The drowned girl said, “be rougher, I don’t mind.”
In the old tongue — a tongue that I couldn’t
speak well. The lake water had made me blind
so I clung to her wide hips as her cunt
covered my mouth, my chin. In the night tide
the small waves inched over us. I could feel
her bent forward, pressing down, as she tried
to gag me -drown- while her wild mane went eel-
like, all hither and yon. I’ve walked Sevan’s coast,
the drowned outnumbers the living. Thirty
years-old; wild hair rose up, like — dark like, kelp —
a voice that called from the lake. Carmine’s ghost
calling, “Yeranut’yun.” — Bliss. The way she
pulled back and said, “you naughty little welp.”
In Armenian, the word for bliss is, “yer’an’ut’yun,” (երանություն).
— for Kwame Dawes
Crown Prince Ras Tafari brought the children
of Arba Lijoch out of the desert —
Orphans who became Ethiopian,
who sang of the Metz Yeghern, the Great Hurt;
composed, “Marsh Teferi,” the first music
Marcus Garvey heard while in audience.
I, too, have heard of, “Natural mystic
blowing/ through the air,” Ararat’s fragrance
in each word. I’m told, Babylon crashing.
Where in Kingston is the orchestral sound
of Addis Ababa? — I listen — I
listen, but the dance halls tell me nothing.
The ghosts of Van hang low in the background.
Who will sing their song? Tell their prophesy?
Arba Lijoch were a group of forty Armenian orphans who had escaped from the 1915 atrocities in Turkey, and were afterwards adopted by Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. He had met them while visiting the Armenian monastery in Jerusalem; they impressed him so much that he obtained permission from the head of the Armenian church, the Catholicos, to adopt and bring them to Ethiopia, where he then arranged for them to receive musical instruction. The Arba Lijoch arrived in the capital city, Addis Ababa, in 1924, and along with their conductor, Kevork Nalbandian, became the first official orchestra of the nation. Nalbandian also composed the music for Marsh Teferi (words by Yoftehé Negusé), which was the Imperial National Anthem from 1930 to 1974. Metz Yeghern is the Armenian word for their Great Calamity, their genocide.
We live in a world desperately full of children needing love and support. I repost everything the SOCIETY FOR ORPHANED ARMENIAN RELIEF (SOAR) posts because I deeply believe in everything they do.
Mari Izmirlyan Orphanage is a state orphanage in Yerevan housing approximately 100 children with special needs between the ages of 6 and 18. The SOAR Sponsorship Program is the primary mechanism through which SOAR provides support to specific orphaned Armenian children. Each week we highlight an orphaned Armenian child. This week, we highlight Lilit Shakhkyan at Mari Izmirlyan Orphanage.
Lilit has a serious hearing disability. In 2011, SOAR contributed to the costs of ear surgery for Lilit in which a Baha device was implanted in her ear. Lilit currently attends a special school for the hearing impaired.
Lilit likes to be in the focus of attention. She likes to participate in individual trainings, to play with constructive games, play with dolls, and play with bright-colored toys. She does not like to communicate with peers. She can compare objects and find similarities and differences. Mostly she communicates with facial expressions and behavior. Her future aspirations are to develop social skills, to use voice for communication, and to pronounce sounds.
If you would like to sponsor Lilit, please contact George S. Yacoubian, Jr., at firstname.lastname@example.org or enroll through the Sponsorship Program by selecting Lilit from Mari Izmirlyan. Thank you in advance for your support!
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the earthquake that destroyed my city, Gyumri, Armenia. On Wednesday, December 7, 1988 at 11:41 local time, a 6.8 magnitude quake struck the northwestern part of the country. In the span of 4 seconds somewhere between 25,000-50,000 people were killed and at least 130,000 injured. The cities of Spitak, Vanadzor and Gyumri (at the time known as Leninakan) were hardest hit, with Gyumri reduced to rubble.
Though I had no way of knowing it at the time, as a result of that earthquake I was sent to Gyumri as a Peace Corps volunteer. Everything that happened to me — for good and bad — are a direct result of those 4 seconds. The Armenian word for earthquake is yerkrasharzh (երկրաշարժ), a lose translation being, “it trembles, it crumbles, it falls down.” That is the best description in a single word of the horror, pain and loss that occurred, but also all the love the compassion, the coming together when the world seemed the darkest. The people of Gyumri, despite everything that happened, are some of the bravest, kindest and open souls I’ve ever had the honor of living with.
I am not Armenian but Gyumri will always be my home, the ghost city that haunts my dreams, a memory I will never be able to return to but always carry with me.
I lived near the ruins of All Saviors
Church. If this were an altar for the dead,
worshiped since 3000 BC, martyr’s
ancestors, then I would have prayed and fed
them as I once fed the dead of Ani’s
ruins, across the border, a different
city of ghosts. But it is not. What frees
all these dead from Arcadia’s ancient
curse? They entered into me, sick larvae
in a ripe fruit, and now I can’t leave it
alone. If I could call on some unknown
fury to heal this I would. But fury
and loss is what binds these cast-off spirits;
and now, like them, I can’t leave this alone.
If metaphors are the engine that drives a poem then the problem with writing about a city that 98% of the free world has never heard of is, like trying to make sense of out-of-date pop cultural references, 98% of the free world won’t get what you’re trying to say. The metaphor, in other words, fails. I’m trying to avoid that here, but I realize that if I need to write several paragraphs in my notes explaining what each reference I use means then … perhaps I need to rethink how I can “talk right down to earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand.” (thank you, Living Color).
So, as a quick reference guide, here goes:
The poem is set in the earthquake-devastated city of Gyumri, Armenia; a part of the world that archaeologists have determined has been continually inhabited since 3000 BC. All Saviors Church was a ruined church down the street from where I once lived. Ani is an abandoned, ancient Armenian city just across the border between Armenia and Turkey. As a metaphor, Arcadia usually refers to the idea of an unspoiled, utopian wilderness; sort of like what your hippie parents (or grandparents) might talk about when someone mentions California in the 1960s. Needless to say, the 1960s have never been “all that,” in much the same way that modern-day Turkey has never been the cradle of anyone’s crescent civilization.
The photo I use here was taken by Katie Aune.
Dry this stream bed, flowing through not desert
heat but Neolithic outcroppings, hills
they call them, marking the border. The dirt
here is sweet, sweeter than whatever spills
out on the other side. I have wandered
through these hills, down paths that even shepherds
couldn’t get their flocks to follow. I’ve heard
the sound of paw-pads on rock, like drunkards
kicking stones. Later my neighbors would tell
me ghost stories of the heathen times, back
when goddesses of wind, fire and shadow
roamed the hills. But I was under the spell
of youth, where having Cantor and Cossack
blood was all the safety I needed to know.
It’s odd how one starts a poem about the river that divides Armenia from Turkey and ends up writing about being chased through the hills by unseen forces. I suppose it’s all about where the rhyme takes you.
This poem comes from my time spent in Gyumri, Armenia, as a Peace Corps volunteer. The city is surrounded on two sides by mountains and between the endless flat land the towering mountains are the foothills, which were bizarre when I first looked on them. The closest I’ve ever seen as a comparison is the Glastonbury Tor, in England, which looks like a huge burial mound. There were hundreds and hundreds of them, spanning the eastern and southern sides of the valley Gyumri is located in. It took around four hours to hike from the city center where I lived out to the hills, but I liked it because, for some odd reason, no one else seemed to venture out there. One night, though, having decided to go on a midnight stroll, I ended up getting lost and coming to the conclusion that something was following me. Perhaps I was hearing things, perhaps it was something as innocent as a wolf. Whatever it was I never found out, for even when I turned around and began looking for the source of the noise I couldn’t find anything. When I asked my neighbors why the hills were deserted they began telling me stories about the pre-Christian times of Armenia, with tales of fire whirlwinds, goddesses that caused goats to dry up and dragons that lived on the slopes of Mt. Ararat. I suppose they thought that since I was an American I’d be willing to believe in anything.
The Cantor and Cossack reference is personal, for as far as I can gather from the little information I have found, my grandfather’s father on my dad’s side were both holy singers and horse soldiers during the days of the Russian Tzar. But that’s just family lore, what I know is that he came from a small village in the Ukraine, near Minsk. The difficulty of pin-pointing my ancestors isn’t just that everyone on my father’s side is dead, it’s that since they were Jewish and everyone else in the surrounding villages during WWII the Nazis rounded them up and executed everyone, afterward burning down the villages. There is literally no literal trance of my father’s roots.
But stay tender. Stay enchanted. Mountain,
mountain, mountain. I drank you like vodka,
so you weren’t useless like a grave. Heathen
women prayed for you and so did Noah.
We flew in during the city’s blackout.
I didn’t realize just how you dazzled
until I fell in love with your devout
colors: blue hues cut into deep purple.
Everywhere I went that summer I spied
you. Then, when Turkish gunships attacked
Kurdish towns, smoke darkened your eastern side.
People still pray to you. We build abstract
myths then tear them down. There’s nothing cryptic
about how this wayfarer is homesick.
These memories, these harsh memories, marred
with the stink of self-hatred and hard drink.
Meager flowers. Petals. Sparse leaf. A shard
I still cannot dislodge. I use to think
that time would dull them; to think that time’s cure
would make them all fade. Then I tried to write.
But what words are there for the dead? What poor
sequence or meager spell would ease the spite
I feel for myself? P.T.S.D. … they
said. Survivor’s guilt. A world with no lust.
Let me write my erotica, pretend
that the spiritual life is the best, pray
that this shard will loosen one day. It must.
I must. I must begin. I must begin.
P.T.S.D., Post-traumatic stress disorder, is a severe psychological condition that might develop after a person is exposed to a traumatic event. This diagnosis may be given when a group of symptoms occur, such as disturbing recurring flashbacks and nightmares, avoidance or numbing of memories of the event, or a high level of anxiety continuing for a long period of time after the event happened.
I was diagnosed with it after I returned home in disgrace from Peace Corps.
I have lived in the shadow of the Rocks
of Queen Marpesia, followed ruined
dusk, passing from ridge to ridge. Like beanstalks
and mad giants, men called you legend,
but they never followed where I followed;
from bud to bud—to apricot blossoms
in twilight gone faint—the petals tips glowed,
their pink hearts bending out. Once your war drums
beat here. Once you made brute northerners curse
the day that they headed south. Now cliff birds
are just shadows lost among the far cliffs.
I will never lose you; the universe
does not need grudging legends, myths and words
to see and name all your wisdom and gifts.
Marpesia was an Amazon queen who ruled with her sister, Lampedo (“Burning Torch”), the city of Ephesus (Efes in Turkish), on the coast of Ionia, near present-day Selcuk. Greek myth states her building a series of mountain cities hidden within the Caucasus Mountains, which were referred to by the Greeks as the Rocks of Queen Marpesia or the Marpesian Cliffs. The Caspian Gates, a legendary barrier supposedly built by Alexander the Great in the Caucasus to keep the barbarians of the north from invading the south is said to be a continuation of what the Amazonian queen started. Marpesia’s name means, “The Snatcher.”