Peter O’ Neill is the author of three published collections of poetry: Antiope ( Hammer & Anvil, 2013), The Elm Tree ( Lapwing, 2014 ), and The Dark Pool ( mgv2>publishing ). He has just edited And Agamemnon Dead, An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century Irish Poetry with Walter Ruhlmann also for mgv2>publishing, and is hosting Donkey Shots: Skerries First International Avant Garde Poetry Fest to be held on the 23rd of May, 2015.
Rumor – Poetry by Silva Zanoyan Merjanian
Cold River Press, 2015
By Peter O’ Neill
The context to this word game is that while I am reading the book the news is full of the plight of refugees the world over. In the Mediterranean, while European bureaucrats and politicians debate, thousands of refugees are drowning while desperately trying to flee war in Syria, Iraq, Libya and beyond. In Nepal, an earthquake has ripped the country, literally, in half. In the Ukraine there is more war, terror, and tension. Everywhere you look there is trouble. Even at home, basic commodities such as water are being fought over. Clearly things are not right. Have they ever been, you might retort? Indeed.
Poetry has never been an easy sell. It is almost an embarrassment, at times, even to voice the word. Particularly when you are a grown woman, or man. Such a word is best left to children you might be forgiven for thinking, living in a world surrounded by such torture and misery.
But, what if the poet in question has come from such nightmares?
Such is the case with Silva Merjanian, who grew up in Beirut during the civil war. Having sought refuge in Europe, she eventually moved to the United States where she currently resides in California with her husband and family.
Merjanian is a poet then in exile.
Rumor, the title of her second collection, is the first clue in attempting to decipher this extraordinary book. The definitions of rumour (she uses the American spelling) is general talk or hearsay of doubtful accuracy, or a current but unverified statement of an assertion (OED). So, already the element of doubt is strong. But to doubt what? The reality of her newfound surroundings? The existence, or reality, of some of the atrocious memories which she is now forced to live with?
Rumour also signal the ear, or sounds, which are so important to a poet, and particularly to one who is so keenly aware of the importance of euphony. For Merjanian is that rare thing, a poet for whom sound is sense, compressing thought with the physical to evoke the sensory as well as the mental – the world around her then being circumscribed by the totality of what is humanly possible.
had I not known putrescent waste
such will and strength would not have grown
such love I could never have left alone
The above quote is taken from Another Place Another Time early on in the book, and its singular philosophy underscores everything Silva Merjanian puts her finger to, and this, in my opinion, is what sets her apart from so many other poets writing. For, such a philosophy shows real moral character, which Silva has in buckets. After some of the things she has witnessed a lesser mortal/poet might have given up, or worse, grown embittered. But not Merjanian, for her spirit has been tempered by the Heraclitean fire.
In the poem Refugee, for example, she depicts an unforgettable scene of horror for the reader. Hell has been described as a place with no ease from suffering, for it is unrelenting. Such is the case in certain refugee camps.
it is not safe to walk at night to the makeshift bathroom outside
her father had said, not even holding mother’s hand
she remembers the stars as they faded one by one with each thrust
when strange men tore into her that night, their moans mocking whimpers
escaping through large fingers pressing on her mouth
The punch line, as if the horror could not get any worse, is that the victim is only eight years old.
Of course being a poet Merjanian delights in manipulating metaphor. Doves of Beirut in this sense must be read as a key poem in Rumor, as it holds the key to Merjanian’s brutal, yet disconcertingly tender, view of the world.
Doves were arrogant in those days
feral, territorial of ledges
I hadn’t snapped their necks yet
through grind of metal
on bone, stone
through air sharpened on green hones
no scream left in punctured lungs
fate duct- taped to fetal nights
barricaded behind shadowed ribs
that hardly rose for a fight
underneath rubble of lord’s prayer and adhan
The miracle of the poem is that we are now there with her, in Beirut, back during those terrible years.
I knew those ledges well
gravel and lose feathers
wet with rain
stuck with white droppings
to my young toes curled on grit
The trauma of such an experience, a child witnessing the full chaos and utter mayhem of total war, has shaped the poet profoundly. Hence the rumor… Rumore is sound, or noise in Italian – like the ghostly echoes of distant reverberations, the memories assail her years later. But, there are quieter moments, when the poet is at peace, almost unbelieving that such quiet and peaceful moments can also, in the same world, exist.
Taking a bath, for example! Or, enjoying the simple, yet almost miraculous, pleasures of being with one’s family.
you see there is no one at home
and home is everywhere
in the vast distance
in memories’ dead weight
in winter’s renewal act
in promises of my eyes
and in your empty palms
where I pressed my face
fearing my many names
but one I left on rooftops
This is a book of poems that is relevant, shocking, tender and to the point; the kind that makes it into print only rarely.
Peter O’ Neill, 30/04/2015