BLUE HERON PRESS: Rough Landing

a new collection of poetry by Lorne ShirinianRough Landing

Rough Landing is Lorne Shirinian's fourth book of poetry. In this new book, he writes on a wide variety of themes such as aging, love, the Armenian Genocide and life in the Armenian diaspora. The new poems are preceded by a selection of poems from two previous collections: Poems of Dispersion and Other Rights of Movement (1977), and Earthquake (1991),

ISBN 0-920266-12-6
80 pages
$10.00


ROUGH LANDING

poems to illuminate caves
poems to place on graves
poems that shocked
poems that made you turn your head
poems that excited
poems of solace
poems of condolence
discomforting poems
poems like stones
poems like forceps
poems to breach walls...
--from "The Assassination of the Future, Rough Landing"

Fasten your seatbelts. It's the fierce, vital, at times almost brutal honesty of these well-crafted poems, their often edgy intensity born of a flight plan certain to encounter turbulence and induce tailspin, and their flying-blind-into-the-void urgency that make for an exciting if rough landing in largely unfamiliar poetic terrain for the reader, and perhaps the writer, too. Here, Lorne Shirinian gathers selected poetry from two previous collections, Poems of Dispersion and Other Rites of Movement (1977), and Earthquake (1991), in the process of rethinking and rewriting some of them, always pushing the outside of the envelope. Added to these is a new group of powerful poems written between 1992 and 1999, shared with audiences at readings, and set down, after further reflection, on the eve of the Millennium. To read them as a whole is to experience how each group or successive layer grows out of, enriches, and deepens the previous one, clarifying and extending the poet's vision (and ours), and adding to his mounting achievement. In Rough Landing as elsewhere, Shirinian continues the journey begun by his ancestors so many years ago, striving to create a space where their tragically abbreviated lives may complete themselves and issue into coherence and significance—a new world where lost identity may be regained, even renewed, a birthplace to call home from which to “return Armenia to the world,” wholeness and rest to the psyche of the nomadic children of the survivors.

From Poems of Dispersion and Other Rites of Movement (1977) and Earthquake (1991) come fearful visions “blurred and too real” of diaspora, dispersion, and dispossession. If the Twentieth Century was the Age of Catastrophe, no one knows this in their bones better than the Armenian victims of three them: the Genocide of 1915 (2 million massacred at the hands of the Ottoman Turkish government; the Turkish National War of 1920-21; and the Greco-Turkish War of 1921-22. Together, these claimed the lives of half of the Armenian nation, with survivors and orphans driven from their historical territories and dispersed throughout the world, a world whose chief response has been neglect.

The predominant voice of the firs sections of Rough Landing is haunted by horrors Main Street Canada has managed to remain oblivious to, further exacerbating the need or compulsion to craft “poems to illuminate caves” where darkness few here have entered. In these poems, Shirinian has “gathered our dead.” And he buries them, along with their hopes and fears and the missing years of their unlived lives, in unforgettable images and rhythms and soundscapes, in the recesses of his heart, and in what must appear to be an all too often indifferent, resistant and stony Canadian consciousness. A culture already crippled by short-term (and even long-term) memory loss and inanely preoccupied with chasing consumer thrills may not be in the market for “poems to place on graves” or “poems that shocked.”

As Margaret Atwood pointed out in an address to Amnesty International in 1981, the desire to create “poems that make you turn your head” is often frustrated in Canadian culture by a lamentable tendency to adopt an “ostrich response” to barbarity and butchery, to refuse to intimate knowledge of existence and disappearance, “presence and absence” that in this case is precisely the legacy of the Armenian Diaspora. So, if “to be Armenian is to be possessed by your dispossession,” as Shirinian remarks in the Prologue to History of Armenia and Other Fiction, how to survive in this country? How to survive in the Old World? How to make the dark truths of a tragedy enacted in that world resound I the streets of this? How to keep “faith/with our fathers,” to honour their memory, pass on their histories, their memoirs and wondrous tales of dignity and integrity amidst carnage and slaughter? Indeed, how to breathe being and presence into grandparents and relatives who remain little more than a name or an anecdote? How to pull from yourself “poems of solace, poems of condolence,” in order to recall, enshrine, and vivify a blood-soaked heritage that—when it exists—exists only in fragments and scraps? How to exhume from a damaged and deleted past the missing parts of survivors who feel themselves fragmented, insubstantial, incomplete? And how, then, thus incapacitated, even to consider let alone approach what can only be the life-long task of fathoming genocide—the unfathomable that defies meaning, coherence, resolution, closure—in one large, encompassing narrative, without courting failure?

Rough Landing and History of Armenia and Other Fiction deftly and memorably hold, and are informed by, the tension created by all these questions that they resolutely and relentlessly articulate. Tested in this crucible, Shirinian's voice emerged weathered and battered, but strong, passionate, and authentic. A steadfast and conscientious keeper of the keys of Armenian history and culture, he keeps diligent poetic records, witnessing in poems and story human resilience and the power of the creative imagination to help a people endure and prevail: to navigate the depths, to canvass possibilities, and to harness dreams. As works by others wrestling with similar material attest, it's a feat all the more remarkable because beset by the limitations and intractability of language itself. How to write when burdened by a language inadequate before genocide, that quails and reels before apocalypse, that retreats or becomes vague and indefinite in the face of the incomprehensible? Threatened by the kind of paralysis felt by First Nations peoples or by a Joy Kogawa, what writer wouldn't agonize over what fiction can ultimately say about the unimaginable? Like Kogawa, Shirinian manages to register and engagingly communicate a deeply personal response to tragedy and catastrophe, rooting his vision in the suffering of a particular people while lifting his gaze to embrace all peoples. Both likewise reveal that transculturation and acculturation, dispossession and exile, take many forms. And it's in this sense “that the history of Armenia is also the history of Canada,” as Shirinian observes elsewhere. To make visible the invisible, to give voice to the silence is to bring about a potent recognition and release of the pain and anguish Canadians of Japanese ancestry or Armenian survivors in the Diaspora carried with them all of their lives to their graves. In the hands of a poet, language and imagination constitute a moral forum for this to happen, a place of restoration, communion, and healing.

The subsequent, newer poems comprising the last section of Rough Landing explore what for lack of a better term may be called “personal” material, though the “personal” is inseparable from the “political” in such a writer. Love, the possibility of genuine connection and relationship, father-son follies, the slippery nature of words and the poetic process itself, the “sticky uncertainties” of everyday life (and death) in “metropolis noir,” the trapdoors of time and aging—all find their way into words that are used sensitively, precisely, and with a certain verve. It's an extensive poetic terrain whose bold features, though not subtleties, may be surveyed in a brief list: doors and walls, angels and demons, bones and shattered haloes, roads and caves, labyrinths and minotaurs, headlong falls and black ice, side by side with anxiety, tenderness, dismay and distress. “My Shattered Halo,” for instance, takes us for a cruise from innocence to experience that ends up burning these lines into the paper:

on the road i took half a century ago
on a day when the sun burned like a scalpel
and time started with a slap
i've gotten used to things that get broken
and discarded
but i still carry a shard of that light with me
keep it pressed sharp into my flesh
as a reminder

It's the “poems like stones,” “poems to breach walls,” the “discomforting poems” – “Bones,” “Evolution,” “Canada” – that continue the impassioned excavation of “the lost homeland” and its “orphaned wanderers” begun in the work's first two sections. They carry their own particular charge, perhaps because “no one remembers like Armenians.” The constant need to resist dissolving, extinction, evoked in the earlier poem cycle entitle Earthquake (“it seems as if I have disappeared…how is it that/in my own country/I am so far from home”) has become even more poignant in the later poem, “Canada”:

Before I can write a poem to you
I have to figure out who I am
Surely you can see the difficulty
For as a son of Armenia
And a Genocide you can't seem to recognize
I walk the streets of Toronto and Montreal
With a stuttering gate often looking over my shoulder
Rounding corners slowly...

Rough Landing lands us in some rough patches, but as one of the last poems in this moving collection notes, “if there's no fire/there's no Phoenix.” Perhaps in the end, pen and paper are the most important things to awaken and sustain both head and heart. “Poems like forceps” will help deliver new life, will ensure that something alive and vital will remain.

Michael Hurley,
Department of English,
Royal Military College of Canada,
22 March 2000.


Stent

this night is wrapped tight around the edges of the world
it’s pulled down hard and hermetic
like a new leather muzzle spiked with brass studs

tonight even the stars are hiding
the moon’s a vague premonition
thought blurs weak eyes
images pale

on the streets tonight the pulse beats a little harder
puts pressure on the arterial walls near the heart
it’s a night for cautious steps
a night to keep close to buildings

intimate stranger in the stark darkness
you cross roads at your peril

there’s still time to find comfort in doorways
where the dull light beckons and falls on the sidewalk
like love from a ten-dollar score

but only for a moment
for you’re a regular here
you know the danger of entrances
only go so far on such a night
run your fingers along the rude bricks
maintain a rough bearing
don’t stray too far from the red line

and what of plans on such a night
(let’s not talk of dreams or other strategic retreats)

yet vague memories of family and journeys along bumpy roads
from villages to cities
smoke and haze of burning fields
the rubble and dust of fractured brick and stone
trouble like an unhealed wound

could that really have been in this life

the brilliant past heavy with excess has become a constriction
the weakest link in your clogged life
passage and pulse blocked
and like this dark and savage night
a lid slammed down solid on hope

you are occluded

desire and muscle
narrow outlook
life’s safety net
fine mesh of hope
placed just so
against the crush
a little something to soften the falling


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