Separating The Vertebrae – Alan Semerdjian’s In The Architecture Of Bone

For those of us who are prepared to “Go Deep” into the architecture of the individual human experience rather than skim its surfaces, there’s good news.

As revealed by Armenian-American poet and musician Alan Semerdjian, there is much that is “bone deep” in his book The Architecture Of Bone (GenPop Books, 2009). (You can also regularly find his words on the pages of this magazine.) Semerdjian is no “skin-deep” poet of surfaces and superficialities. In choosing his topic, he reveals his aim—to delve deep into the architecture of his people’s experience. There are plenty of surface values in the poetry of Semerdjian. Synaesthesia— tastes, smells and textures—offers ample access to Semerdjian’s interior world.

He goes beyond the grid-like map of his mother’s face to the tender, plaintive memories of his childhood—for example, to the scallions, olives and cup of tea his grandfather eats daily, in the ambitiously cubistic “Fragments Of A Composition With Grandfather,” a poem central to Semerdjian’s attempt to elevate his writing from cultural testimony to the level of art. There’s plenty of old world magic to share, as in “The Dudek,” speaking cryptically from her vantage point at the window to “a land of jinxes”:

“Women are mountains,” she repeats
“Women are mountains”…

She is clever. She is a snake…

She turns like a wing.
She turns like a wing.

But it is the less directly revealed that most compellingly commands our attention.

And in a sense it is tangentiality of gesture that’s the most compelling topic in this book. It is a process evoked neatly by Semerdjian when he refers to two Armenians playing blackjack together in “Lucky,” looking sideways at each other in silence. “…when two Armenians/are quiet it’s not/that they’ve found enough to say,” he writes.

Or the tentative conversation with a Turkish gas station attendant, in “How Turkish Coffee Got Its Name.” A central poem to understanding the message of this volume, it takes us below the surface of chitchat to a palpably unspoken subtext. The two circle around the real issue he wishes they could talk about—the Armenian Genocide—in a conversation that becomes an expression of time itself, “an animal afraid of change…an hourglass on its side.”

The agency of this suppressed wish is the sharing of coffee, brewed in a pot that conceals the volcanic rage hidden in its manufacture.

It is this tension between the hidden trauma and the surface calm that is the real power of Semerdjian’s poetry.

What lies behind the silence is the reed-like memory of a resilient people who, for generations, did more than just learn to bend with the changing fortunes of a country subject to more powerful nations.
They incorporated it into the architecture of their spines.