while best known for his nonfiction such as “the burning tigris: the armenian genocide & america’s response” and the acclaimed pen/martha albrand prize-winning memoir “black dog of fate,” the poetry of colgate university english professor and guggenheim fellow peter balakian is sublime. though “black dog of fate” can be looked at in terms of its vibrant poetic nuances, balakian’s poetry books “father fisheye” (1979), “sad days of light” (1983), “reply from wilderness island” (1988), “dyer’s thistle,” and “june-tree: new and selected poems, 1974-2000” pop from the page.
pathos and whimsy tie together radically different historical milieus in balakian’s poetry to recall forced marches in anatolia, brutality and atrocities inflicted by turks against armenians in the 20th century‘s first genocide, and the social/cultural upheaval experienced by baby boomers from their childhoods in the fifties and sixties and beyond.
the sounds, sights, and smells of america’s “golden age of plenty”--the lawns, trips, college rite de passage--and the aching call of that privilege come to life in his wondrous verse. the realization that life and images explored by balakian--so absolutely american in scope--occur a mere handful of decades after those atrocities claimed his relatives and other armenians makes his poetry all the more poignant. hear the sound of a suburban new jersey lawn being watered. feel the cognitive dissonance of passing from the “new deal” paradigm to the more darwinist ethos of the 1980s. picture the outlook of a boy coming of age in relation to his parents. these and so many more twists and turns make peter balakian’s poetry a true powerhouse in which the reader has the privilege of traveling between whimsy and tragedy on a single page!
In “rock ’n roll,” balakian’s word economy gives the reader dividends unimaginable:
“I wasn't a fool in a satin tux.
I was Persian gold and blue chenille,
I was the son of the Black Dog of Fate.”
his verse travels back from teaneck and tenafly to give us a glimpse of the horrendous suffering on the march from diarbakir (and other horrors inflicted by turks) to the miraculous acclimation of survivors to a new continent and society with their resultant hopes, silences, and resurgence. in “end of the reagan era,” we make amazing leaps from a citation to willa cather and visions of saffron maple leaves to the distance between blue and red states in a struggle for the hearts and minds of america.
while it can take your breath away, peter balakian’s poetry is a trip so worth traveling.
"rock ’n roll":
"the end of the reagan era":