Spotlight: “Vertigo” by Ned Balbo

If you haven’t gotten a chance to pick up Ned Balbo’s The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems, winner of the Donald Justice Poetry Prize, you should. Balbo, through a layering of pop culture and literary references, speaks to the nature of identity, particularly from the point of view of someone who’s been adopted. Some of these layers are just stunning, such as those in the poem “Vertigo” below (originally published in the Crab Orchard Review). Balbo weaves the search of Scottie Ferugson for the “lost” Carlotta Valdez in the film Vertigo to the search for his own mother. Like the movie, there are lots of twists, turns, and stalemates that bother us long after the screen has dimmed.


For my birth mother Elaine

In Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), John “Scottie” Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart),
at the request of her husband, investigates Madeleine Elster
(Kim Novak)’s trances and unexplained wanderings. Madeleine’s
fascination with an ancestor, Carlotta Valdes, underlies her
obsession with the past. Madeleine dies before Ferguson’s eyes,
but he later meets Judy Barton, who uncannily resembles the
dead Madeleine–and for good reason.

Do you believe that someone
out of the past, someone dead,
can enter & take possession
of a living being?

But if I could touch the face
of any living being I chose, it would be you,
Kim Novak, arched eyebrows pencilled in, bright lips,
hair seared so blonde it’s white, the coil of hair
behind your head unloosed, the necklace
I’d unfasten. Or is it Madeleine I love, the role
you played with such panache,
who wandered alleys & long hills, past trolleys,
clocks, & traffic lights, before she wound up
at the mansion (now a not-so-swank hotel)
only to rent the same room, sit alone, & stare
into past lives….
No matter. Madeleine’s
but a role, one ghost haunted by another,
so raise the shade, Carlotta Valdes–
are you who Madeleine really is,
the portrait’s ancestress, kept mistress
of “a powerful man,” who bore his child
when this house was hers alone,
built for their private trysts, whose lover,
sated at last, brought home the girl
to his respected household,
& threw Carlotta away, “Pop” Liebel
tells us wistfully. “Men could do that in those days.
They had the power, & the freedom…”

(Shelves of books surrounding them,
Scottie & Midge bend close to listen, the mystery
of Madeleine’s trances soon to hold them
in its sway.) No wonder, a daughter stolen,
her emissaries turned away, Carlotta
soon went mad (Liebel says through wisps of smoke)
a nineteenth-century tragic figure wandering
ragged in the streets, stopping passers by to ask,
Where’s my child? Have you seen my child?
(I doubt if anyone said yes.)
&, likewise,
have you wandered, Mother, bright hair gleaming
under light, past storefronts, glint of trinkets,
in a trance like Madeleine’s? But whose face
breaks through the crowd, already passing
into shadow? Yes, I’m the son your sister raised,
vanished for over twenty years, & it’s my turn
to give direction: Where’s that right note of regret?
Keep that expression duly haunted, turn,
rush right back to the window, search in vain
through backward script, drop hand, & cut–
Yes, that’s a take.
Or have you, too, “moved on,”
as you claimed curtly in your letter,
your own script neat, controlled, too graceful
to recall the past? How could you know, Elaine,
when your sister Betty died, the only mother
I’d ever known, whose good work you repaid in scorn,
that, summoned home from college, first year
scarcely under way, I’d find myself
shopping for clothes, somehow, black suitable for mourning,
while Carmine, newly widowed, blinked up
at the dead-eyed dummies, the light’s glint
painted in their eyes, our tragic errand
nearly done. I spent that year mostly alone,
set apart by grief & class, the secrets I’d been taught to keep,
while Betty, in pale green, lay in her husband’s
future grave, same green as the Hotel Empire sign
set flashing all night, every night,
painting the room where Judy Barton
(lesser light of Kim’s dual role)
sought, in vain, to escape the past, her masquerade
as Madeleine. Yes, pointing to it
in the closet, your sister
chose the dress herself; I nodded, promising–whatever.
& now I think of the actress, wincing,
locked in Hitchcock’s gaze as he instructs her
how to stand, designer
holding out a dress. He turns & snaps,
“No, not that one!” (He’s yet to find
the ash-gray suit.)
No, poor Ferguson wasn’t the first man
who lost his love to death
–& he surely won’t be last–
wracked by guilt, failed detective trapped
in psychedelic dreams, a bouquet
that breaks apart to petals that dance before his eyes,
who takes one look into the grave, falls in,
& finds himself devoured–Good luck, Jimmy.
Good luck, Scottie. From now on,
there’s no turning back–
& when you wake up from the dark to Mozart’s
soothing violins, having swatted Midge away
along with all those mental cobwebs,
let me give you some advice: there’s no reward
in peering at restaurant crowds
or women arranging flowers. Don’t search
for the face you know because, most likely,
it isn’t there, & if it is, there’s nothing worse
than finding it.
Of course,
anyone could become obsessed with the past
with a background like that….

Thank you, Scottie, for understanding.
The years go by: all silence.
Carmine, ailing, joins his wife, while the Great Man,
with his Power & Freedom, holds on
to you, Mother–
& in the sequoia swirls, the cut trunk
mounted on its side, generations of rings,
all labelled–Magna Carta, Battle of Hastings
& the moment she lifts her hand, floating
unseen at Madeleine’s side, I’ll mouth the same words
while she points: Here I was born,
& there I died. It was only a moment for you,
You took no notice….
Where are you now,
Madeleine, you and your alter egos,
Carlotta, Judy, the false & true?
Where have you gone, Kim Novak?
I remember The Mirror Crack’d, & that imposter,
face pinned back, who claims, in interviews, she’s you–
Otherwise, I draw a blank
but for one image that persists:

It’s 1958, & a young wife
doesn’t know she’s pregnant,
safe in her mother’s house, estranged
husband not the father, father
cut off for the moment, she flips
through movie magazines & sees
Kim Novak’s perfect eyes, a look
to lock men in her gaze, the Look
that could, & will, be hers. Her sister’s
calling her to dinner, so she bounces
off the bed but knows now
what she’ll name her daughter,
if she ever has a daughter–

As for what
she’ll name her son, I only feel
the camera pull back & start whirling round and round, drowning
the one voice that I hear: I’ve dragged her
out of the Bay before, I’ve seen crushed petals
floating on waves, but now
I’m shaking her by the shoulders,
& she’s crying, “I’m not mad,”
not Mad-eleine, -eleine, -eleine

& the dizziness stops only when
he seals his mouth on hers.

The opening lines of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” are spoken by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to John “Scottie” Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) in an effort to convince the retired detective that Elster’s wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) believes herself possessed by the spirit of the dead Carlotta Valdes. Midge, Scottie’s stalwart college buddy and former fiancee, is played by Barbara Bel Geddes.
The final screenplay, by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, was based on Maxwell Anderson’s earlier draft with contributions by Angus MacPhail.

3 responses to “Spotlight: “Vertigo” by Ned Balbo

  1. The vertigo is in being drawn in the eye of the poem, the vortex in its middle. But Balbo spins us out again, graciously sets us down on shore, rubbing our eyes, heads: What happened? Did that really happen?


  2. Wow, Ned, I knew almost none of this when we were growing up. Very powerful images made stronger because we DID know each other and yet I knew almost nothing. Great weave of Hitchcock (but you were always partial to him).


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