Gregory Djanikian, 'Dear Gravity' (2014)
The man in the middle, in the book The Man in the Middle, published thirty years ago this year (1984—a year before I first met this man in the middle), is a guy who managed to find his way out of the tower of Babel, despite the Babel of languages, French, Arabic, Armenian, broken English, buzzing in his ears from his immigrant refugee-ish elders. And somehow this perfectly reasonable guy, yet beset with the curse and the gift of the poet’s fate of having to sort through Babel’s myriad mixed meanings in order to find the dream of a “whole earth [that] had one language and one will”—this man was already the generous, kind, and superbly accommodating language maker we have come to know and admire and love. The poem I’ve been referring to, “The Tower of Babel,” ends with vintage Djanikian:
We build what we must. Yet, that towers be great
enough to reach a god, we must refine
the difficult architecture of a word.
We build what we must. “Must” there seems an imperative; this man in the middle of langauges and cultures and sensibilities must build. He is what Wallace Stevens called “A Man Made out of Words.” That’s one reading of the line, but I prefer this: One loves the world enough to accommodate the polyphony and confusions and mortal setbacks it hurls at one, and if one must build from those parts, well, one will, because they are the parts one is given.
Years Later there came Years Later, a book already of retrospect. Also dedicated to Alysa, his beloved Lisa, and this time about her—her and him together and apart. The phone call from Arizona caused him to worry about her, but it turned out that he was the vulnerable one, the one scared of anything that might befall her. He took her out on the porch on a starry night and tried to get her to see the constellations his way, as if to constellate a whole story-bound mythic meaning for them both, but she—an artist too of course—makes her own meanings and at certain moments wants nothing of his. He discovers a kind of gravity in a life’s lifelong love—love of Lisa—and the physics of traveling away are not Einsteinian but Newtonian: punishment for being an aging body in contact with the ground, suffering the weight of the tedium of days without her, even though those days were days of poems about her absence, and these are what became Years Later, and made it (the book), and them (the years) beautiful. A handbook in verse for monogamy, loyalty, fidelity and crazy ongoing mystery & imagination.
Absence, it seemed, had to be plumbed further. But there was no bottom to the deprivations of the Armenian genocide. The traumatic events that gave rise to our man in the middle. In the middle of blood legacy. In the middle of an alphabet of names of the mortified dead: Azniv, whose infant’s mouth was slit in the straw; Antranig, shod like a horse and tethered in his own pasture. Given a familial origin in such losses, no wonder this disaporic American poet was “out in left field before the citizenship test.” And no wonder it fell to him to correct his elders in their use of the new language he desperately wanted to learn and wield as a way of repressing the past. But in “So I Will Till the Ground” all the old hard-to-say words came floating back, the return of the bloody repressed, reminding him that his dream of a common language was a dream dreamed by the man in the middle of his first published poems—already then. The genocide had always made them. In poems, given such annihilations of family and lineage, one builds what one must.
But now it’s time to come back to gravity—Dear Gravity (2014)—the actual weight of memory: of lessons in high school; or the 1972 Cutlass Supreme (still driven by the poet’s mother); swimming at Agami Beach in Egypt in 1955; that first winter in America; that scary pre-induction physical in Philly in 1971, when the draft was still very real and people—poets included—were dying in southeast Asia; and the sweet weight of memories: drinking beer on the summer porch. In the end there’s always “Something Else” that reminds you how little you need the world in order to organize it and save it in a poem such as “Something Else.” Like the “river you hear / without listening”; like the stars you know organize themselves into stories even without the consent of your loved one; like all the absences that by now you’ve learned to make into presences. Dear Gravity lets them befall you. If it’s finally not true that the whole earth would permit itself to speak in one language, you will keep making poems in which we can imagine just such a coherent dream.
Gregory Djanikian, Dear Gravity (Carnegie Mellon Press, 2014), 104 pages.