No Sign
Peter Balakian
University of Chicago Press, 2022

In his ninth collection, Pulitzer-prize winning poet Peter Balakian grapples with the anxiety and loss endemic to our time. While the poems respond to recent events, they should not necessarily be viewed as topical. Instead, they often pull back to reveal the imprint of history on what is being described—that imprint is subtle, transitory, often partly concealed. These poems suggest that our inability to recognize the past, much less acknowledge it, contributes to our brokenness and to the cyclical nature of human violence. Balakian’s focus returns most frequently to Armenia, but violence, oppression, and war haunt the collection, from Syria to the Soviet Union, Cambodia, Laos and beyond. No Sign masterfully juxtaposes the magnificence of human achievement, as exemplified in music and architecture, with the inescapable fact of human malfeasance that results in war, persecution and estrangement.

 In the poem “Revenant Love,” Balakian writes:

We always woke early under
the half-hammered beams

through which the sky
came and some sounds

of people cheering or
killing each other on another street.

Sounds that might be people cheering or killing each other, and the effort it takes to distinguish one from the other, might seem contemporary at first. However, these lines could be set at many points in human history, and that fact reverberates.

The poem continues:

Here’s a shot of arak

to what was truest about us;
to the way wind comes

through the rafters
and half-wired walls.

I still love watching the lights
go on in the houses down the street. 

This provisional shelter, half-built or half-demolished, stands for human vulnerability; lovers may temporarily separate themselves from the outside world, but that world continues. The light from houses down the street is not communal, but it is shared. Evidence of the connections among people exists even in isolation or among ruins.

Shared experience takes another shape in “Ode to the Duoduk,” that of music made by breath through the duoduk, an ancient Armenian woodwind instrument:

It’s not the wind I hear driving south

through the Catskills—it’s just bad news from the radio

and then a hailstorm morphs into sunlight

—look up and there’s—
an archipelago of starlings trailing some clouds.

But how does the wind come through you—
primordial hollow—unflattened double reed—

so even now when bad news comes with the evening report,
I can press a button on the dashboard and hear your breath implode

In this rush of sound, presence, and memory, the senses register layers and openings that emerge and disappear. The starlings create forms that vanish even as they are being made, bad news on the radio merges with the weather so that the weather itself becomes bad news, and the cycle continues, like breathing, until breath itself implodes.  

In a vivid suite of poems about vegetables (as well as bulgur and matzo), Balakian evokes the ritual and sensual nature of cooking and eating, illuminating that what gets handed down as sustenance, in family and in culture, lives in but goes beyond the edible ingredients. Here the persistence of family stories, rituals around food and cooking, and recurring images of the sun, the moon, seasons and seasonality constitute a record of a shared past, while also suggesting the ways in which our shared cultures continue in our most personal, quotidian actions.

The title poem, “No Sign,” is disorienting and haunting. Set along the Hudson River palisades, cliffs that were created millions of years ago by geologic upheaval and displacement, the characters “He” and “She” alternate lines in what could be a dialogue, or a narrative, or a marker of human presence in a place formed by tectonic shifts. Evidence of human destruction, even annihilation, recurs throughout the poem. There are references to storms, explosions, and extinctions; there are “decapitated headlands.” There is the undeniable smallness of humans and human experience next to the monumental landscape (“rocks are time”). And, the epic destruction humans are capable of creating is named, with reference to Hiroshima. Yet there are concurrent and repeated references to music, painting, sticking, and glue—human marks, human achievement, and binding elements.

One of the most moving aspects of the book is the invocation of layering and concealment, particularly for the purpose of survival, whether that concealment is literally hiding to escape notice or to efface one’s language and culture, in order to fit in to a new culture. In “Leaving the Big City,” Balakian writes:

Once my father was a reflection on a wall, and time collapsed for the time of listening

to what couldn’t be imagined and the sound of that elusive boy among

other boys who found passage out on ships and trains, who stuffed themselves

into a crease the way a sock is folded into itself and stuffed inside a satchel

and the satchel moved across latitudes with the clarity of shadows.

The book’s final poem, “Walking the Ruined City,” is set on the Turkish-Armenian border, but it takes place on multiple planes. Balakian moves among the ghosts and ruins of Armenia, collecting fragments and histories while thinking of someone in another city, in another part of his life. The word “Armenia” appears nowhere, he writes, having been outlawed by the Turks, yet he sees evidence of it everywhere—it is truly dispersed and fertile for him. Time and distance collapse, and Balakian beautifully joins his ancestral and diasporic homes in language:

come graze on the stone of free verse: aubade of buttresses,
ghazal of barreled vaults, terza rima of blind arcades, villanelle of niches,

sonnet of squinches, pantoum of pointed arches, sestina of cylinders.
O piers of the radiating arches of Holy Redeemer—wall ribs and colonettes,

O the vigilant powers that keep changing color in the rain.
Who envisioned the cruciform dome plan? Who made the barrel

vaults and pointed arches? How is the traffic on the bridge
out of Brooklyn now? Is there one river that winds around the world?

Jacquelyn Pope

Jacquelyn is a poet and translator whose books include Watermark, Dreamboat, and a selection of poems by the Dutch poet Hester Knibbe, Hungerpots.

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