13th Balloon

reviewed by Laura Eve Engel

“Who will reach across / a distance so great / that light cannot cross it / to find a form for pain,” asks Bibbins in his fourth collection, as with this book-length poem he works to make of his own reaching a kind of answer: “I have only language for you now / a language / that morphs like a virus / to elude   to survive   to connect / but I still don’t / have the word.” An elegy for Bibbins’s beloved Mark Crast, whose death from AIDS in 1991 at the age of twenty-five is no less immediate today, as well as a memorial to the hundreds of thousands of lives lost to the American AIDS crisis, this poem wrestles with itself as elegy and survival narrative, its grief and guilt. With humility, anger, and honesty, 13th Balloon carries its questions across those great distances. How can one contend with the world one has been left to inhabit? How to tell the story one has been left to organize into sense—especially when that story is epidemic: “Strange to look vainly for oneself in history / and stranger to realize / that there is a chance / one might find oneself there.” In Bibbins’s wise possession, a letter to the lost becomes a living testament: to the repeated attempts and failures we make to understand how we might go on, and to our going on.

This review originally appeared in the Books Noted section of American Poets, Fall-Winter 2019.