would not mistake were I to read a thousand more books this year. It is formed of a prose v. lyrical argument that places Ball in the midst of a thick poetic conversation. It strives to find a cure to the absurd, to logic, to the disease of reason:
Yes, I know these are the last days of an age, of a pitied era.
The narrator of ‘Several Replies in a Numbered Column’ says, “A poet can afford few tricks, for he is easily seen through” (p.84). There are few tricks evident here. And evident is not the same as extant. These simple sentences and stanzas (often unassuming triplets, if there are stanza breaks at all) divide their time like a fluctuating agnostic/devotee, between prosaic puzzling and lyrical transcendence. The poems are always narrative in the sense that it is never difficult to discover a story (and an unpredictable one at that) on any page in this book. So, what are Ball’s few underlying tricks that make this book remarkable enough to read all the way through? Ball’s language comes from a place behind us and to the left, in a copse covered with fog. It is not exactly foreign to us, but it is not present either; it is, perhaps, a language before we are infused with history, a direction Ball pushes us in the title poem, “March Book”:
We will wake once, in the night;
The author’s narrative poems of the first four sections are complimented by a fifth section of ‘Several Replies in a Numbered Column’, which offer readers a series of interview-like question-and-answer fragments. It is in this section that Ball makes his statement on Reason:
There are reasons only in so much as we have need of them, and surely
His five section book of poems certainly calls to mind the five act play, as does his poem, ‘#31 Conflict with a God’, which refers to Georges Polti’s groundbreaking book, The Thirty-Six Possible Dramatic Situations. (Even without this reference, I suspected while reading that Ball is aesthetically invested in the theater.) Polti himself said of situation 31, “Most anciently treated of all Situations is this struggle. Into its Babel of dramatic construction all or nearly all of the others may easily enter. For this is the strife supreme”
Moreover, Ball’s voice is often prophetic, in an inviting, yet sinister way:
Come lie here
Though evasive rhymes can be found here and there, the sonic quality of a mysterious voice is what is most alluring here. These poems are prophecy and fable and question and reply. The imagination whirring through this book provokes hope that there are still new stories to be told. The quip write what you know should be immediately revised to say write what you can vividly imagine, and Ball is not ignorant of how raw and fleeting this kind of imagination is:
Were I the one to whom this letter came,
The tension of prosaic versus lyrical in this book certainly suggests the greater tension of God versus No-God, or hope versus the absurd. Kafka and Camus would not make bad supplemental reading. The narrators in this work often have contradictory stances on God. The addressee in “After a Death” says:
It happened on a roadway,
But the speaker of ‘Several Replies in a Numbered Column’ takes a much more pessimistic stance:
We are a species, a splash in the waters of a land-bound lake, and we
Ball, if anyone, can see the forest for the trees. There is something very unpolluted about his work, something sincere beyond pessimism and optimism that points out the objective obvious; Richard Dawkins comes to mind. His voice seems old, ancient even, as the voice of some god we’ve all forgotten.
On the downside, sometimes I lose hold of the narrator’s coattails in these poems; I end up alone in the woods with nothing but an unexpected appreciation of how deep I am into trees I’ve never seen; perhaps this is enough with some poems. I must admit that the redeeming qualities of this book make the mention of mistakes a token gesture.
Thomas Sayers Ellis, in Poets and Writers, said in his bit of advice to aspiring-to-publish poets, “Forget the word book. Resist the trend of thematic series.” I say this is bogus, and March Book is my supporting evidence. Poets naturally write in themes; they are obsessive, and a cobbled together collection is just that—a collection, not a book. The successful book of poetry will work as a single transcendent poem—Voltron—each poem volatile in its own right, but when put together obviously a piece of the whole. The poems in March Book are largely interdependent, and I am not surprised that Ball’s publication list reveals that most publications elected to publish several of his pieces together. This book works as a poem, a fascinating poem that I will read often.
William J. Neumire’s poetry and reviews have appeared or will appear in Los Angeles Review, The Cortland Review, Main Street Rag, Rattle, and Cranky Poetry Journal. He lives in Syracuse, New York where he teaches English.