“In the Mother Tongue”: On Fair Sun by Susan Barba

Daniel Evans Pritchard

Boston, MA: David R. Godine, Publisher, 2017. 88 pages. $17.95.

There’s an Armenian saying that goes, You are as many people as the languages you know. It’s not an especially novel idea. In the eighth century, Charlemagne observed that to have another language is to possess a second soul. But it may be especially pertinent for speakers of Armenian, a language that occupies a distinct branch of the Indo-European linguistic tree and uses a unique script dating back to the fifth century AD. Armenia lies at a continental crossroad in the South Caucasus, bordering Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkey. For centuries, empires have battled for regional dominance: Byzantine, Persian, Russian, Ottoman, Soviet. During the Armenian genocide (the Turkish government disputes that characterization), one and a half million Armenians were put to death by the Ottoman Empire, an event which prompted the vibrant diaspora that exists today, stretching from Tehran to my own neighborhood in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Americans, for our part, are notorious monoglots. Back in 1887, Rear Admiral George Balch penned a version of the Pledge of Allegiance that specified “one country, one language, one flag.” It was rejected in favor of the now well-known rendition, but Balch’s spirit survives in our current disputes over bilingual classrooms, translations of the national anthem, and an official language. To many Americans, multilingualism seems either an unpatriotic pretension or a sign of foreign allegiances. President Trump went so far as to refuse a translation headset during the G7 talks this spring, preferring to mime comprehension with all the awareness of a dog that has been trained to raise its paw.

No such isolation for speakers of Armenian. The majority of Armenian citizens today speak Russian fluently, a consequence of long imperial rule. Many others speak French, Persian, or Greek. A large and growing number speak English too, influenced no doubt by the soft imperialism of global markets. Multilingualism has long been an economic and political necessity, requiring many selves indeed: one person for the home, perhaps resentful of occupation; another in the market with Russian and American partners; a third for the state, depending on the period.

Meanwhile, each linguistic person becomes another private space from which to observe the rest, another vocabulary with which to understand the world, each of them imbued with history and the relations of power, so that multilingualism provides its own emancipatory energy.

 

Armenian-American poet Susan Barba’s debut collection, Fair Sun, contains at least two authorial identities. The majority of the poems in Fair Sun dwell in a mode that will be familiar to readers of contemporary English language poetry. This is the first of two selves in this collection: writer of lyrics in a raised rhetorical pitch that reflect on philosophical and personal questions, particularly on the function of language and its relationship to history. In the closing stanza of “Yerevan—New York—Yerevan—New York,” for example, the poem’s narrator observes a man “speaking as though pouring / water from a pail”:

He is too far for me to understand him,
his meaning flashing and reflecting,
a shadow tossed by the sun
back at me. But I recognize the sound
of the rushing, the mass of it hitting
the ground, the bright white sound of it.

The break between “the mass of it hitting” and “the ground” exemplifies the anticipatory possibilities of verse, and the poem as a whole shows what depths Barba can reach within the diving bell of a well-selected image. Exploring the mimetic qualities of language as well as its limits, the poem asks what access into the world is granted by the impressions conveyed through speech. What happens when language forms an idea in the mind? This apparently academic question lies at the threshold of modernity. How do we know and verify fact? How are ideas communicated and taught?

The image of the sun never quite comes through in the water-speech, nor is it altogether lost. It carries meaning across the distance and so it serves as an image of translation, too; its Latin root means “carry across.” The synesthesia of the last line bridges the disunity of these characteristics—movement, color, sound, mass—that have collected around the water and its manifestation, the word and its signification.

By making them one in the “bright white sound,” Barba attends to the distance that exists between each discrete understanding of a common world.

Many poems in Fair Sun follow the same set of concerns: language, family, the self, and the weight of the past. One dimension often carries into another. “We leave the beach,” Barba writes, “its present tense, for more historic waters.” Elsewhere, “To report the weather well requires not just accuracy but empathy.” Her poem “Where the Lone Clarity?” begins, “Take off your old / words // this is the New Economy.” In another short lyric, she writes, “words / contain / the menace / and the knowledge / years had / yet to reach.” An elegy for her father closes:

Silence the muscles of the mouth

the working jaw stop

speaking and the world starts

speaking to one sudden as

salt on the tongue.

These lyric poems represent the first person of the collection, the American in her own comfortable fluency, the artist playing melodies with her well-worn instrument.

The second person of the collection is the voice behind “Andranik,” a long narrative prose poem at the center of the volume. It is the testimony of Barba’s grandfather, Andranik Vartanian, the only member of the family to survive the Armenian genocide.

The poem is translated not only in the sense of it having been brought across from Armenian to English in the act of telling, but also in there being an experience that must be poured from one vessel into another. Beneath the text, an experience struggles to navigate the space between starkly contrasting contexts of past and present.

Possessing desperation and exasperation in equal measure, “Andranik” is, almost by necessity, the most compelling work of the collection. It is a poem of witness that succeeds both as art and as moral exhortation. In the most memorable scene, Barba’s grandfather has been captured by a group of Ottoman soldiers along with another boy, a childhood friend named Torkom. The soldiers, he recounts,

want to make fun. Play. They put two guns to the wall. In one gun, live bullet. In one gun, no bullet. No live bullet. Like me and Torkom there. Guns into wall. They say, “Go get a gun.” I went. Torkom. We went together. I lift a gun. Torkom lift a gun. See. I didn’t know if the gun there is a live bullet or no. Torkom didn’t know. So. About twelve feet far from each other. And. And ordered, shoot. I shoot and killed Torkom. My gun have live bullet. I killed him.

So. They. They make enjoy.

At the core of a collection that’s otherwise characterized by private voices and attuned lyricism, “Andranik” represents a remarkable fracture. The remaining poems serve as pretext and coda. The voice of Barba’s grandfather steps out of this field of fluent lyricism with ungrammatical, accented, halting, incorrect (so to speak), evasive, and resigned public witness. The shift is visceral. Barba describes elsewhere the challenge of such a transaction: “your tongue fumbles / for coins in the dark change purse / of your mouth.”

Such an achievement would be unthinkable without the precedent of Charles Reznikoff, the mid-century objectivist who experimented with journalistic plain speech. “Andranik” draws upon the same documentarian energy that drives Reznikoff’s Holocaust, the harrowing book-length work that repurposes testimony from Eichmann and Nuremberg trials. It’s no surprise to learn that Barba was instrumental in bringing Reznikoff’s titles back into print during her tenure as editor of Black Sparrow Books. Her work as an editor has yielded fruit.

 

“O words,” Barba writes, in one of her more ecstatic moments, “without you what would be the last? / And what would last?” Because of “Andranik,” this doesn’t come across as an empty flourish. How much would be lost if Armenia had been extinguished in 1915? And if Armenians had not adopted multilingualism, how much of their history would be as good as lost? Language sustains identity as much as it maintains history. In another of Barba’s elegies, language serves as a bulwark against the inevitability of death: “Against all odds you said / I’m still making / sentences in bed.”

Does this makes too much of mere speech? Languages evolve, of course. They absorb one another, they borrow whole vocabularies, they shed grammars, they rise and fall in use along with political, military, and economic power—and words themselves are often impotent. Words make nothing happen. They lack the power to stop a dictator, to stop a bullet. The soldiers may have ordered him to shoot, but Ottomans didn’t murder Torkom. “I killed him,” Andranik says. That is the distance between words and deeds. It takes a human person to translate logos into telos. There’s another Armenian saying that reminds us of this fact: Rice is not cooked with words alone.

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