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David Kherdian comes home to Racine, WI, and to his boyhood in Root River Return. It’s a mix of poetry and short essays, a combination I find particularly appealing, separated into sections. David’s poems have an intense honesty as he tries to establish his own identity. Is he Armenian or American? Neither? Both? His parents don’t want him to forget his Armenian roots, and while David rebels against being labeled as such and attempts to block out what they try to help him understand about their own pasts, he’s also not comfortable with being “Steven”—the American name his teachers have given him, taken from Stepan.
He is embarrassed by his parents (“filling the American landscape with their old / country ways, making us yearn desperately / for what we imagined the “American” kids / we chummed with had”). He resents school (“The best part of school / was the window I looked / out of . . .”). He desires freedom but is not quite sure what that is.
Yet, some of my favorite pieces are about trying to reconcile his childhood emotions and memories of his family with the true and complicated people they really were: “Baseball and Father”; “Uncle Jack”; “In Father’s Garden”; “Histories”; “1950”; “Root River”; “Private Bakaian.” And despite his academic and behavioral struggles, there are a few good school memories, too, poems such as “The Art of Kindergarten” and “Dear Mrs. McKinney of the Sixth Grade” and essays like “Mr. Huber.”
David is most at home by the water. It centers him (“For the calm of the lake was in us” and “But what I liked about water was that it helped me to dream. I could follow Root River with my imagination and let it take me to all the places of the world I had never been . . .”). He asks questions of the water. He finds answers.
But the brilliance of this collection is more than the subjects he chooses. It’s in the words he chooses that place us not only in Racine with him, but speak to our hearts about our own misgivings and misunderstandings, wonderings and wanderings: “the held breath of grace”; “older, quieter sun”; “youth-wounded.” As a bonus, his cover is graced by the work of Nonny Hogrogian, his artist wife.
David invites you to “come now and add your / incense to the hour.” I encourage you to take him up on that.
Available from Beech Hill Publishing.
Eve Merriam, beloved children’s poet. Who knew her poems could be so eerie? I discovered Embracing the Dark (Garden Street Press, 1995) in an old bookstore in Provincetown and didn’t realize what I’d find between the pages.
Part One, Embracing the Dark: There is a hauntingly beautiful poem called “Sweepstakes” about choosing between riches and a child. The rest, I confess, was too creepy for me. (Those who like creepy, enjoy!)
Part Two, Packing My Bags: My favorite section. What’s not to love about a poem titled “The Widow Considers Becoming a Cat” (with fittingly, nine reasons)? Then there’s “The Coming on of Evening” on being alone after a loved one is gone: ” . . . prepare / a tasteful meal // and sit / with book in hand // and sit / looking up from the book // expectant for company to arrive.” Such joy in “Dance with Me”: “enjoy the color of the tea / the bubbles of sugar exploding / the slice of lemon floating floating.” Part two ends with “The greatest gift / in life / is not to know the future.”
Part Three, Plagues for Our Time: Some seriously sarcastic lines of genius.
Part Four, Poems Purgatorio: “Knock knock. / Who’s there? / Tumor. / Tumor who? / Tumor for you . . .” And so her dying begins and she faces her own mortality. The poems are identified by date and end with 12 September 1991. Eve dies on April 11, 1992, age seventy-five. She leaves us with “the same wish: / to write a poem / so consummate / I care not after / if I live or die.”
It’s a side of Eve Merriam I’m glad I got to know, even if it took me this long.
Try finding the book in your local indie first. If not, resort to Amazon.
Faster Than Light is a marvelous selection of new and collected poems by Marilyn Nelson. Ranging from poems of important historical significance to her own present-day adventures, it was hard to put down. Like the Kherdian and Merriam books reviewed here, this book is broken down into sections.
Part I, Lyric Histories: Powerful poems expertly executed, mostly about slavery and discrimination and atrocities, but also about racist views aimed toward new Irish immigrants, strong people standing up defiantly for others, music, and poems about George Washington Carver, one of my favorite scientists not only for his work, but for the human being he was (“Where he pointed was only a white flower / until I saw him seeing it.”).
Part II, Other Selected Poems: This contains some fun and personal poems about a trip Marilyn takes with her family for a fellowship she won. This section is far more light-hearted than part one, but still shares thought-inspiring lines, such as: “God doesn’t prefer the ascetic’s self-denial / to the delighted joy-dance of the child.”
Part III, New and Collected Poems: We head back to more serious poems and some unique topics. Conjoined twins, Alzheimer’s (“thought disappears from sense / like the vapor trail of a skeptic’s awe”), animals listening to jazz, war, prayer (“We need to be open to this world / of pain and beauty. It is in our attentiveness / to this broken world / that God / finds us.”
I would end there, but the last line of the book is “to be continued . . .” I’ve never seen a poetry book end that way. What a fabulous idea! Always looking forward to Marilyn Nelson’s next book.
Available from Louisiana State University Press.