“The Armenian genocide is not taught in the U.S.’s public schools. . . . and not all nations even recognize that it happened. With the exception of Damad Ferit Pasha’s brief postwar government, no Turkish regime has ever acknowledged the genocide. Indeed, the topic is currently a barrier to Turkey’s bid to enter the European Union. . . .
I offer this long preamble to my review of Alan Semerdjian’s excellent poetry collection, In the Architecture of Bone, chiefly because of this widespread ignorance and because this book cannot be understood if the reader is unfamiliar, even in passing, with this early modern genocide. Semerdjian’s poetry is, first and foremost, that of the Armenian Diaspora, which still viscerally experiences the aftershocks of this genocide several generations later not only through displacement, but also through the memories that friends, grandparents, and great-grandparents have passed down. . . .
These are the memories that Semerdjian chronicles painfully, starkly, magnificently in the book’s 110 pages. In “Grandchildren of Genocide,” for example, he calls to mind the images conjured in most U.S. Americans’ minds when we think of the word “genocide” (the death camps and Nazi gas chambers associated with the Holocaust, mainly) and boldly asks us to expand our understanding by examining these images from all sides in much the same way a cubist does. . . .
Note the ingenious use of the word “chambers” not only to mean the gas chambers of concentration camps, but also the limited and limiting mental, linguistic, and imagistic “boxes” into which contemporary people often place the concept of genocide:
We think of chambers when we think of genocide. We think
of people crying. We think of people climbing. We think of
people climbing and crying, crying and climbing. We think of both
people climbing and people crying. We think in chambers.
We think in those horrible chambers when we think of genocide.
Those horrible 20th-Century chambers.
When we think of genocide, we don’t think of mountains and deserts.
We don’t think of bazaars. When we do think of them,
we don’t think of young democratic people and pomegranates.
We don’t think of young democratic people with pomegranates
at bazaars when we think of genocide. We don’t think of them
next to our grandfathers. We don’t think next to them.
While it would be easy and even understandable for an Armenian poet to vilify the people whose ancestors caused so much suffering, in much the same way my own father held an animosity towards Germans until his dying day, Semerdjian bravely tackles this animosity head on—and just as bravely hopes for a way forward. In “History Lesson,” he writes of two lovers, one Turkish and one Armenian, and the linguistic and cultural differences between them in terms both touching and awkward. . . .
Semerdjian’s poetry is not only strong in image, line, and form, it is also about an urgent, but customarily unaddressed, issue that affects millions of people daily and which needs attention and careful study in order for any true learning about the prevention of genocide to be achieved.