A beautiful home in Cambridge, Massachusetts was the setting for an evening with Peter Balakian on Tuesday. “A totally unique ambience – I never read in a Victorian parlor before,” the guest of honor observed. Dozens of devotees filled the room 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 continuing pandemic, was also available over Zoom.
Balakian is the author of eight books of poems, including Ozone Journal, which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and Ziggurat, both published by the University of Chicago Press. His memoir Black Dog of Fate won the PEN/Albrand Award and was a New York Times notable book, and The Burning Tigris won the Raphael Lemkin Prize and was a New York Times bestseller and New York Times notable book. He is Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities in the Department of English at Colgate University.
Joining Balakian in conversation was author Askold Melnyczuk, whose most recent book The Man Who Would Not Bow was published last year, and who Balakian described as the “James Laughlin of our generation.” After introducing Balakian and his newest poetry collection No Sign, Melynczuk referred to the first poem titled “History, Bitterness,” Balakian’s recollection of his day at the Yaddo writer’s colony during which a friend handed him the phone and invited him to say a few words to an ailing James Baldwin who lay dying in the south of France. The poem then describes a cafe in Paris and the author’s great-uncle, a bishop in the Armenian church who took part in the Paris peace talks in 1919 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 to the collection, “a kind of sedimentary poetics [that] culminates in the truly astonishing title poem ‘No Sign’ in which the word sedimentary recovers its literal meaning as the poem folds nothing less than a history of the planet tracking a conversation between an estranged couple against the backdrop of geological time.”
In addition to “History, Bitterness,” Balakian read “Summer Ode,” “Yellow Lilies,” “How Much I Love You,” “Eggplant” and “Apricot.” His intent with these selections was to provide a flavor of the collection, while also offering the inspiration for each poem, often including his Armenian upbringing, in particular his beloved grandmother Nafina. “She appears in and seems to endlessly be an animating force of energy in my mind,” explained Balakian about the Genocide survivor who served as the central character in his memoir Black Dog of Fate and who was the sole survivor of the death march from her family, along with her two infant children.
“Everything comes back to the kitchen,” Balakian explained about the section that he called a series of meditations on fruits and vegetables. “Memory goes through food and culture and history and homes and meditations to take you to many places,” Balakian said, continuing, “And sometimes they evoke historical vibes.”
For the first time at a public reading, Balakian read from “No Sign,” a special treat that included the first four sections of the poem. One reason why he had yet to read this title poem is because he “wants readers to enjoy swimming in it.” Balakian said he spent a lot of time reading and thinking before beginning “No Sign,” a poem demarcated by “he” and “she,” conversational and dramaturgical without being a play, about the dialogue between an estranged couple that reunites on the cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades. Their dialogue “reveals the evolution of a kaleidoscopic memory spanning decades, reflecting on the geological history of Earth and the climate crisis, the film Hiroshima Mon Amour, the Vietnam War, a visionary encounter with the George Washington Bridge, and the enduring power of love” as described by the publisher.
During the conversation between Melnyczuk and Balakian, the subject of imagination was raised. “The imagination is a strange place. We all live in it, artist, writers or not,” Balakian said. Both authors agreed that imagination has a role to play in our lives, encouraging us to delve deeper and further than the surface level of data and information we receive. “Isn’t imagination the source of all our hope?” Melnyczuk asked, to which there was a palpable reaction from those gathered in the parlor, a fitting conclusion to an illuminating evening.