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John Balaban

John Balaban is the author of several books of poetry, including Path, Crooked Path (Copper Canyon Press, 2006); Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1997), winner of the William Carlos Williams Award; and Words for My Daughter (Copper Canyon Press, 1991), winner of the National Poetry Series. He is also the recipient of the Lamont Poetry Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in North Carolina.

By This Poet

3

Passing Through Albuquerque

At dusk, by the irrigation ditch
gurgling past backyards near the highway,
locusts raise a maze of calls in cottonwoods.

A Spanish girl in a white party dress
strolls the levee by the muddy water
where her small sister plunks in stones.

Beyond a low adobe wall and a wrecked car
men are pitching horseshoes in a dusty lot.
Someone shouts as he clangs in a ringer.

Big winds buffet in ahead of a storm,
rocking the immense trees and whipping up
clouds of dust, wild leaves, and cottonwool.

In the moment when the locusts pause and the girl
presses her up-fluttering dress to her bony knees
you can hear a banjo, guitar, and fiddle

playing "The Mississippi Sawyer" inside a shack.
Moments like that, you can love this country.

The Painting

The stream runs clear to its stones;
the fish swim in sharp outline.
Girl, turn your face for me to draw.
Tomorrow, if we should drift apart,
I shall find you by this picture.

Eddie

Hadn’t seen Eddie for some time,
wheeling his chair through traffic,
skinny legs in shorts, T-shirted,
down at the corner off Dixie Highway,
lifting his Coke cup to the drivers
backed up, bumper to bumper, at the light.
Sometimes he slept on the concrete bench
up from Joe’s News. Sometimes police
would haul him in and he said he didn’t mind
because he got three squares and sometimes
a doctor would look at his legs, paralyzed,
he said, since the cop in New York shot him
when he tried to steal a car. Sad story,
of the kind we’ve learned to live with.

One rainy day he looked so bad, legs
ballooned, ankles to calves, clothes soaked,
I shoved a $20 in his cup. But, like I said,
I hadn’t seen him around so yesterday
I stopped and asked this other panhandler,
Where’s Eddie? "Dead," he said. Slammed
by a truck running the light, crushed
into his wheelchair. Dead, months ago.

My wife says he’s better off dead,
but I don’t know. Behind his smudged glasses
his eyes were clever. He had a goofy smile
but his patter was sharp. His legs were a mess
and he had to be lonely. But spending days
in the bright fanfare of traffic and
those nights on his bench, with the moon
huge in the palm trees, the highway quiet,
some good dreams must have come to him.