(Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015)
“All day I was digging Armenian bones out of the Syrian desert…” So remembers poet and essayist Peter Balakian in the titular poem of his new collection, Ozone Journal. One hundred years on, the Armenian Genocide is still very real for Balakian, sometimes in surprising ways.
Balakian takes on many roles in his poetry. He is a professor of literature, an ex-husband, and a single parent; but first and foremost he is an historian with a grisly task: to exhume the bones of Armenians systematically killed under Ottoman rule. For Balakian, the history of suffering has a timeless resonance. In a cave in the Syrian Desert, a colleague asks, “Were thousands of Armenians stuffed in here?” Balakian replies, citing another colleague: “Fisk called them primitive gas chambers.”
Despite the horrors, Ozone Journal renders this history with simplicity. Balakian is blessed with an eerie ability to connect seemingly unrelated events separated by vast amounts of time and space. His poetry, sometimes in roundabout ways, confronts the significance of digging for the bones of Armenians; the moment of excavation triggers other memories, themselves dormant. He writes, “Walking past the San Remo / that day, I was beginning to see history / as images filtered through cracked glass.” Digging for desert bones becomes a catharsis of a deeply personal nature, through which Balakian remembers and feels dark moments from his own past. These moments are like so many bones, the likes of which litter his inner mind and, covered by the elements, lie just below the surface. They can be buried, but in massacre there is no principle of diminishing returns.
His cousin David is one such skeleton, who Balakian remembers as the slow victim of a massacre of a different kind. “The present kept sliding into David’s past, unravelling through drip-drugs and sedatives,” Balakian writes, aware that his cousin was not alone in suffering from AIDs, but was merely the principle actor in a personal drama echoed on a global scale. Meanwhile, Balakian reads Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and equates “piles of rotting bodies and a compost of / souls who begat themselves to the other (London, 1720)” to the open sores festering on David’s legs. The drama of disease becomes paranoia for Balakian, not unrelated in its promise of mass graves from the bones of Armenians interned in desert sand. The origins of disaster, whether rooted in humanity’s inability to empathise or nature’s indiscriminate callousness, is still disaster.
“By ’83 T-cell syndrome was graffiti on the brain,” recalls Balakian; “it wasn’t a second Nineveh but the zodiac read: Peking leprosy / simian plague/Zaire/bubos/rat.” David’s disease becomes a primal obsession for Balakian, of the type that only a deep empathy can bring. “I walked around between classes imagining T4 counts,” he says, haunted by the image of David on his deathbed, surrounded by strewn sheets and “the IV / dripping blue down the snaking plastic tube.” Balakian knows that he is paranoid; after David’s nurse assures him that he, Balakian, has not contracted AIDs, that he has never been exposed, she prescribes a cure: “Sir, you need a psychiatrist, not a blood test.”
Balakian’s work is one of contrasts: the contrast between day and night, earth and sky, love and hate, the temporary and eternal, between inner war and outer peace. Balakian uses history to present readers with a fossil record of orchestrated disasters, both personal and on a grander scale. Though his memories are separated from the bones of Armenia’s great genocide by time and space and suffering, they have an organic quality that is fresh and uniquely personal.
Poetry is not a new form of preserving or exploring history. Balakian firmly sets himself into an established record, ranging from Enheduanna to Emily Dickinson, Omar Khayyam to Dante, Kipling, and Poe, from Beowulf to Gilgamesh. Yet in the modern world it is not every day that one comes across a collection of work like Ozone Journal. Balakian does more than just preserve history; through his poetry he explores the sights, sounds, and feelings that make moments significant. Reading Balakian is an experiment in recognizing those moments of intense significance in our own lives, a flirtation between what is real, and what seems to be.
Indeed, it is possible that Balakian’s poetry suggests a revolutionary truth: human empathy is stronger than hate; tragedy of one genre is much like any other, ending as it does in death or violence or loss; and that it is possible to feel ancestral knowledge in inert bones long hidden from sun and memory. In the process of remembering his own small place in the grander history of genocide, Balakian demonstrates to readers the importance of remembrance, that it is possible to feel pain without becoming numb, and that it is never too late to honour human dignity.
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Alexander Oliver is an Editorial Intern at The Literary Review. He is a recent graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University and is currently working on his M.A. in Educational Leadership at Montclair State University. When not drinking tea, discussing the finer points of English cheese, or being accused of general ‘snobbery’, he can be found in the library, recounting charming tales from his youth to anyone who will listen. Generally a bit of a jokester, he is quite serious about commas.