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Poems and Stories to Place on Graves
by Michael Hurley

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. In Rough Landing and in History of Armenia and Other Fiction, his latest collection of short stories, Shirinian continues the journey begun by his Armenian ancestors so many years ago: an impassioned quest to create a space where their tragically abbreviated lives may complete themselves and issue into coherence and significance. Together, they chart 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.

Both works offer 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 genocide and massacre. 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.

Each publication in its own way is haunted by horrors to which Main Street Canada has managed to remain oblivious, further exacerbating the need to craft "poems to illuminate caves" whose darkness few here have entered. In these texts, 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, rhythms and soundscapes, in the recesses of the heart, and in what must appear to be an all too often indifferent Canadian consciousness. A culture already crippled by short-term memory loss and inanely preoccupied with chasing consumer thrills may not be in the market for "poems to place on graves" and "poems that shock." Or for a disturbing fiction of "Forced Departures," to quote the title of a masterful short story capturing the continuing trauma of the Armenian Genocide in two generations of an Armenian Canadian family in Toronto.

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 intimate knowledge of existence and disappearance, 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 make the dark truths of a tragedy enacted in the old world resound in the streets of this? How to keep "faith/with our fathers," to honour their memory and to pass on their tales of dignity and integrity amidst carnage and slaughter? 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? And how, then, thus incapacitated, even to consider (let alone approach) what can only be the life-long task of fathoming genocide and terrorism¨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 hold the tension created by all these questions that they resolutely articulate. Tested in this crucible, Shirinian's voice emerges weathered and battered, but strong, passionate, and authentic. It will survive Sept. 11th. A steadfast and conscientious keeper of the keys of Armenian history and culture, he keeps diligent poetic records, witnessing in poem and story human resilience and the power of the creative imagination to help a people endure and prevail. 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 mass murder, that quails and reels before apocalypse, that retreats in the face of the incomprehensible? Threatened by the kind of paralysis felt by First Nations peoples, by a Joy Kogawa or by anyone post Sept. 11th, what writer wouldn't agonize over what fiction can ultimately say about the unimaginable? Like Kogawa, Shirinian manages to register 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 that Sept. 11th has made all the more essential.

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 relationship, father-son follies, the slippery nature of words and the poetic process itself, the "sticky uncertainties" of everyday life 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. "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

Even when conjuring up an Armenia distant in time and space, Shirinian evinces a recognizably Canadian double vision and voice. Nowhere is this more palpable than in the haunting doubles and doppelgangers that populate¨indeed, almost overpopulate¨his short story collection. In "Wolfe Island Mystery" and "Face Down," two metaphysical love stories shot through with dark humour, his eye for the telling local detail proves remarkable as well, as those familiar with Kingston or Toronto could attest.

Rough Landing and History of Armenia and Other Fiction land us in some rough terrain, but as one of Shirinian's poems notes, "if there's no fire/there's no Phoenix." Stories and "poems like forceps" will help deliver new life, will ensure that something alive and vital will remain in a world stunned by terrorism. ˛

Michael Hurley is a writer, poet and professor currently completing a critical study of "Southern Ontario Gothic."


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