Fragments Against Our Ruins

Ozone Journal, Peter Balakian, University of Chicago Press, 2015
Vise and Shadow: Essays on the Lyric Imagination, Poetry, Art, and Culture, Peter Balakian, University of Chicago Press, 2015

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.

Earlier this year, Balakian published two books: a new collection of verse and a volume of essays. Although the essay collection is a bit of a miscellany—its topics range from the work of modern Armenian poets to visual artists Robert Rauschenberg and Arshile Gorky, from poet Hart Crane to our great contemporary troubadour Bob Dylan—Balakian’s insights are penetrating and his prose is lucid and jargon-free. Furthermore, the essays offer readers some useful insights into Balakian’s current poetic method, which is practiced to notable effect in his new volume of verse, Ozone Journal.

Like so many other American poets who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, Balakian’s early work is grounded in the autobiographical lyric and informed by a strong engagement with the possibilities of metaphor. It echoes confessional writers such as Robert Lowell (whom he elegizes in his debut collection) as well as the neosurrealism of figures such as W.S. Merwin and James Wright. Yet there are places in the early collections where Balakian departs from his era’s period style, particularly in “The Claim,” a several-page examination of the Armenian genocide that makes inventive use of documentary material and narrative disruption. This poem prefigures the approach that Balakian arrived at in his 2010 collection, Ziggurat, but that volume and Ozone Journal employ the techniques of juxtaposition and collage with much greater ambition.

The centerpiece of Ziggurat is “A-Train/Ziggurat/Elegy,” a work of nearly thirty pages, divided into forty-five short sections. The poem blends autobiographical recollection with a sometimes-dizzying array of recurring narrative fragments, homages, and jeremiads. September 11 and its aftermath figure prominently in the poem, but so do Miles Davis, Woody Allen, Andy Warhol, Richard Nixon, Philip Glass, and the painter Franz Kline. Most significantly, however, Balakian brashly interweaves some harrowing material drawn from the second Iraq War with references to the culture of Ancient Sumeria and the career of Sir Leonard Woolley, the excavator of Ur. The poem does not seek to resolve its underlying tensions; in fact, Balakian repeatedly suggests that such a resolution may not be possible. This suspicion also animates the title poem of Ozone Journal, which the book’s jacket describes as a kind of sequel to “A-Train/Ziggurat/Elegy.”

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