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Poetry


From the Archive: The Rapture

A Jesus Sky portending the Second Coming of Christ

A Jesus Sky portending the Second Coming of Christ

This poem from the archive, which was published in the Spring 1988 issue of The Graham House Review, has been on my mind lately as the incoming Trump Administration has announced its cabinet picks, with “End Times” Evangelical Christians among them. I was raised in the Armenian Evangelical Church, and a copy of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth was on the end table next to my father’s armchair. As a child I had been coached to ask Jesus into my heart as my Lord and Savior, but I was never entirely convinced that my attempts had been successful (I have a poem about this experience as well). One New Year’s Eve I went to church with my grandmother where we watched a film that enacted what would happen in the during Christ’s Second Coming. Fortunately, the movie didn’t cover the more terrifying aspects: The Tribulation, the Anti-Christ, or Armageddon. It just showed The Rapture, the taking up of believers. A pilot disappeared from his seat in the cockpit. A man rolled over in bed to find his wife gone. A Christian singer disappeared from a performance on a television talk show, the microphone fallen to the stage floor. “The Rapture” was an account of the fate I had envisioned awaiting me.

 

The Rapture

 

 

I imagined coming down the back walk

after school, swinging my lunch box

and the thermos shifting inside.

 

Today was different, something odd

about the light breaking

from behind the clouds in ribbons.

 

My grandmother was not on the back porch.

The kitchen table was spread with flour

and dough rising under its towel, dirty bowls

in the sink, my mother nowhere to be seen.

 

And then I knew: the Second Coming.

Jesus had taken them, the believers,

from the fist of the heart to the tips

of the fingers and shining eyes.

 

The whole family, snapped up

in broad daylight while I walked home,

uninvited, unasked, abandoned.

 

I sat on the back step with the cat,

another unbeliever, waiting for the Beast,

the bloody water, the Tribulation.

Nancy Kricorian


Not Writing

#bakingnotwriting

#bakingnotwriting

 

Soon after I signed the contract for my second novel, my agent at the time suggested that I start writing reviews. She explained, “First novels are easy. You get lots of reviews without much trying, but with a second novel, it’s much harder. The way to get reviews for your own book is to write them.” It sounded like a terrible idea—I would only want to write reviews for books that I loved. If the book were bad or even mediocre, I could only think of how much time would be wasted. And then I hated the idea of saying mean things in print about another writer’s work even if the book were abysmal. I had noticed in the New York Times Book Review that the editors seemed to assign titles in two ways—they either gave the book to someone who wrote similar work and would be likely to praise it, or to someone whose work was so dissimilar that they were likely to loathe it. I decided to ignore the advice, although I felt a pang when my second novel was published and it received only seven mainstream reviews (less than a quarter of what the first novel had garnered).

After declining to write reviews, about five years ago I decided that I would no longer write jacket blurbs for other writers. I thought that I either had to go the Gary Shteyngart route and offer praise to anyone who asked, or to quit writing blurbs altogether. I admired Shteyngart’s stamina and felt grateful to the people who offered advance praise for my novels—among them Chris Bohjalian, whose graciousness is legendary—but my Armenian Evangelical upbringing had made polite prevarication a painful exercise. Declining all was a way to avoid having to choose, which would hurt people’s feelings, or having to lie, endorsing something about which I felt little to no enthusiasm. Earlier this year when the editor of the American edition of Atef Abu Seif’s The Drone Eats with Me sent me an advanced reading copy (known in the business as an ARC) soliciting a quotation, I told her that while I wasn’t writing blurbs, I would read the book and if I liked it I would write a review. Happily, I loved it, and I wrote a review for In these Times.

As a counter to my literary parsimony, I will say that when I love a book, I loudly share my enthusiasm with friends and on social media platforms. If I adore a book, I will buy a dozen copies and give them as birthday and holiday gifts. Some titles that I have distributed in this way include Vasily Grossman’s An Armenian Sketchbook, Suad Amiry’s Sharon and My Mother-in-Law, and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. My current passion is Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women, a dazzlingly smart series of prose poems about writing, work, love, parenting, sewing, shopping, literature, philosophy, late capitalism, and not writing. Boyer’s book, full of wry observations, artfully muted fury, as well as surprising humor and tenderness, reminds me of the work of poet Anne Carson and micro-story writer Lydia Davis, except with an explicit class analysis.

Boyer describes a shopping outing with her young daughter, where their meager budget results in sadness and weeping when mother tells the daughter they cannot afford the desired pair of shoes. When the mother is on the verge of tears herself, the daughter admonishes her, “ ‘I am still a child and am learning to control my impulses and emotions. you have had many years of dreams and realities to learn from so there is no excuse for you to cry.’” In “A Woman Shopping,” Boyer outlines a book she would like to write with the same title as the poem. It ends, “But who would publish this book and who, also, would shop for it? And how could it be literature if it is not coyly against literature, but sincerely against it, as it is also against ourselves?”

In an interview posted on the Poetry Foundation site, Boyer explains,

This is probably totally obvious to anyone who has read the book, but I’ll still say it: by “garments,” I mean “literature.” And literature is against us. And when I say “literature,” I mean something with historical specificity, seen with all of its brutality intact, with our own intact too, not as we might define it from its exceptions, despite how these exceptions are honorable and instructive and how much we might ground our work in them.

And this is going to get kind of long, so I apologize for that, but by “us” I actually mean a lot of people: against all but the wealthiest women and girls, all but the wealthiest queer people, against the poor, against the people who have to sell the hours of their lives to survive, against the ugly or infirm, against the colonized and the enslaved, against mothers and other people who do unpaid reproductive labor, against almost everyone who isn’t white—everyone who has been taken from, everyone who makes and maintains the world that the few then claim it is their right to own. And by “against,” many of us know this “literature” contains violent sentiments toward us, is full of painful exclusions, but that isn’t even the core of its opposition to us. How “literature” is also against us is that it is a magic circle drawn around the language games of a class of people—the rich and powerful and those who serve or have served them. It gives (or appears to give, like any mystification) these words a permission and a weight, dangles the ugliness in our faces and names it beauty, gleefully shows off stupidity and claims it as what is wise.

Part of what I admire and identify with here is Boyer’s refusal to bow down to literary gatekeepers while stubbornly continuing to write. In the pieces “Not Writing” and “What is ‘Not Writing,” Boyer describes the forces making writing difficult, if not impossible, for her as a working class woman, a single mother, and an outsider to high “culture.” But the production of these poems defies these obstacles—from illness to envy. She says, “There is envy which is also mixed with repulsion at those who do not have a long list of not writing to do.”

In closing, here is one of my favorite passages in Garments Against Women from “The Innocent Question.”

On the local radio show a man who won a Pulitzer prize in fiction explained that one must write every day because if a person does not write everyday a person forgets how to access the subconscious. If one did not write everyday then whenever a person comes back to writing she would have to learn to write from the beginning again. This has always been my plan. I would like to not know how to write, also to know no words. I believe this prize winning novelist believed that the mind had two places, the conscious and subconscious, and that literature could only come out of the subconscious mind, but that language preferred to live in the conscious one. This is wrong. Language prefers to live on the internet.

 

 

Nancy Kricorian


Homage to Bourj Hammoud

Have you heard a thrush sing while its nest burns in the wind? —Khalil Gibran

Bourj Hammoud, Lebanon, 1930's

Bourj Hammoud, Lebanon, 1930’s

Listen. In the morning you can hear the bright strike of hammers and the rasp of saws. Children carry sand from the riverbanks in their school satchels. First they build the church, then the school, and finally a house for each family according to its means. The tents and shacks are taken down one by one. Each family plants a mulberry tree and tends its garden.

The remnants of Marash create a new Marash. And so also Nor Sis, Nor Adana, Nor Giligia, and Nor Hadjin are made. You can hear the sounds of the trades learned in the orphanage workshops: carpenter’s plane, sewing machine and cobbler’s bench. The sharp smell of the tannery is in the air and in their clothes. All Beirut wears their shoes.

Look at the children outside the church in their freshly pressed clothes, and the girls have ribbons in their hair. Look at the food spread on the luncheon table and the hands that pass the platters. Someone has told a joke and there is laughter. Someone pulls an instrument from its case.

Speak of those times, or don’t, when the parties take up arms against each other. How the women of one church throw boiling water out the window on the men with guns. When all Beirut stops fighting, for how many more weeks do the Armenian men continue to shed each other’s blood?

Speak then of the flowering: the neighborhood children grow tall. Among them are musicians, actors, painters and poets. In this world their parents have rebuilt from ashes, they now believe anything is possible, and everything is new.

Remember this: when the Civil War comes, neutrality is no amulet against the bullets and the bombs. Jewelers flee the downtown souk for Bourj Hammoud, where the militiamen patrol the night and then also the day. So many boats leave the port. Carrying leather suitcases to the airports, so many are exiled again.

Remember Nor Adana, Nor Marash, Nor Sis. Men still play backgammon and grill meat on braziers on the sidewalk. Remember the narrow alleys and wooden houses of Sanjak Camp, razed for a shopping plaza. Oh people of long memory, listen, look, speak, remember: your stories are a homeland.

*

“Homage to Bourj Hammoud” appeared in the 2015 PEN World Voices Online Anthology

http://www.pen.org/flash/two-pieces-nancy-kricorian

Nancy Kricorian

New York City


Letter to Palestine (With Armenian Proverbs)

 

 

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In a foreign place, the exile has no face.

You wake up in the morning and forget where you are. The smell of coffee from the kitchen. The sound of slippers across the linoleum floor. It could be any country.

When you look in the mirror you see the eyes of your grandfather. He expects something from you, but he won’t tell you what.

Better to go into captivity with the whole village than to go to a wedding alone.

The fabric was torn. With scraps you have made a tent, you have fashioned a kite, you have sewn a dress, you have wrapped yourself in a flag.

They have separated you with gun, grenade, barbed wire, wall, prison, passport. They have underestimated your will.

The hungry dream of bread, the thirsty of water.

Passing from one village to the next, without obstacle, without document, without your heart thumping up near your throat.

Turning the key in the lock, you enter through a door you have never passed through before except in your grandmother’s stories and in your dreams.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nancy Kricorian

First published in Clockhouse Review, Volume 2, 2014.

I read this piece at the PEN World Voices Festival Armenian Genocide panel on 6 May 2015, as reported in The Guardian.


My Favorite Books of 2014

It’s the time of year when everyone is putting out Top Ten lists and gift recommendations. Here is my minimalist response—three of my favorite books of the year: a graphic memoir by Roz Chast, a collection of poems by Najwan Darwish, and a new translation of a 1935 memoir by Zabel Yessayan. Happy reading and happy New Year!

 

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Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? Bloomsbury USA (May 2014)

In her first memoir, cartoonist Roz Chast brings her signature wit to the topic of aging parents. Spanning the last several years of their lives and told through four-color cartoons, family photos, and documents, Chast’s memoir is both comfort and comic relief for anyone experiencing the life-altering loss of elderly parents.

 

 

 

productimage-picture-nothing-more-to-lose-454

 

Najwan Darwish, Nothing More to Lose (translated from the Arabic by Kareen James Abu-Zeid), New York Review of Books Poets (April 2014)

Nothing More to Lose is the first collection of poems by Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish to appear in English. Hailed across the Arab world and beyond, Darwish’s poetry walks the razor’s edge between despair and resistance, between dark humor and harsh political realities. With incisive imagery and passionate lyricism, Darwish confronts themes of equality and justice while offering a radical, more inclusive, rewriting of what it means to be both Arab and Palestinian living in Jerusalem, his birthplace.

 

 

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Zabel Yessayan, The Gardens of Silidhar (translated from the Armenian by Jennifer Manoukian), AIWA Press (2014)

This memoir originally published in Armenian in 1935, is a beautiful, evocative narrative of Yessayan’s childhood and a vivid account of Armenian community life in Constantinople (Istanbul) at the end of the nineteenth century. Author, educator, and social activist, Zabel Yessayan (1878-1943) is recognized today as one of the greatest writers in Western Armenian literature.

 

Nancy Kricorian


How I Learned to Type

beigeselectric

 

In high school, I earned an A in Mr. Finn’s typing despite the fact that at the end of the year I was still using the hunt and peck method. My mother, who had worked as a secretary until my younger sister’s birth, typed all my papers starting in fourth grade through high school. When I was in college, many of my professors accepted handwritten assignments because my printing was regular, legible, and even elegant. When typing was required, I paid an administrative assistant in the Anthropology Department to do it for me.

As the first person in my family to go to college, aside from my mother’s two years at secretarial school, I had a fear that I would get stuck in the pink collar ghetto typing other people’s writing. I would never have said that I wanted to be a writer, because although writing poetry and stories was something I had always done since I could read, being a writer was too outlandish an ambition to admit even to myself. Growing up I knew women who were teachers, nurses, and secretaries, but no writers.

I followed my heart, however, and ended up enrolled in the Writing Division at Columbia University for a graduate degree in poetry, the least lucrative form of writing possible. When I arrived in New York, I registered at a temp agency and the first thing they required was a typing test. I scored, if I remember correctly, a miserable twenty words a minute because of all the mistakes I made. So they sent me to stuff envelopes with elderly volunteers at the Combined Jewish Philanthropies. A few weeks later, through a connection in the Writing Division, I was offered a job working as a part-time assistant for writer Susan Sontag.

Susan Sontag called, and it was not as exciting as I thought it was going to be. She is basically looking for a typist, and I am not sure that my typing will be good enough. I know that if I really want this job, I am going to have to psych myself into the best typing I have ever done in my life. It is a draft of a manuscript that will have to be done once or twice more, and she needs to be there. In any case, I will get to meet her. I am going to do some positive thinking and visualizations about typing her manuscript.  ~ Journal entry, 15 October 1984

She liked me despite my typing transpositions. We worked on an article about Jean-Paul Sartre that was very interesting. THINK GOOD TYPING.                  ~ Journal entry, 18 October 1984

These were the only two entries I found in my journal about the typing problem and Susan Sontag. But I remember how stressful it was sitting at her desk with her standing behind me peering over my shoulder as I typed on her IBM Selectric. The more nervous I was the more mistakes I made, and although I believe she liked me and was trying to be her approximation of kind, her exasperated comments were withering.

I signed up for a typing class at a secretarial school in the basement of the New York Penta Hotel across the street from Madison Square Garden. Under the glare of fluorescent lighting in a room filled with rows of IBM Selectric typewriters humming and clattering away, I finally learned how to type. Soon I was able to produce a sentence without looking at my hands and with no mistakes: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Without that skill, I can’t imagine how I would ever have been able to write my first novel.

Nancy Kricorian


Written About Nancy

citation

My grandmother’s Armenian Bible is falling apart—its cardboard covers are worn, the spine is broken, the first 48 pages are missing, and until recently it was held together by a thick rubber band. When the rubber band cracked and crumbled, I tied a bright satin ribbon around it to hold it together.

The pages inside are covered in tiny Armenian letters that I can read, but barely. There are colored pen marks throughout where my grandmother underlined verses that were meaningful to her—Psalms is a riot of color—and she made some marginal notes in an Armenian script that I can’t read.

When I was cleaning my study recently, I untied the ribbon and flipped open the Bible. It had been more than a decade since I had looked at this book. Inside was a large red satin bookmark celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the Armenian Evangelical Union of North America. At the top of the bookmark there is a gold sketch outline of Mount Ararat and below is a poem, “I Am Armenian,” written by the Reverend Vartan Hartunian, who was the minister at the First Armenian Church in Belmont, Massachusetts from 1959 until 1998.

“I am Armenian/ I belong to an ancient race/ Whose roots are in the subsoil of history…”

I remembered having seen the bookmark in my grandmother’s hand, but when I flipped through the pages of the Bible, towards the back I found a yellowed newspaper clipping from the Watertown Press that I had never come across before. The headline read “Nancy Kricorian cited at Dartmouth,” and it was basically a pro-forma press advisory that Dartmouth College sent to a student’s hometown paper when the student did something noteworthy. My accomplishment was having received a citation—a special mention—in a creative writing class. “In citing Ms. Kricorian, her professor noted that her poetry ‘was remarkable for its clarity, its depth of feeling, and the evocative precision of her language.’”

My grandmother had glued the clipping to a small mailing envelope and printed across the top in Armenian, “Written about Nancy.”


Remembering the 1988 Armenian Earthquake

 

Armenia Earthquake Destruction

 

December 7, 2013 marks the 25th anniversary of the Spitak earthquake of 1988. This natural disaster in Armenia killed as many as 50,000 people and injured as many as 130,000 in the northern regions of Lori and Shirak. I wrote this poem in the weeks after the tragedy. 

 

The Survivor

 

All this pain is for which of our sins?
~ Catholicos Vazken I, December 1988

 

In this dream you walk past
the school’s sheared facade;
from their desks the children
call and wave. A teacher
points at a map of Armenia.
The ceilings drop like eyelids.

You wake to another dream
of soot-stained faced around
a fire fueled by broken chairs.
You wish the earth would
swallow the rows of coffins
in the playing field. The living

search for what they want
not to find; their eyes catch
like hooks at your skin.
You should have been the
hand of God reaching into
the school–the children

could have climbed onto
your palm that would hover
over the town until the earth
was still. But instead they
line up to write their names
in the book at heaven’s door.

 

 

Nancy Kricorian

Originally published in PARNASSUS: Poetry in Review (1992)


The Apartment

young poet

young poet

 

Our first shared apartment was on Amsterdam Avenue at 94th Street. It was a rundown walk-up tenement. We had cockroaches in the kitchen, ratty pigeons on the fire escape, and on Fridays the smell of the downstairs neighbors’ fish head soup filling our rooms. Several days a month we would be without heat and hot water until the landlord paid the overdue oil bill. 

The landlady was an elderly Greek woman named Evelyn who sat in front of the building in her beat-up aqua blue Pinto for hours each day. She could barely walk, but she drove in from New Jersey to keep watch on her property. She told the Korean grocers on the ground floor that I was her niece. I thought this was because I was Armenian and as a Greek she felt some affinity, but I discovered that the Koreans had been lobbying for the apartment that she rented to us and she needed an excuse. We learned from THE VILLAGE VOICE list of New York City’s “Ten Worst Landlords” that her son Tony was known as the “Devil Landlord” because of the terrible condition of the apartment buildings he owned in Harlem. He had once brandished a gun at a city housing inspector. 

I recently came across a photo James took of me at the time in my tiny study. Behind me are my poetry and theory books, as well as framed family photos. It reminded me of a poem I wrote during first days together in that apartment. 

 

 

The Apartment

 

We thought we were alone at last,
escaping housemates and their cats:
fresh paint, unscratched floors, empty cabinets,
a new mattress with no one else’s stains.

Until my mother showed up in her housecoat
and bare feet. She scrubbed the stove,
disinfected the garbage pail. If you want it done
well, she said, you have to do it yourself.

The next morning I heard splashing
from the bathroom. My father left puddles,
bits of hair and shaving cream in the sink.
My sister did grand pliés in the hall.

Next came Grandma and Uncle Leo,
then the in-laws. Old lovers waited
in line for the shower, comparing stories
about me, elbowing each other in delight.

My piano teacher blocked the stairway.
Cocoa the cat was on the fire escape.
I thought it couldn’t get any worse
and then the shrink moved in.

It’s like a circus, all jostle and roar.
The spotlights are hot, the props in place.
They throw peanuts, we jump the hoops.
We bow when they applaud.

 

 

Nancy Kricorian

 


My Father Said That’s the Devil’s Work

 

sante

 From the archive, a poem originally published in THE GRAHAM HOUSE REVIEW in Spring 1988.

 

My Father Said That’s the Devil’s Work

 

What I passed the Underwood Devilled Ham factory
on our street, he pointed his pitchfork at me.

Satan’s fingers grazed my heels as I stormed
up the cellar stairs, his steamy breath behind.

He was down the bathtub drain ready to wrap
his weedy arms around my legs. I wedged the plug

into the gateway to Hell. He crouched at the foot
of my bed, and I slept pressed into the headboard

away from his flickering tongue. He whispered
swear words into my ear while I dreamed.

Years later, I finally met him in Paris.
He smoked Greek cigarettes called Santé.

In a hotel room in the Marais, he pulled me
to the floor. We kept the shutters closed all week.

 

 

Nancy Kricorian