January 8, 2021KR Reviews

“New with Loss”: Armen Davoudian’s Swan Song

Durham, NC: Bull City Press, 2020. 40 pages. $12.00.

In my first encounter with Armen Davoudian, the poet was already saying goodbye. “Wake-Up Call,” an elegant sonnet that is both self-elegy and familial love poem, describes—with a disembodied intimacy—Davoudian’s parents preparing breakfast, only to discover that he has disappeared:

                                                                      I can hear
the kettle whistling and pull the covers tight
around my head, against the coming light,
for any moment now they will open the door
and lift the covers and find that I’m not there.

What I would come to admire the most in Davoudian’s debut collection Swan Song is concentrated in these concluding lines: a voice at once direct and elliptical, simultaneously announcing itself as inaugural and valedictory.

Davoudian’s elegiac voice is conjured by the book’s pervading metaphor of a swan singing for the first and last time before its death. The collection is marked by paradoxical farewells of all kinds, with the generative, renewing power of loss appearing in almost every poem. Davoudian opens the book with another sonnet, “Black Garlic,” where a jar of pickled garlic inspires a Proustian reminiscence of a harvest back in his native Iran: “Inside, the broken heads soften and age / in verjuice, coriander, salt, molasses, / black with sulfuration, new with loss.” There is no better epigraph for the book than “new with loss”: the poems introduce us, again and again, to worlds remembered and then reimagined.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that a poet also fluent in Persian and Armenian elastically rethinks the formal possibilities of English poems. Working within received Western and Eastern traditions, Davoudian moves from rhyming couplets to sonnet to ghazal (the title poem “Swan Song” is an English adaptation of the Persian form). His tone is often conversational; even with lush diction these poems feel vernacular; and for readers suspicious of rhyme, Davoudian’s often dissonant, distant rhymes are musical and muted at the same time. These are nimble, intelligent poems, spared of anything pretentious, bookish, or distractingly clever.

Cleverness and a preoccupation with wit is a bête noire for some readers of formal poetry. But those who view such things skeptically will be forced to concede how the clever wordplay in Davoudian’s work becomes an occasion for gravitas. Davoudian elevates the pun, the double-entendre, the inverted cliché, and the familiar literary allusion, creating moments of disarming, even uncanny, poignancy. Lamenting child separations at the U.S.-Mexico border under the Trump administration, Davoudian writes: “they are wrapping children in Mylar / and putting them to sleep / where they used to house ammo. / A mother shouts, te amo.” Ammo and te amo—these smooth but jarring near-homophones dramatize a horror transcending language. Employing the memory of a German language summer camp to comment on the rise of fascism, and divisive politics in the United States, his “Something There Is That Doesn’t Love” plays with Frost’s proverbial road and neighborly wall to decry an atmosphere where “The president believes / good fences make good neighbors” but “The roads remain divided” and “Something that doesn’t love / burns on the streets again.”

Wordplay yields sincerity in the book’s most beautiful poem, “Coming Out of the Shower,” whose title and conceit literalize a psychological reckoning, not just between a mother and her gay son (“Mama, I shout, I’m coming out”), but between our ever-divided selves. With its palimpsestic structure, the poem shifts between present and past with an ease belied by the difficulties of intimacy:

behind the opaque frosted shower screen
          that once more stands between
us two. While at the mirror you apply
          foundation and concealer, I

wash out my hair with argan oil shampoo,
          which means I’ll smell like you
all day. Mama, I shout, I’m coming out,
          and as you look away I knot

around me tight your lavender robe de chambre,
          cinching my waist, and clamber
out of the tub, taking care not to step
          outside the cotton mat and drip

on the cracked floor you’ve polished with such zeal
          we’re mirrored in each tile.
Yet, you’d forgive the spillage, or forget.
          What else will you love me despite?

The shower offers an allegorical mist, with phrases like “behind the opaque frosted shower screen” and “we’re mirrored in each tile.” The wrenchingly awkward syntax at the poem’s close accentuates the poet’s unease, even anguish.

Here is Davoudian at his most virtuosic. Rhymed couplets push sounds together, just as the mother and son are joined in a loving and uneasy closeness. But the poem’s sounds drift from full rhymes to “zeal” and “tile,” to “forget” and “despite.”

Diverging sounds don’t just mirror dissonances between us; they demonstrate how, in Davoudian’s wistful moments, gains are formulated as losses and vice versa: “Your naked body glistens / in the bitter brine we will pass back and forth / between our lips tonight as friendship lessens.” The glistening lessens over time. The inauguration of an erotic relationship is figured as the loss of friendship.

There is a loss through action, a loss through inaction. For these poems also chronicle unrequited lust and love. I’m reminded of how Keats’s poems often hail from a world in limbo, where consummation is suspended. We see this world in Swan Song again and again, the poet describing how his “shadow” and his “image” are contiguous but separate, as they “almost touch / once every day, forever and forever.” In poems like “The Yellow Swan” and “Alibi,” love is interrupted and clandestine. Its fugitive nature feels predestined.

If love consists of a series of farewells, it is also a perpetual string of homecomings, the prodigal son returning to his origins (“Saffron Rice,” “Ararat,” “Travel Ban”). I, too, have returned to these poems many times. What lingers for me is Davoudian’s command of the sonnet as both an act of love and an interrogation of psychological and existential questions. The sonnet’s dialectical, asymmetrical nature provides a perfect shelter for Davoudian’s fascination with doubles, mirror images, and distortions, a world where “Nothing is the same.”

Swan Song is a book of abundance. These are poems of memory and poems of plenty, poems where remembrance is restorative. The book concludes on the word “song,” even as it refuses consolation. “When the swans break, it won’t be into song,” Davoudian writes in the final line of his closing sonnet “Swan Boats.” But even this line suggests—through stated in the negative—that what is broken will become something else, what is lost will be new again.