Whose Words These Are (29): the Haunting of Peter Balakian

Click to listen to Peter Balakian’s reading and conversation with Chris (21 minutes, 10 mb mp3)

Peter Balakian has made “the aftermath of catastrophe” his poetic terrain. He is doubtless best known for his prose memoir of the Armenian genocide of 1915. Inspired by his grandmother’s strange shards of stories and nightmare visions, Balakian’s celebrated Black Dog of Fate (1997) is a classic account of repressed memory among survivors of the Turkish slaughter, and of resurgent memory and activism among diaspora Armenians born in America — near Tenafly, New Jersey, in Peter’s case.

But Peter Balakian seems to have been hooked on poetry even before he understood his family’s history. And his new collection Ziggurat widens the frame of his fascination back to ancient times in Mesopotamia, and up to the 9.11 attack on Lower Manhattan (where Peter Balakian was a teenage mail runner) and the US war in Iraq.

The Ziggurat of his title was the very type of the monumental tower in the ancient world — most famously the Sumerian Ziggurat at Ur, in what is now Iraq, excavated in the 1920’s by England’s Sir Leonard Wooley.

The longest poem in Peter Balakian’s new book is a 43-section lyric in which four strands emerge: A protagonist on the A-train subway heading south under Manhattan is reading Wooley’s history of Ur, recalling his own erstwhile messenger’s intimate knowledge of the alleys and elevators of Wall Street, and reflecting on the news that a former student, now an ABC News correspondent, has been struck and very nearly obliterated by an IED in Iraq.

Peter Balakian has assigned himself a sort of test, he suggests, to see how well his long lyric sequence can weave those four strands of experience: the A-train, long-gone Sumerian glory, an insider’s haunted memory of the Twin Towers, and the explosion of Iraq. Balakian is working an American tradition of longer lyrics that includes Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”; Hart Crane’s “The Bridge”; William Carlos Williams’ “Paterson”; and Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Ears better tuned than mine will probably hear New York echoes of Frank O’Hara as well.

With thanks again to the Grolier Poetry Book Shop on Plympton Street in Harvard Square for turning a store into a studio, in support of our continuing series with people “committing poetry” in our times.

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