rev. of Desiring Flight by Christine Balk

Issue #67
Fall 1995

Desiring Flight 
Poems by Christianne Balk. Purdue Univ. Press, $12.95 paper. Reviewed by David Daniel.

Among the many pleasures of Christianne Balk’s
Desiring Flight, two stand out. First, Balk has as she showed in her Walt Whitman Award-winning
Bindweed a biologist’s precise knowledge of the natural world, and consequently her poems convey, at times, the comforting authority of a field guide. But there is much more than that: It is as if Balk has held all the objects of her world, turned them over, and spoken their names until they have transcended the scientific into the poetic. A few lines from “Dusk Sea Walk” may show something of this incantatory magic: “This sea / wants everything the black cod’s eye, phalarope, / green fucus, milky clouds of milt, the otter’s coat, / . . . halibut, coho, chum, the small gray tail / slipping from the belly slit, screaming cliffs / of kittiwakes, tide marshes filled with snipe, / cranes, grebes, scaup, duck, forty-pound swans, / even the eagle sitting in the dead spruce, waiting / for the red and silver rivers to flow upstream.”

Balk consistently places the people in her poems at the mercy of nature, and the effects of this humility are powerful. Often the narrators seem isolated, incidental participants in the world around them. Their solace seems to come, if at all, from their ability to pay attention to and sometimes to allegorize what they find in nature. In a very beautiful poem, “Kantishna Terns,” the narrator and a loved one are camping along the banks of the river: ” ‘Will you?’ you asked. / I was too tired to know, but secretly /

I asked
forever? What is that? / All night I heard the sounds / I’d heard all day / water meeting wood . . .” Then, as they look out on the river, at trees snagged on its surface, the narrator sees “one branch break free of rock / and begin / to float downstream.”

Our ability, perhaps, to surrender our ego to the world for all its horrors and its beauties to
read nature, looking not for answers but simply for understanding, may be the fundamental trope of this fine book.