By Peter Balakian
from “Ozone Journal”
Bach’s cantata in B-flat minor in the cassette,
we lounged under the greenhouse-sky, the UVBs hacking
at the acids and oxides and then I could hear the difference
between an oboe and a bassoon
at the river’s edge under cover—
trees breathed in our respiration;
there was something on the other side of the river,
something both of us were itching toward—
radical bonds were broken, history became science.
We were never the same.
The title poem of Peter Balakian’s Ozone Journal is a sequence of fifty-four short sections, each a poem in itself, recounting the speaker’s memory of excavating the bones of Armenian genocide victims in the Syrian desert with a crew of television journalists in 2009. These memories spark others—the dissolution of his marriage, his life as a young single parent in Manhattan in the nineties, visits and conversations with a cousin dying of AIDS—creating a montage that has the feel of history as lived experience. Bookending this sequence are shorter lyrics that span times and locations, from Nairobi to the Native American villages of New Mexico. In the dynamic, sensual language of these poems, we are reminded that the history of atrocity, trauma, and forgetting is both global and ancient; but we are reminded, too, of the beauty and richness of culture and the resilience of love.
Peter Balakian, born on 13 June 1951 in Teaneck (NJ), is the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities at Colgate University, where he has taught since 1980 and where he directs the Center for Ethics and World Societies. He received his BA (1973) from Bucknell University, his MA (1975) from New York University, and his PhD (1980) from Brown University. Balakian is the author of six earlier books of poems, most recently of Ziggurat (Chicago 2010) and June-tree: New and Selected Poems, 1974-2000 (HarperCollins 2001). He is also the author of the memoir Black Dog of Fate (Basic Books HarperCollins 1997), which was featured in the New York Times and in the Los Angeles Times, and the prose work The Burning Tigris (HarperCollins 2003) on the Armenian genocide, which was a New York Times best-seller and which was featured in the New York Times and in Publishers Weekly.
He has also appeared on such programs as 60 Minutes, ABC World News Tonight, The Charlie Rose Show, Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air,” Scott Simon’s “Weekend Edition,” CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, and several other radio and TV shows. His essays on poetry, culture, art, and social thought have appeared in such publications as American Quarterly, Art in America, Boston Globe, Chronicle of Higher Education, Commentary, New York Times Magazine, New York Review of Books, and Poetry, many of which are collected in his latest book, Vise and Shadow (Chicago 2015).