The Aestheticians of Genocide
It’s a problem of inflection really,
how we have to speak about it with some sense
of distance as though from a far hill
or a room with no windows.
The trick is to avoid excesses
of horror so as not to scorch the mind
and strike it dumb, though grief may yowl
in the dirt and the villages burn.
For instance, if we were to say
they brought the men to the square
and bound them to the posts and one
by one gouged out their eyes,
how many of us would turn
away in disgust, witnesses
only to our own revulsion?
And could we risk throwing
children half-alive into a well
until it was—already we feel uncomfortable
with darkness and water and the sheer
weight of suffering, must we add—
packed to the top?
It’s a question of tact, after all,
how when we say they had no hands or feet
we mean to imply the butcher’s knife as well,
the wrists tied down, the blade
seesawing through the bones.
Now, imagine a woman giving birth
by a river—the Euphrates let’s say—
after her long deportation through the desert,
the soldiers around her laughing
and pointing their swords at her belly
as the baby comes and then—
must we say it?—they are slicing her open,
they are shoving the baby back in.
Admittedly, some facts stare back at us
with such severity, we must either
flinch or cry out. But isn’t it the shape
of horror we are after, the poignancy
of our own trembling sensations,
not the horror itself, not the lash
of every gruesome detail
on our own skin?
For instance, the deserts of Der-El-Zor,
the starvation camps, the thousand hands
reaching for a piece of bread:
weren’t those hands like the wings
of thin, bruised birds?
In Kharpert, everyone knew the boys
with good heads on their shoulders.
Along the Euphrates, some women
died in their own blood, and some,
holding their children close,
threw themselves into the river:
say the sun was too harsh and blinding,
say the river was beautiful once.
What I Can Tell You
I found no trace of Armenians there.
All buildings in the Armenian quarter had been leveled.
—a survivor, returning to Kharpert after many years
I can tell you it was a village
fertile and full of grain,
that the moon grew full above it
before it darkened.
I can tell you that the figs
were abundant, their tiny seeds
were like small gems, hard
and round in the mouth.
I can tell you that the river in the evening
was like a dream of a woman
whose sleep lay undisturbed,
that the scents of mint and oleander
were the perfume of a hundred nights.
I can tell you that the women
halfway to the olive groves one morning
must have heard a chatter of birds
and the foot soldiers coming.
I can tell you that the men
deep in the fields of wheat
would lie down soon
and disappear into its many roots.
And I can tell you that the dream I have
is to walk back to this village
and stand in the square for a moment,
feeling the history of it on my skin,
a history of departures, vanishings.
And I can tell you I would like to hear
the wind moving again through the acacia leaves
and the plum trees in the courtyards,
and to hear a woman singing by an open window,
her voice like the sound of rain falling
and her hair as long and dark as the river.
Gregory Djanikian is the author of six books of Poetry: The Man in the Middle, Carnegie Mellon, 1984; Falling Deeply into America, Carnegie Mellon, 1989; About Distance, Carnegie Mellon, 1995; Years Later, Carnegie Mellon, 2000; So I Will Till the Ground, Carnegie Mellon, 2007; Dear Gravity, Carnegie Mellon, 2014.
His poems have been published in various periodicals such as Poetry, American Poetry Review, Georgia Review, Iowa Review, Boulevard, The American Scholar, Negative Capability, Poetry Northwest, New England Review, Poetry International, and many others. Some of Djanikian’s awards and recognitions are a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and the Eunice Tietjens Prize from Poetry magazine. Djanikian was also featured on PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Djanikian is the director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania.