Poetry Dispatch No. 240 | June 13, 2008
Poems for the Father #4
in celebrations of Father’s Day, June 15, 2008
I discovered the work of David Kherdian sometime after the death of William Saroyan in 1981, when I went into a state of ethnic-American writer’s grief because losing Saroyan-the-Armenian writer with the huge walrus mustache was losing the foreign heart and soul of what it meant in this country to be from somewhere else—custom, language, ritual, family, food, faith, etc. (Let us all sing, “Tradition!”)—and put it all down on paper with compassion, humor, love…in praise of past, present, and a steady reach for the future…the American dream.
Saroyan caught it all—in stories, novels, essays, plays, such as “The Time of Your Life”–which was indeed both his time and ours, capturing on stage the comedy and tragedy of the human experience… “In the time of your life, live—so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches.” Saroyran’s sense of self and place in the world (the messenger) was the stuff of which writers are made.
David Kerdian, who grew up ‘Armenian’ in Racine, Wisconsin, now lives in New York state, has kept much of this alive in his own work, following his own path. Different, of course–a different time, a somewhat different perspective. Yet grounded in the flavor and humanity of that vibrant ethnic setting–the American neighborhood.
Years ago, in reviewing one of his books I said: “One would be hard pressed to discover another writer in America who so entered the soul of his own neighborhood, the poetry in his past, and sung his joy so exquisitely as David Kherdian in MY RACINE.
Saroyan himself once said of Kherdian’s, ON THE DEATH OF MY FATHER AND OTHER POEMS, “The title poem is one of the best lyric poems in American poetry.”
Kherdian wrote me a few months ago—bringing me up to date on his life and times. He had returned to the East Coast after living on the West Coast a little too long. More importantly, he was coming back to Racine for a few days, to receive hometown honors for his writings. He mentioned ‘survival’ in his letter to me as well, a condition writers are prone to in the time of our own lives and said: “What a trial it is to be a poet,” said Kherdian, “ Did I tell you that Bill Saroyan said to me once: ‘We are all miserable beggars.’ “
So welcome to David Kherdian’s life and work. Check his website: www.davidkherdian.com, his long list of accomplishments. By all means, enjoy. He’s lived the life, knows the territory, has the words to tell it truly.
Take to heart the three poems below from a recent book of 60 poems, titled: LETTERS TO MY FATHER. A gift, indeed, to honor the father—every day of the year. –Norbert Blei.
When you put on your black
shoulder-strapped bathing suit
you became somehow
even more Armenian than
you were before.
I watched you enter
the water, swim
and then slowly return,
from the general surround.
I stood on the beach with
and watched you, strangely suited,
making even the water you stood in
seem foreign, forlorn.
I never understood that you
wanted me to spade the garden
with you so we could share
that garden’s work: the pleasure,
the joy, of growing food all
by ourselves, the two of us
together in our own backyard, .
Mother in the grape arbor
with work of her own.
No, I thought you wanted my help.
And this I was reluctant to give
because none of it interested me
at the time.
This chance for us to meet in this way
was missed. Because it didn’t work
out like that, it works out now
like this; conjuring you in a poem
while entering that garden again,
willingly turning the earth by your
side, watching as you stop to wipe
your brow, staring into space, sighing,
remembering the past,
your homeland, your
what you missed
that I long for now in you.
It must have been 1950. Racine, Wisconsin.
Was I nineteen. Was my father sixty
or sixty-one—the age I am now.
It must have been my first car, a Plymouth.
My father never drove, nor my mother.
Only one Armenian family,
as I remember, owned a car back then.
It is evening and I am driving him
to the Veteran’s building for some event
or meeting that he is attending.
We are downtown before I realize that
he is uncertain of the address.
He is used to walking everywhere,
and has become disoriented in my car
(but I don’t realize any of this
at the time). I am being impatient
with him. I don’t like being his chauffeur,
I want to get on with my life, not
be a helpmate in his.
Pull over, he says, reading my thoughts.
Which I do, feeling a little
uneasy, my conscience fighting
with my impatience. But I
pull over. He gets out and quickly
begins his hurried walk—
the walk I will always know
him by, and that I will always remember
when I think of him and think of myself.
He gets out in front of Woolworth’s.
It is dark out, but the street lights
are not on, and I am there, alone
in the semi-darkness,
unable to move, my car stationed at the curb.
And I am there still, watching,
staring at his back as he moves away,
knowing the Veteran’s building
is just three blocks away,
I would call if he could hear me
but he is on his own and alone
as I am
with whatever this is that I am.