A beautiful home in Cambridge, Massachusetts served as the setting for an evening with Peter Balakian on Tuesday. “Totally unique vibe – I’ve never read in a Victorian parlor before,” observed the guest of honor. Dozens of worshipers filled the hall to capacity and beyond in anticipation of an in-person reading by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author. The event was presented by the Grolier Poetry Book Shop and the Harvard Square Business Association, and thanks to the ongoing pandemic, it was also available on Zoom.
Balakian is the author of eight collections of poems, including Ozone Logwhich won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and Ziggurat, both published by University of Chicago Press. His memoirs black dog of fate won the PEN/Albrand Award and was a New York Times Notable Book, and The Burning Tiger won the Raphael Lemkin Prize and was a New York Times Bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book. He is the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of Humanities in the Department of English at Colgate University.
Alongside Balakian, author Askold Melnyczuk, whose most recent book The Man Who Wouldn’t Bow was released last year, and which Balakian described as the “James Laughlin of our generation”. After presenting Balakian and his new collection of poetry no sign, Melynczuk referred to the first poem titled “History, bitterness”, Balakian’s recollection of his day at the Yaddo writers’ colony during which a friend handed him the phone and invited him to say a few words. to a sick James Baldwin who lay dying in the South of France. The poem goes on to describe a café in Paris and the author’s great-uncle, an Armenian church bishop who participated in the 1919 Paris peace talks as a representative of the decimated Armenian population.
Melnyczuk noted that Balakian’s poems are “inevitably linked to family memories” with “stories behind the stories”. There is a layering process in the collection, “a kind of sedimentary poetics [that] culminates in the truly astonishing title poem “No Sign” in which the word sedimentary regains its literal meaning as the poem folds up nothing less than a history of the planet tracing a conversation between an estranged couple against the backdrop of geologic time.
In addition to “History, Bitterness,” Balakian read “Summer Ode,” “Yellow Lilies,” “How Much I Love You,” “Eggplant,” and “Apricot.” His intention with these selections was to provide a flavor of the collection, while offering the inspiration for each poem, often including his Armenian upbringing, especially his beloved grandmother Nafina. “She appears and seems to be a driving force of energy in my mind all the time,” Balakian said of the genocide survivor who served as the central character in his memoir. black dog of fate and who was the sole survivor of her family’s death march, along with her two infant children.
“It all comes back to the kitchen,” Balakian explained of the section he called a fruit and vegetable meditation series. “Memory goes through food and culture and history and homes and meditations to take you to many places,” Balakian said, continuing, “And sometimes they conjure up historical vibes.”
For the first time at a public reading, Balakian read “No Sign”, a special treat which included the first four sections of the poem. One of the reasons he hasn’t read this title poem yet is because he “wants readers to have fun swimming in it.” Balakian said he spent a lot of time reading and thinking before starting “No Sign,” a poem delineated by “he” and “she,” conversational and dramaturgical without being a play, about the dialogue between an estranged couple. that meets on the cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades. Their dialogue “reveals the evolution of a kaleidoscopic memory spanning decades, reflecting Earth’s geological history and the climate crisis, the film Hiroshima Mon Amour, the Vietnam War, a visionary encounter with the George Bridge Washington and the enduring power of love”. as described by the publisher.
During the conversation between Melnyczuk and Balakian, the topic of imagination came up. “The imagination is a strange place. We all live there, artists, writers or not,” Balakian said. Both authors agreed that imagination has a role to play in our lives, encouraging us to go deeper and beyond the superficial level of the data and information we receive. “Isn’t imagination the source of all our hope? Melnyczuk asked, eliciting a palpable reaction from those gathered in the living room, a fitting conclusion to an enlightening evening.