An American Way to Go: John Foy on Peter Balakian

Reviewed: Ziggurat by Peter Balakian. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Peter Balakian’s poetry is a “strange brew of wind and light” distilled to one degree or another from primal trauma. He’s as American as Walt Whitman and Joe Namath, a product of high school football teams in the affluent New Jersey suburbs, but he is not an optimist. As scholar and memoirist, Balakian has dug deep over the years into his rich Armenian past, and what he has found has darkened his sensibility. His poetry, like his highly acclaimed prose, reaches back to Armenian themes of trauma and genocide, just as it keeps a foot in the present with its own attendant terrors. Balakian has faced these things and written about them, directly or indirectly, through most of his prolific career. He is a poet who lives to be “in the thick of the material,” whether it’s the pile of frightening historical facts he excavates or the sound and texture of the phrases he lovingly chisels out.

The poems in his new book, Ziggurat, carry the burden of darkness, and while the pain they seek to assimilate is ancient, the historical circumstances are new, and American. The collection is built around a long poem in 45 sections called “A-Train/Ziggurat/Elegy.” To call this a poem about the World Trade Center—it is—falls short, because it is about more than just the doomed Twin Towers. It’s a meditation on things that come out of the ground and things that go back into the ground. It’s about buildings, lives, relationships, and memory. Balakian uses the World Trade Center as a symbol—our own local tragedy—around which his thoughts, observations, and histories constellate.

Soon after the towers came down, poems began appearing in magazines and on line about the attacks. The poems, as I recall, were not that good. They bore the marks of poems thrown together opportunistically, while the news was hot. A typical, long example even ran in The New Yorker. But how can you absorb and distill so quickly the enormities of that day? It takes years for those images and their ramifications to settle in the mind, and only then might they be ready to be suitably expressed and transformed. What does suitably mean? It means that to do justice to the horror of September 11, a poem needs to be well made, in the same way that a cenotaph should be well made and thus worthy of the grief of those who come to stand by it. Balakian, I believe, has satisfied this obligation, having used the intervening years to think long on the event and to find a resonant way of talking about September 11 that embraces not only the historical facts of that day but personal memories of the towers’ construction, the almost-mortal wounding of a close friend in Iraq, and the ancient Ziggurat of Ur, a vast structure as symbolic of its culture as the World Trade Center was of ours. Balakian binds all this together in a poem that has emotional depth, structural coherence, and historical range.

“A-Train/Ziggurat/Elegy” is in the American tradition of Whitman and Crane. It is not a narrative but a concatenation of 45 aggregated parts that accumulate like the stacked stories of a building, with something slightly different occurring on every floor, and as they accumulate they give shape to the bigger picture. The stratification of voices includes:

i) the voice of personal recollection, which Balakian uses to recall his days spent working as a messenger for a shipping company in lower Manhattan, where he frequented neighborhoods around the vast construction site where the Twin Towers were being built, often delivering checks and invoices to offices up in the towers themselves;

ii) a voice reading and quoting from Sir Leonard Woolley’s Excavations at Ur, about the ancient Mesopotamian ziggurat built in the twenty-first century BC;

iii) a voice recalling a past romantic relationship that played out in the city; and

iv) a voice that recounts the grievous wounding of a friend in Iraq who, as a newsman, is embedded with U.S. troops and is injured in a IED explosion (the news anchor Bob Woodruff, a friend and former student of Balakian’s, was critically wounded by a bomb blast in Iraq on January 29, 2006, when his convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device near Taji, about 12 miles north of Baghdad).

Balakian weaves these voices together in an accretive way that opens up the poem, relieving it of strict narrative obligations. The telling of the story relies on echoes and circlings back that build into a composite picture of loss, destruction, and injury. His language calls into action different registers. There are passages that invoke the machines of Hart Crane, the “cranes, hydraulic lifts, guy wires, derricks” that populate the construction site. And he refers to the “multi-million line Nynex switching station” located beneath the towers:

I couldn’t imagine a silicon brain
or hear the humming of the inaudible frequencies

of magnetic core memory
of the integrated circuits of a capacitor—

some days I found places along the pier
where I sat and went blank

(“A-Train/Ziggurat/Elegy,” Section 19)

Then there are the somber, philosophical musings of Woolley the archaeologist, which apply equally well to the Ziggurat and the World Trade Center:

“It grieves me to watch the end of any good work
to which men have given so much thought and skill.”

(“A-Train/Ziggurat/Elegy,” Section 5)

There is the warm, personal language of looking back on a relationship in the city that didn’t, in the end, work out:

We painted each other in the I-love-you dyes of
expectation and faith,

each red letter stamped jagad-a-krese:
in Armenian: written on your forehead:

fate—Armenian nuance:
it’s on you, others see it—you don’t.

In the end I couldn’t come through for you . . .

(“A-Train/Ziggurat/Elegy,” Section 15)

Most beautiful of all are the purely lyrical passages, which Balakian sometimes allows himself. Here, he speaks of the laborers employed to work at great heights building the towers. They are:

Mohawks who had come down from Canada.

I watched them glide with hot rivets
and cold steel into the azure of near oblivion.

Some days they disappeared in light
as if the narrow beams of air came undone

and they floated between steel and blue
like lost angels of the Carracci.

(“A-Train/Ziggurat/Elegy,” Section 22)

One thing Balakian does not do is reach after political conclusions. His poems do not lay blame. This is notable, given that deep behind many of his poems lurks the unspoken understanding that people kill each other. And they sometimes do so on a large scale, where the doing of it is politically rationalized by the perpetrators. As an American of Armenian descent, Balakian is keenly sensitive to this. He has said, however, that instead of coming to political conclusions, his poems bear witness to political emotions. So it is in Ziggurat. There is no war-of-civilizations dialectic in this book of poems, no waving of American flags. Balakian’s approach is more oblique. As a poet, he sees, he collects impressions, he registers details from the past and the present, he speaks granularly. Through the accumulation of details, his pictures emerge non-rhetorically and non-didactically. What is the bigger picture that Balakian wants us to see? Sadness, loss, the propensity for destruction. Buildings and people disappear, often in tragic ways. We cannot help but bear witness to these things.

In the first part of the book, Balakian alternates poems about Andy Warhol paintings with poems about his memories working downtown as a messenger in and around the World Trade Center as it was being built in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The choice of Warhol as an anchor is intriguing. Balakian has explained that he was interested in the way Warhol dealt with popular, commercial themes, how he appropriated commercial images, washed them out, and replicated them. Both Warhol and the Twin Towers partook of commercial culture, Warhol celebrating it and the World Trade Center enabling it. Warhol’s art can be said to represent precisely what our attackers hated. While Balakian doesn’t imply this, it’s not unreasonable to infer. It is clear from the poems, however, that Balakian admires Warhol’s art. The Warhol poems illustrate the civilized act of going to museums and galleries, looking at works of art, and thinking about them. This stands in stark contrast to the barbarity of the September 11 attacks, which reduced all the downtown haunts to a war zone.

Among the poems in the first section of the book is this description of the financial district as seen from high up. It demonstrates Balakian’s ability to conflate, within just two lines, a landscape with a sense of the culture behind it. From the sky lobby on the 47th floor of one of the towers, the poet looks out at:

the gulls flat as floating money,
the sun spilling on a geology of invisible numbers.

(“World Trade Center / Mail Runner/’71”)

Another characteristic of Balakian’s poetry is the wild lexical range. Where else but in a Balakian poem could you hope to find this mix of words: Yankees, Liquitex, rosin bag, salsa, mamba, German Shepherd, relief pitcher, pixilation, emulsified—all in a fifteen-line poem (“Warhol/Race Riot/’63”).

The third and final section of Ziggurat includes a long 14-part poem called “Sarajevo.” Like the World Trade Center, this city is a nexus of conflict and suffering, and Balakian is attracted to it for that reason. Just as he has found ways to speak in his poems about the Armenian genocide, so here he finds a way to approach the physical and psychic trauma of Sarajevo, the cradle of WWI and the famously besieged city of the Bosnian War (1992-1996).

With attention paid to the texture of his language, he depicts a contemporary scene in the city with a few well-etched phrases:

We heard the rhetoric of goats
as they hacked weeds and ate piles of cellophane
wrapped nougats at the feet of the women
selling scarves and candy

along the riverbank where the sky
snowed pulverized paper and phosphorous shells . . .

(“Sarajevo,” Section 10)

Shifting between unrhymed couplets and tercets, he describes the circumstances of the visit:

Back in the cool seminar rooms of the Hollywood Hotel,
at the edge of the city our conference went on

in the green din of post-Soviet comfort where
every third channel was porn and the arguments

about ethnic cleansing were spliced by
the disco-falsetto of the Bee Gees . . .

(“Sarajevo,” Section 4)

What better way of capturing the tragic absurdities of our time than through the juxtaposition of “ethnic cleansing” and “the Bee Gees”—genocide and pop entertainment. Balakian has a keen eye for these pornographic ironies. This echoes the splicing of Warhol silk screens and the WTC attacks. As Balakian says of Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair, “it’s a typical American way to go” (“Warhol/Electric Chair/’63”), and he plays on the double meaning of that phrase.

In the Sarajevo poem, he wonders out loud about discursive logic and rhetoric deformed by our knowledge of atrocities:

. . . even though Euclid

said any two points can be joined by a straight line,
what does that make the line from Budapest to Birkenau,
and where does that leave us . . .

(“Sarajevo,” Section 5)

In light of genocide, the clear, abstract assurances of geometry (and by extrapolation, clear, discursive logic) fail to assure and must be questioned. Maybe this insight explains why Balakian’s preferred mode of expression has always been elliptical and contorted, rather than dutifully linear. It’s as though the stress of what he has learned has put a warp in his way of speaking, leaving him wary of anything too straight or clear.

Being in Sarajevo is vital to Balakian as a poet of witness—it brings him to the heart of horrors lived through by some in our own time. To his credit, he admits the guilt over wanting to go back, like a tourist, to visit the sites of suffering, where Serbian snipers and artillery had rained down fire on the city:

Past teenagers making out
on the benches in the Jewish graveyard
just under the hill where the snipers opened fire

we shot our heretical need
to see the horror of the past
through a wide-angled lens . . .

(“Sarajevo,” Section 9)

The poem ends with images of food and drink, which in Balakian’s poems have always been a lifeline to the domestic, the orderly, and familial unity. Despite the ghosts of Sarajevo and the bitter reminders all around, life goes on:

The restaurant was grilling chops and sausage,
the cabbage sweet, yoghurt smashed with garlic,
Croatian wine dry and cold. The streets still buzzing.

(“Sarajevo,” Section 14)

I have admired Balakian’s poetry for a long time. My only concern is that he does not often enough unleash his full lyrical power, which he has in abundance. When he does let go, the passages glimmer like inlaid diamonds:

. . . I once heard bird-bone pipes
in an old church in the Caucasus
like this wind blowing in the tracery

of the top floors, in the pipelines
and father up . . .

(“World Trade Center/Black Holes/’74”)

Balakian loves Emily Dickinson, but he loves Hart Crane even more. Stylistically he owes a debt to both of them. Here, for example, is an impaction of logic born from his manic desire to reach for connections between thoughts, sensations and things. He is describing an upward elevator ride in the World Trade Center:

By the time I pressed the button Junior Walker’s sax
was swallowing the elevator.

I rose up a vertigo of keys into the plane lingo
of anodized aluminum and blue-skied-out window panes . . .

(“World Trade Center/Mail Runner/’71”)

Even when the poems are cerebral, and they sometimes are, they never wander too far from a kind of physicality. This plays out sonically in the texture of his language, which can have an almost tactile quality. Who else could write lines like these, describing a first encounter with the poems of Emily Dickenson in the back of a locker room:

In the hermetic almost dark
under the fluorescent dizz

I found her broken nerves,
smoke coming off the dashes,
the caps like jolts to the neck,

the pried-open spaces between vowels
where the teeth bit off twine
and the tongue was raw then cool with ice.

(“Reading Dickinson/Summer ‘68”)

Balakian wants you to feel his thought in your hands, the way an archaeologist would finger the shards of an ancient vessel. Despite the dark knowledge that informs his poetry, there is hope that lives in the sound of it. At its best, his voice comes down from “the azure of near oblivion” and touches the earth. This is a good American way to go.

About John Foy

John Foy's first book of poetry was Techne’s Clearinghouse (Zoo Press, 2004). His work has appeared in Poetry, The New Yorker, The New Criterion, Parnassus, The Nebraska Review, Cimarron Review, and many other journals. He has also had poems selected for the Poetry Daily website. His work is featured in The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2009). Formerly of Bear Stearns, he now works as a senior financial editor at Itaú Securities. He holds an MFA from Columbia and has spent much time in France and Brazil. He lives in New York with his wife, son, and daughter.
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  1. To John Toy on Peter BalakianLs book of poems Ziggurat

    Great and thorough review
    Thank you!

  2. Dear R: If you liked Ziggurat, you would very likely enjoy Balakian’s earlier books of poetry, too. They are distinctive and should be more widely appreciated. Also, I highly recommend his memoir Black Dog of Fate. Balakian is a Renaissance Man.

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