Armenia is a landlocked country in the Caucasus that you can find on a contemporary map. For my grandmother, Armenia was the “old country,” and more specifically the town of Mersin, Cilicia in the Ottoman Empire. This poem from 1994 is about my imaginary homeland, written before I had ever visited Yerevan. And the photo above is from a trip I made to Armenia in 2007.
Armenia is a country where someone is always crying.
Women punch in and out on the clock, grieving in shifts.
1895, 1915, 1921, the thirties, 1988, 1992, 1993, 1994…
White handkerchiefs flutter in their careworn hands.
The Armenian orphans have oversized heads and eyes
the color of bitter chocolate. They don’t complain about
the harshest winter. They are grateful for the same dull food.
In their faded uniforms, they sing off-key for visitors.
Cher, who was born Cherilyn Sarkisian, traveled to
Armenia where she wore a scarf and kept the tattoos covered.
She visited the orphans, and brought them Barbie dolls.
She said she would star in Forty Days of Musa Dagh.
I want to direct a bio-pic of Commander Avo, Cher’s
distant cousin, who died a “freedom fighter” in Karabagh.
How did Monte Melkonian of Visalia, California come to
join the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia?
The camera, the handkerchief, the rifle, the massacres,
Monte dead in Artsakh, a shrapnel wound to the head.
Plum blossoms, apricots, we will make a picnic under
the trees, fresh bread, madzoon, cheese, garden greens.
Children will race through the grass, and when the sun goes
down the field will be lit by the moon and a thousand fireflies.
The men drink raki , and sing: A person dies only once, but
fortunate is the one who dies for the freedom of his people.
Are there fireflies in Armenia? Do the women edge their
handkerchiefs with lace? Armenia is a country in my body,
the right side only because I’m half-Armenian. I choose it —
my imaginary homeland, my handkerchief, my name.
Originally published in The Antioch Review, Spring 1995
February 7, 2013