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Two Poems by Peter Balakian for Tonight’s Special Reading

Friday Live Reading with Peter Balakian

Pulitzer Prize Winner Peter Balakian will join us tonight, August 7th, at 8pm Eastern Time, to read from his work and discuss poetry of witness. He asked us to share the poems below so we’ll have a chance to read them in advance of his discussion. “Eggplant” was previously published on May 28, 2018 in The New Yorker. “History, Bitterness” was previously published in Green Mountain Review 30.2. You’ll find the Friday Live Meeting Zoom connection information following Peter Balakian’s brief biography at the bottom of this post. Please help us spread the word and join us tonight for this very special Friday Live Reading.

I loved the white moon circles
and the purple halos,
on a plate as the salt sweat them.
The oil in the pan smoked like bad
days in the Syrian desert—
when a moon stayed all day—
when morning was a purple
elegy for the last friend seen—
when the fog of the riverbank
rose like a holy ghost.
My mother made those white moons sizzle
in some egg wash and salt—
some parsley appeared
from the garden
and summer evenings
came with no memory
but the table with white dishes.
Shining aubergine—black-skinned
beauty, bitter apple.
We used our hands.
—Peter Balakian, New Yorker, May 28, 2018


A phone booth August/ Yaddo/ Saratoga Springs–air
of the Tiffany parlor– sour scent of empty wine bottles,
my friend handed me the sweating receiver: “go ahead—say hello.”
What could I say to James Baldwin who was dying in the south of France.
No name in the street. Paris. Algiers. Little Rock, you can fill it in. . . .
I’m sitting at Café Deux Magots with my NY Yankees umbrella in my lap,
a wide glass of wine from some vineyard of Burgundy in my hand,
recalling that Baldwin sat at Deux Magots drinking scotch all-day and writing
as friends dropped by. And it hits me: just over Pont de Sully my great uncle
sat in a big treaty room of 1919 representing Armenia (did it exist?) in a fancy
hotel with others who hoped for a nation in return for the slaughter.
Baldwin knew Sartre and de Beauvoir, he saw Camus pass by.
It was 1958 and the Algerian cabby who dropped him off drunk
on the curb was half blind from the revolution.
Bang bang bang goes the heart. Mr. Baldwin was dying in a sensual village
in the south of France. After a week at Versailles my uncle came to that hotel room
where in the closet of his head a big white sheet floated over the Black Sea.
What did rape and massacre mean? Fail proof, shattered, bitten off
words that floated over the bridge into the carnival horns of night.
A few months earlier Miles Davis passed Baldwin at Deux Magots
on his way to play for Louie Malle’s Ensensure pour L’escefau—
the spurting air of love love love slipping from the valves —
the spit and breath of night in Paris off the torpid brown
Seine where Paul Celan had disappeared not long before.
Hiss hiss hiss goes the heart. It’s 1958 and Camus still walks
the boulevard–the war in Algeria is daily acid in the river—
What are degrees of separation? Private myths? Illusions?
My aunt the surrealist might call them chance meetings.
Do we invent proximities for our need, for salvation, for love?
Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George names my uncle scrawled
on a map of the dispossessed—on a wall in a hotel of cards
where Dixieland horns played at a banquet for the grand Armée
and the next map of Europe was shuffled with an ace in the hole.
Miles Davis spent 7 hours with Louis Malle making some
languid, piercing, hollow sliding sounds in the indeterminate dank night,
no name on the street stalked him. A few years later Baldwin moved just miles
from where my father was born in Istanbul–a few years after the Armenians
were expunged from Turkey and my grandparents left the ghost map
on the wall. It was 1919 and the flu blew along Saint-Germain where
my grandparents met my uncle that Fall. I knew Baldwin’s heart went hollow,
languid, and sizzled with the need to get out of America; it even led him to
the place my grandparents fled—before they landed a couple miles from Baldwin’s
apartment in Harlem.
Are these degrees of separation? or just my way of thinking about that strange
moment in a phone booth at an artists’ colony in the summer of ’86?
My friend said: “if you love Jimmy’s work, I know he’d love to hear
from you. All good news means a lot especially at the end.”
What could I say to Mr. Baldwin? He’d helped me understand the bitter
history that had trapped me—that was trapped in me.
Istanbul, New York, Paris. No name. No street.
I was sweating into the phone. Mr. Baldwin’s voice was frail but unmistakable.

—Peter Balakian, Green Mountain Review 30.2

About Peter Balakian

Peter Balakian is the author of seven books of poems most recently Ozone Journal, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, as well as Ziggurat (2010) and June-tree: New and Selected Poems, 1974-2000 (2001). His four books of prose include The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response (2004), won the 2005 Raphael Lemkin Prize and was a New York Times Notable Book and a New York Times Best Seller. His memoir, Black Dog of Fate won the 1998 PEN/Martha Albrand Prize for the Art of the Memoir, and was a best book of the year for the New York Times, the LA Times, and Publisher’s Weekly, and was recently issued in a 10th anniversary edition. He is co-translator of  Girgoris Balakian’s Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide 1915-1918, (Knopf, 2009), which was a Washington Post book of the year.

He is also the author of a book on the American poet Theodore Roethke and the co translator of the Armenian poet Siamanto’s Bloody News From My Friend. Between 1976-1996 he edited with Bruce Smith the poetry journal Graham House Review.  His prose and essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Salon, The Daily Beast, Tikkun, The Guardian, LA Times, Art In America, and others.

He is the recipient of many awards and prizes including the Presidential Medal and the Moves Khoranatsi Medal from the Republic of Armenia,  The Spendlove Prize for Social Justice, Tolerance, and Diplomacy (recipients include President Carter), a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Emily Clark Balch Prize for poetry from the Virginia Quarterly Review. He has appeared widely on national television and radio( 60 Minutes, ABC World News Tonight, PBS, Charlie Rose, Fresh Air, etc) , and his work have appeared in a many languages including  Armenian, Bulgarian, French, Dutch, Greek, German, Hebrew, Russian, and Turkish. He is Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities, Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Colgate University.

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Meeting ID: 854 6459 8638 Password: 510847  https://us02web.zoom.us/j/85464598638?pwd=eTlBd1RTYllabUNYTlVwSGdGWU1ndz09

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