By Gregory Djanikian
Carnegie Mellon University Press. 99 pp. $16.95
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Reviewed by Frank Wilson
If you read Gregory Djanikian's wondrous new collection - and you should - make sure you pay close attention to the opening poem, "Violence," which begins thus:
Sometimes it can't be avoided
even though you might decline
The invitation to step outside -
Sometimes you are outside
This is violence understood as how it feels - ritual, not ordnance, your identity on the line. It is present "in the repose of your garden," where "spider devours beetle, beetle, aphid,/and the cat red in the tooth and claw." Which is why there is "no need to bring up bombs bursting/ in synch or the rockets red glare," and why,
when your wife comes home to tell you
of a small injustice she's endured,
the arrow of your steely retribution
thwunks into a soft, imagined heart.
If the allusions to Tennyson, the national anthem, and maybe Shakespeare demonstrate that violence is always with us, the garden, spider, beetle, and aphid, cat, and wife, remind that it's always up close and personal as well.
The imaginative range of "Violence" deserves notice. Lest you think it is just a setup for another sequence of lamentations regarding life in the most technologically advanced civilization ever, rest assured that is not the case. Rather, it is an overture that leads to genuine displacement - exile from Alexandria, Egypt's legendary city, first to Beirut, thence to America - and from there to the adventures of high school and a new dialect:
scouring for meanings
words I knew by themselves but not like this
not almost touching each other making out
And there's rock-and-roll ("the wiggle in the walk/making me act so funny").
Dear Gravity is, in fact, a celebration of life in all its inconsistency and contradiction, its puzzling admixture of chaos and bliss. The exemplar of vitality seems to be the poet's mother, who figures often in Djanikian's poetry. Here she appears "walking back and forth in her heavy coat" during a January blizzard, "reading her cookbooks,/ imagining the vol-au-vent, the bouillabaisses/ she would never serve in America," and, best of all, driving - at age 86 - her Cutlass Supreme, "a vintage '72 hardtop orange coupé,/ with a nose as long as a boat." She "likes Corneille and Hugo" and "hula-hooping in the kitchen/ while Dion crooned 'Teenager in Love,' " and "twisting to Chubby 'Checkers,'/ he was so good, she wished him to be plural."
May this grand lady grace more poems, and may we learn how to live so well.