House of the Night Watch
by Tara Ballard
New River Press, 2018
$17.00, 86 pages
Review by Toti O’Brien
Tara Ballard’s first collection of poetry and the Many Voices Project Award Winner for 2016, House of the Night Watch (New River Press, 2018) paints an articulated picture of contemporary life in the Middle East as seen through the eye of an American writer. Ballard has lived and taught English for years in various Mediterranean and North African countries. For sure, she isn’t a tourist. She isn’t a local either. Bound to the community enough to be more than an observer, and yet insulated by the undeniable privilege of otherness, with her poems she walks a fine line and she does it well.
She reflects many facets of the extraordinary reality surrounding her with as much objectivity as possible. She allows her empathy to transpire without overdoing it. She lets facts comment upon themselves — spare details allowing readers a glimpse of wider, submerged landscapes they might wish to further explore.
Ballard’s language is rich, dense, her verse finely wrought, and yet also dry like the desert weather it breathes. It sticks to the core and eschews flourishes, even in those poems where she adopts a collage technique, juxtaposing fragments of vision like imperfectly-aligned, overlapping mosaic tiles. These “tessellated” poems cogently translate the complexity of life teetering between worlds. They express a point of view tempted to identify with the suffering that it witnesses, and yet still aware of its foreignness. Honest and respectful, permeable and porous. Sometimes fragile. Sometimes even fractured.
“Journal Entry No. 53,” the opening poem, is a sequence of apparently unrelated cameos (each stanza its own universe) gathering all the main elements of the book. Danger. Cruelty. Estrangement. Secrecy. Suffocation. Control. Blood. Fear. Censorship.
“Plot,” “Where my mind goes when I run,” “Wednesday at 3 pm,” “Scribe,” utilize the same kind of loose, freely applied brush strokes. The resulting tableaus are somehow blurred but eloquent, thick with resonance.
Other poems are “dryer” still in their documentary, parsimonious directness.
Some are single snapshots. The ablution before the empty well: “Scrub in silence, duck behind / the curtain. Scrub. Rinse. / Some water remains. / You will need it later.” Rotting food at the Refugee Camp: “UN trash bins / offer up sun-soaked meat, / tissue, tomatoes. Rubbish / covers the scatter of rocks. […] “thirteen thousand live here / today: / tea poured in a glass / far too small.”
Some contrast gorgeous nature or comfy domesticity with a gruesome sight — clashing colors laid side to side, like the knife stirring in the young man’s hand amidst luscious smells of the city market (“A Death in the Old City”) or the boy nonchalantly playing with a gun while a sweet singer’s voice fills the morning quiet (“When Stones Blush”).
The poet lets the incongruity speak for itself.
Nevertheless, she takes sides. Not overtly, but she does, because her quiet description of what civilians bear leaves no room for justification. In “Refugee Camp” the poet “stares unblinking” and that might suggest indifference. But all changes when and because, still unblinking, she writes.
As for truth,
promise nothing, but guarantee memory.
Yes, guarantee memory.
It is true that she doesn’t say who does what. But it isn’t needed. Her voice, calm and non-emphatic, is clear.
De-humanization at checkpoints. Bombed houses of Douma. NGOs compared to Crusaders. Insufficiency of media coverage: “what those back home will never be allowed to see.” Inadequacy of humanitarian help. Aggressiveness of tear gas Tragedy of “a country dissolved of its people.”
Sometimes, looking for the word most repeated in a book is revealing. I haven’t done it for House of the Night Watch. But without calculations I see, feel, smell “coffee” percolating throughout, and it makes sense. Coffee, as an integral part of Middle Eastern culture, has seven appearances in Ballard’s book.
Coffee signifies hospitality and sharing. When she is offered a warm cup, the poet is made equal. Such a simple gesture can bridge “The gulf between that place and this / place and her place and the gulf between / passport pages and stamps.”
In “Soil” a woman gives the poet a package of coffee from Syria. A significant present, “wrapped in tissue, / so others cannot see.” Here the poet plays on the ambivalence of the word “ground/s,” but in fact coffee is a metaphor for land, terrain, earth throughout the collection.
Sharing it manifests the intent of creating “common ground” as it does sharing food, recipes, meals — each an embodiment of nurturing, generous land.
Sometimes, coffee implies a gathering of women — for sweet reasons or sad ones, but what counts is the reunion. A peculiar peacefulness emanates from these collective moments punctuating the book, together with coffee, at regular intervals. Each time, the women’s attire is mentioned — long dark caftans — and it culturally defines them, although it also evokes the habit of nuns, therefore sisterhood. In these groups the author seems to seamlessly and perfectly belong — as if the clothes, drink, vessels, aromas, even more the grounds to be read afterwards create a super-geographic, super-cultural unity, an inclusive and compassionate whole.