The Marrow of Longing
By Celeste Nazeli Snowber
Harp Publishing the People’s Press, 2021
Celeste Nazeli Snowber is falling in love with the culture that birthed her. At the end of a decade spent excavating the longing at the core of her Armenian heritage and personhood, Snowber, PhD has released her third poetry book, The Marrow of Longing, a poetic memoir that exalts the mystery and magic she has uncovered.
Snowber writes of the senses as repositories of memory. The smell of eggplant is a transport to distant childhood memories of watching her mother cook Armenian recipes in the kitchen. The taste of eggplant is a glimpse of historic Armenia and the indigenous herbs cultivated by ancestors. The poems in The Marrow of Longing unearth the senses, calling forth the smells, textures and hues that connect Snowber to her childhood and to an Armenian history that is often erased yet deep in her cellular memory.
“Geography holds/its own/story—/hidden in scents/of mud and sky/flatbread and tears/ripen./Eat/the earth’s song/hear/its loud lament,” Snowber writes in “Earth Traces.”
For the past decade Snowber has been diligently examining her Armenian identity through writing and research, searching for the remnants of her family history, reading Armenian literature and journeying to Armenia to study Armenian dance. In The Marrow of Longing, she pieces together the fragments she possesses of the stories of her ancestors who survived or perished in the Armenian Genocide. Through the poetic, she acknowledges not only the tragedy of their afflictions, but also their full humanity, creating a “poetic memoir” of “who we were/how we loved,” as she writes in “Ancestral Tones.”
“They were in such trauma, they just couldn’t tell any of the stories,” she said during an interview with the Armenian Weekly. “These ancestors, what did they think? They must love us in some way from the other side. They must love our parents and our grandparents, because they couldn’t, so many of them left in such horrific ways. Then, instead of just being horrific, it was…the remembrance of them, they became alive. I feel they’re with me.”
For Snowber, poetry is a means of working through inherited trauma. She decided to search for her roots in order to address the inextricable longing that has always been deep within her. “This longing to me is endemic, is intrinsic to something deeper, and I think that deeper also has to do with the culture and people having to leave the land. I think it’s deeply connected to being Armenian,” she explained. In her poems she writes of longing as “a land inside my chest…a place I know belongs/to my longing.” After working through the pain while embracing the beauties of longing, she recognizes longing not as emptiness but as a site for transformation.
Snowber learned to “caress the beauty of life,” in her words, from her mother. Grace Terzian Snowber (1912-1986), to whom many of the poems in The Marrow of Longing are dedicated, migrated to Massachusetts with her family from historic Armenia. While she was a talented visual artist and dancer, she did not have the same opportunities as her daughter to pursue a career in art as a woman living in the mid-20th century bound by obligation. Instead, she imbued her creative spirit into her daily domestic rites, arranging flowers and cooking with a loving attention to detail. In her poems, Snowber similarly pays homage to the “connections between the holy and the ordinary,” praising pilaf as a “pillar of resistance” and prayer as “worried for love.”
“The key to surviving and thriving and creating in a place of resilience is to live creatively. [My mother pointed] out to me the peppers and the colors in the pan, the way the light moved in the room, color, the fascination with music and dance,” Snowber said.
“Love is the source…/I enter for the first time/an Armenian bakery/suddenly my mother is before me/with her weathered hands/in the markets in Watertown,/Massachusetts./A nation is found in one bite,” Snowber writes in “Lavash Wisdom.”
Snowber’s poems are an invitation to excavate the fragments of one’s own family history and the disparate pieces of one’s Armenian identity. While reading the collection, I felt impelled to step outside, kick off my shoes and walk across the grass while reading the poems out loud, noticing the craving in the soles of my feet for roots (“soles of feet are souls,” Snowber writes in “The Marrow of Longing”). Indeed Snowber’s writing method is intertwined with movement, as her poems often take form while she dances. “The practice of moving, whether that’s walking or swimming or dancing, living sensuously in the world, allows for different language to come into your being,” she said. She is committed to adapting the book into a one-woman show, wholly embodying the poems that were born from the body.
The book includes seven stunning paintings by Boston based artist and MFA Marsha Nouritza Odabashian. The paintings, with titles including “Guardians of Our Inheritance” and “Love in the Ruins,” similarly represent her Armenian ancestry through modern artistic techniques. One painting, titled “Kitchen Studio,” depicts a woman dancing effervescently in a kitchen amid a flurry of pink. The woman might be Grace Terzian Snowber, “cooking with colour,” or Celeste Nazeli Snowber, dancing and writing to discover “fragments of food, fragments of life.”
“Let poetry be the transport/the world beneath the words,” Snowber writes in “Transport,” “a pilgrimage to what calls us/to the alphabet of yearning.”