“Rare Book and Reader” by Ned Balbo

Ned Balbo


Helen D. Lockwood Library,
Vassar College, September 1977

Back in the days when we called freshmen freshmen,
I was one, a lank-haired Vassar co-ed
newly landed, searching for the reason
I was there. Before me, dead ahead,
the future held its promise like the shaded
vistas in brochures, or like an album
on the rack the moment you’ve decided
that you have to buy it, take it home—

and so I felt (caught in that no man’s land
of post-arrival limbo, nothing sure
except how much I didn’t understand
of privilege, wealth, and class), this much was clear:
the album’s title—Past, Present, and Future
and the cloak of Marvel’s Doctor Strange
vanishing through some portal on the cover
promised an escape—at least a change.

The last track was inspired by Nostradamus,
Gallic seer and astrologer
who wrote The Prophecies, mysterious
quatrains of cryptic riddles that declare
foreknowledge of disaster, plague, and war,
offering hints that tease and tantalize
(through allegory, tangled metaphor)
the gullible who read with opened eyes—

Hister (Hitler?), three brothers (Kennedys?)
world wars (all three?)—well, sure, he could be wrong,
but if Al Stewart thought the prophecies
troubling enough to put them in a song,
what else would time confirm before too long?
I sat, the huge book open to a page
five hundred years old, in a foreign tongue
(French mostly), brought out carefully from storage

by a young librarian, or senior,
watchful and amused at my expense.
Who wouldn’t be? She knew I was no scholar
steeped in sixteenth-century charlatans,
but just some boy who’d wandered in by chance
or impulse, new to college, drifting still,
his mind enraptured by coincidence
proclaimed as proof, each generation’s will

to buy such bunk, as always, bottomless.
Now I’d beheld an ur-text, reassured
it did exist. A reader under glass,
I sat, sealed in the hush, but not one word—
archaic, clue-encoded—struck a chord:
I’d never studied French! And yet I’d seen
the priceless artifact kept under guard
in some dark vault climate-controlled within

the labyrinthine archives I envisioned;
briefly exposed to light and then returned
to deep oblivion, the world’s end
unknown and waiting. What else had I learned?
That where the distant future is concerned,
no language equal to it can exist
nor is there language clear and unadorned
to show how time recedes into the past

—or if there is, it’s written not for us
but for the eyes of one whose practiced gaze
sees farther than our own—who knows that loss
becomes the weight and measure of our days—
who, in the hidden turnings of a phrase,
detects a revelation cast in code
we almost grasp but which remains, always,
unbroken, like the mercy that we’re owed.

from Rattle #53, Fall 2016
Tribute to Adjuncts

[download audio]


Ned Balbo: “In 2014, I was dismissed from my position as an adjunct associate professor after 24 years at a mid-Atlantic Jesuit university. Administrative turnover and the Great Recession had led to policy changes that prohibited contract renewals for full-time adjuncts in my category, and I was only one of many who lost a place during this period. AAUP (the American Association of University Professors) intervened on my behalf, to no avail; so did many tenured colleagues who found their voices ignored when they spoke out to defend the full-time adjunct colleagues whom they valued. In the end, their efforts succeeded in reversing university policy, but not before most of the full-time adjuncts affected had already been dismissed. (In the two years since, a few have been rehired at reduced status.)” (website)

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