Fragments Against Our Ruins

ALTHOUGH HE HAS been publishing verse and various genres of prose since the 1970s, creating a distinguished body of writing, the Armenian-American writer Peter Balakian remains something of a well-kept secret. The politics of literary reputation are always fickle, but in Balakian’s case the relative neglect of his work is especially puzzling. Few American poets of the boomer generation have explored the interstices of public and personal history as deeply and urgently as has Balakian, and his significance as a poet of social consciousness is complemented by his work in other genres. The Burning Tigris, his study of the Armenian genocide and America’s response to it, is perhaps the most definitive account of this tragedy in English. Balakian is also the author of a memoir, The Black Dog of Fate, a work that interweaves recollections of a Cold War childhood spent in suburban New Jersey with an examination of the genocide’s impact on Balakian’s own extended family.

A Poet’s Meditation on Force

Army Cats
by Tom Sleigh
Graywolf Press, 2011

In Army Cats, American poet Tom Sleigh takes on the topic of the 2007 Lebanese Civil War not as an excuse for wanton journalistic rubbernecking, but as a catalyst for a series of troubled meditations on the nature of “force” within contemporary culture. Let me explain what I mean by force. To do so requires a look back at the groundbreaking work of philosopher and activist Simone Weil. Writing in the first year of World War II, in an effort to show that Hitler’s rise to power was not the anomaly that other intellectuals claimed it to be, Weil composed one of the most famous meditations on violence ever written, “The Iliad or the Poem of Force.”

Early in the essay, Weil defines what she means by “force”:
To define force—it is that x which turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to its limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.


Let us hope that Pinsky’s new Selected Poems will help to dispel the more jaded views of his accomplishments. For Pinsky is an important figure. He is also, as Tony Hoagland has rightly observed, “a much stranger poet than is generally acknowledged.”