Caprine Wonder: Jim Najarian’s The Goat Songs. A Critical Exclusive


To you liberals, of course, goats are just sheep from broken homes. 

– Malcolm Bradbury

Winner of the 2017 Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry, James Najarian’s The Goat Songs is many things: an American pastoral to Berks County, Pennsylvania where he grew up, an ode to the male body, as well a paean to all things caprine. It is also one of the most promising and cleanly written books of poetry to have been published of late. The author’s precise language and his rich vocabulary should surprise no one perhaps, coming from a Boston College English professor who specializes in Keats. The range of topics, as well as the intimate portrait of a family history that stretches from ancient Armenia to modern-day Pennsylvania is told with psychological accuracy and verve: the result is a wonderfully idiosyncratic tome that is bound to surprise.

Najarian divides the book’s first section, “Armenia, PA” somewhat equally between old and new. Though a graduate of Lawrenceville and Yale, Najarian grew up on a farm and makes the reader privy to things both pedestrian and arcane about goats. On their naming: “There’s Bippy we cry out, “There’s Charmian.”/In general they had attractive names/that you would hesitate to give your daughters:/Candy, Ceffie/Bambi, Serenade–or sometimes a descriptive sobriquet:…Regina for a royal Roman nose; /Frisbee for one who leapt all fences…” In “First Kidding” the poet recounts in some detail how a kid goat is born. And finally in “The Goat Song” (again) we find out “But goats live only six or seven years./In our herd, they seemed to die unceasingly/like heroines from nineteenth century opera — of mysterious, long-thought curable diseases.” The goats smell of “The shit-and-lemon cologne they carried on them” and we learn “How they hated/two things above all: being alone, and rain.”

In “Near Apex PA” Najarian cleverly mixes topography with human geography when describing the surrounding mountains: “The Kittatiny, the Running Mountain/ divides this country with its slack axe,/lopping the hemlock from the oak,/Slav from German, farm from quarry.” Elsewhere in “Taking the Train from Kempton PA,” he addresses the viewer in the imperative mode, advising him to “…roam unregarded behind back yards./So skirt a black wall,/follow the shallow creek, and head for the woods–.” Later in the poem he again delicately mixes what is natural and manmade — I headed for my google to find out what the vegetation he describes actually looks like: “Mayapples crowd the edge/where you should be./In that dull rumble/only a tractor on the new highway?…Wet jewelweed sifts through the ladder of track,/and ahead, in light,/a shed peeks out from its habit of burdock:”

From Pennsylvania the poet takes us to pre-Genocide Armenia in “Armenian Lesson,” an ode to the Armenian alphabet where each quatrain ends with a refrain from Gulian’s celebrated Armenian Grammar of 1904. After describing the language’s gutturals and other peculiarities he ends the poem: “We are expecting too much from this tongue–/more than thirty-eight letters can give,/No living language could ever be strong/enough for those it could not save./The Turkish soldiers are very brave.” Indeed, perhaps we are…

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At times, simply the beauty of the verse suffices. In “On His Blindness” he describes a murder of crows thus: “In a moment, the crows tangle and scatter/like a black pot shot in the air/They throw their scene against a stone-/then, in one instinctual motion/the crows contract to a single tree.” And in “To the Fields,” the delightful in a realm of instinct and sepia: “I am beyond cartography, in a realm/of instinct and sepia, and I know only/where the bare road goes, and how/it deltas among the ordinary trees.” In “Kempton, PA After my Death” the section ends with the poet wondering what these lands that he was born in will be like once he is gone: “Will the hills be greener, then? I promise you/nothing. When you drive up the old trails,/the mountains-Hawl and Pinnacle–/will stand like cast-iron cutouts against the sky.”

The remaining two sections of “The Goat Songs” are equally rich in detail and history. In the second section, “Kleptomania” the poet writes his fascination with masculinity — men he admired and could never be, men he longed for, and men’s bodies themselves. In “The Frat Boys,” he describes two boys Marty and Adam playing around, a snarl of pectoral and arm: “Their shirtless bodies are frolicking again – /the lawn is a snarl of pectoral and arm/in a game I cannot play, or even grasp./However rough it seems, they mean no harm, shoulder on shoulder in a perfect clasp.” But Marty soon dies in a car crash and Adam becomes bald and unhappy.

The promise of youth is not always paid out. But surprisingly to some perhaps, it is their ease at being themselves that Najarian admires most. It is an ease that many men have envied at one point in their lives, an ability to be yourself, to not wonder if you are good enough or beautiful enough or to worry if others are judging you: “It is not their bodies, but their carelessness/I marvel at, and these young men display./I will never be able to possess/Adam and Marty capering in the spray.” In the next poems we are privy to some more wonders such as a description of paperwhites: “Soon, periscoping over the green,/they burst in a coronet of asterisks.” The title poem “Kleptomania” cleverly moves from manmade object to human heart: “Start simply. Thieve small./And stay on the ball./Take nothing that matters—/lost crews, tickets stubs, French fries from platters….Why not go on? Be a Pro of a Con–/filch a heart for a day/As soon as you’re done with it, throw it away—/…Who’s keeping tabs? Everything, everyone, is up for grabs.” As in his description of Marty and Adam, there is a dark side to Najarian’s poetry as well, in his recognition of life’s cruelties but also if I am not wrong, a strong underlying sense of cynicism.

Of the third part of Najarian’s book, I retain “The Dark Ages,” a learned juxtaposition of Roman Britain’s dying days and his own mother as she succumbs to a fatal illness: “Half Buried in her sheets, she is a baby/lost in a little boat. She knows. My name,/but wails, and can’t say why. At times I can/ Make out a single word: no, no no.” The preceding chilling verse will be instantly recognizable to anyone with a parent who has suffered from say Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.

And then the wonderful, if somewhat academic parallel to Roman Britain: ”Our women scrounge for bits of bead and bronze./They roast our gritty roots right in the fire/or cook in cauldrons dug from ancient graves/sepulchri: pots that once held human ashes.” It’s not a comparison that one would think of a priori, which makes it both difficult and satisfying to understand. Other poems in the section that are equally strong include “The Devout life” and “In the Armenian Quarter, Jerusalem.” From frolicking goats to frolicsome boys, to the architecture of a land he grew up in and personal memories of family and self, Najarian’s The Goat Songs, does something rare: it simply sings.

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