Honest, real, and lyrical, Arthur Kayzakian’s The Book of Redacted Paintings arrives at a moment in current events when poetry and art in our everyday life could not be more critical. With allusions and references to poets such as Valzhyna Mort, Terrance Hayes, and Joy Harjo, the collection explores the world of displacement, cultural loss and suffering, and familial separation which frequently shapes the immigration story. The poems follow one another, forming a gallery of memory and moments, and readers move from room to room, witnessing historical erasure and the repercussions of war.
Bold and evocative, “Dear Reader,” the collection’s initial poem, opens with the startling line “Today I haven’t thought about killing myself.” The poem then segues into an intimate litany of personal effects— “The mortgage, the deadlines, the apologies”—which could end if the speaker committed suicide. The speaker follows with the statement “Everything feels like a painting.” Despite its simplicity, the statement is extremely telling: it ultimately reveals the speaker’s disassociation with the world around them. However, the statement also establishes an imperative image critical to the entire collection, since the collection’s overarching narrative follows the speaker as they attempt to find a painting of their father.
“Dear Invader” is a poem perfect for these current, war-laden times. The poem’s first stanza opens brutally:
Last night I heard your horn warbling in my head.
I slept like a deep river in a Russian eye.
You scorched a war name on my skull
in Armenian, we call these nightmares Charkata Gir.
Here, readers may need to refresh their knowledge of international affairs. Despite the fact that Armenia has not exactly made headlines in US and Western European news outlets, Armenia continues to be the sparring point for Iran and Azerbaijan. Tehran (Iran) has expressed that it will not tolerate a change in borders, alluding to the opening of a road between Azerbaijan and Turkey which crosses Armenian territory. Affiliated with these unfolding current events in regards to Armenia’s sovereignty and borders is another global key figure— Russia. Thus, the speaker’s reference to a “Russian eye” is a powerful, necessary one which gives readers a starting point to further develop their research about Armenia’s current political situation. “Dear Invader” also carries in it a message of resilience and defiance, one that is perfect, too, for the current times:
No matter how many houses you vaporize;
how many houses you raid,
we sing from the jugular.
We sign until you feel our terror
through the walls of all the homes you took.
The speaker then provocatively challenges the invader: “So come and get us,” a simple, yet significant phrase, especially if considered in the context of Armenian history. Under the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians faced oppression and discrimination, and their historical resistance has inspired Armenians for many generations.
“Reading With My Father” is another poignant moment in The Book of Redacted Paintings. It is one of the collection’s more tangible poems. It is a sentimental poem, one in which the speaker recalls how the act of reading connected them with their father. The speaker states, “My father used to say a book is the song / of the body.” The act of reading becomes not only a physical one, but also an act of remembrance, as the speaker recalls his father saying, “That book smells / like plywood beneath the hot sun of Abadan.” Thus, for the father, books are memories themselves of locations. The poem also carries another important message, specifically for America. Literacy rates in the US continue plummeting, but studies have proven that reading with a child is not simply about reading. It is also about forming a positive social opportunity between a parent and a child. As the poem communicates, reading is an act that can impact a person for a lifetime.
Other poems like “When We Fled Iran” and “Diaspora” capture the trauma and cultural disorientation experienced by those who are displaced because of war. “When We Fled Iran” echoes “Dear Invader” as the speaker states, “when the air was raided with chemical / we sang from the jugular.” The poem also presents the generational disconnect which often emerges in immigrant families:
i stood up to my father’s hand
i watched his hand fall back
the shame I feel for standing up
for my failure to locate my country
in my father.
The disconnection is, essentially, a trauma entirely its own, and in “Diaspora,” the disconnect transforms from the personal to the cultural. In this poem, “a man plays the harmonica” on a street corner. The musician tells people, “I’m Sokrat, / and my next song is called / Home.” Sokrat tells his audience, “this song belonged to my ancestors / whose art I carry / in my blood.” This sense of belonging, while fulfilling for Sokrat, seems to be one his audience cannot comprehend. They “nod, / some toss a handful / of coins / into his guitar case / and move on.” The audience’s actions are a subtle jab at societies like those in Britain and America, where the immigrant experience, historically, has been one filled with forced assimilation and an abandonment of an immigrant’s homeland.
The Book of Redacted Paintings is a collection in which readers will want to linger. Its experimental forms and structures will create a visual experience, and its heart-wrenching verses show the true stakes paid by those fleeing war and oppression. It is a documentary of the political situations and wars not featured in the headlines, and it is the celebration of a culture, of a self, of a generational reclamation to which so few are privy.
Nicole Yurcaba (Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian American of Hutsul/Lemko origin. A poet and essayist, her poems and reviews have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Atlanta Review, Seneca Review, and Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University, and serves as Blue Ridge Community and Technical College’s Humanities Coordinator. She is a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Colorado Review, and Southern Review of Books.