Aaron Poochigian

Aaron Poochigian’s American Divine explores God and Country

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Aaron Poochigian’s fourth book of poetry, American Divine, confirms him as one of our important poets, with both a formal mastery of his craft and important things to say about the human condition in 21st century America. While he was brought up in Grand Forks where his father Donald taught Philosophy at the University of North Dakota, Poochigian’s Armenian roots go back to the town of Peri in Western Armenia via Fresno, home to other well-known Armenian writers such as William Saroyan, Charlie Minassian and Aris Janigian. Poochigian earned a doctorate in classics and is also a prolific translator. On the occasion this year of the bicentennial of French poet Charles Baudelaire’s birth, he is coming out with a new translation of The Flowers of Evil on Norton Press. It’s the author’s eleventh book, which says something about his creativity and work ethic.

Geography plays a pivotal role in American Divine. It sets the stage for a look inward at Poochigian’s faith in both God and man — his relative lack of faith as well as his search for it, in what I sometimes call The Big American Empty. Poochigian moved to New York in 2011; the Midwest’s loss has been our great gain. Here in “American Divine” the poet pens a love letter to his adoptive city, but also in a sense to the other America which he left behind, a place which he prefers to forget yet cannot quite ever leave behind. The book is divided into three sections: “The One True Religion,” “The Uglies” and “The Living Will.” It’s no accident that Section Two of the book bears the title “The Uglies.” In his seminal “Welcome Home,” the poet describes North Dakota in less than flattering terms, telling the reader outright: “I’ve got no patience for Dakota Zen,” before intoning:

I grew to hate the place — a vast ho-hum.

Thing is: I fought against it with such force

So goddamn long that I got owned, of course

and now it’s always where I’m coming from.

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Juxtapose this visceral dislike of his hometown with his description in the title poem of the Gotham which he has adopted as his own:

 

There is a heightened way of being here

in Union Square: as ice descends half-thawed

past whirling numbers on a glass façade

so many coats attached to totes, briefcases,

blueprint tubes and roller bags are reaching

A stairwell to the subway. They don’t fear

the local Moses, Mort, who flails and paces

back and forth before the top step, preaching

to infidels about a Weather god:

“Azuzu whispers and the world goes round!”

Amused teenagers hoot and mock-applaud.

The trains keep making thunder underground.”

 

New York as a drug then, one that gives access to a “heightened” state of being, where numbers “whirl” like dervishes in a trance and the pell-mell of daily existence takes over among “flailing and pacing, hooting and mock applause.” Union Square, the hustle and bustle of New Yorkers, the large digital clock that was installed along with a new garish skyscraper some thirty years ago, the crazies who preach loudly into thin air to anyone who will listen: the city’s excited unrelenting energy courses through the poet’s veins. The Dakotas, I am told, are rather stunning, but here they don’t stand a chance. But might North Dakota not also stand in as the poet’s Ithaka, a place of grounding for the poet, as in Cavafy’s famous poem of the same name: “Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey./Without her you wouldn’t have set out./She has nothing left to give you now.”

Faith is the other great topic in American Divine, in verse that parses the poet’s own religious sentiment and his search for divinity or a greater power at work in the universe. This has already set in by the time he is a teenager, as per his wonderfully rhymed poem “The Satanists.” The author tries to shrug off his attempt to invoke Satan as a mere childhood prank, the province of “teenage heathen” just having fun, a bunch of teenagers “vague as vandals” dressed “in studded hoodies and camouflage pants.” These young boys and girls invoke Lucifer but for Poochigian they are also “congregants,” so that Satanic ritual and religious ceremony here become one and the same.

 

“one girl, one boy.

Hunkered, with candles

And all the goodies

Demons enjoy,”(…)

 

We dug a hole

Like a mixing bowl

And dumped in honey,

And milk and wine —

Then, for the money,

Blood of swine.”

 

And then comes the hilarious: “Ad me veni. You Out there?” Come to me, they ask, as if they really expect him to show up. No devil appears, so Poochigian tries to bribe his way to hell: “I threw in a penny/To cover the fare.” Perhaps had he thrown in a dollar instead, Lucifer might have arrived in the spot, horned with long tail and pitchfork:

 

And though no spirit

Pricked up my hair…

we will always share

What was desperately something

(if not quite love)

and the glory of

this crazed dumb thing

we did when young.”

The satanic and the sexual intertwine for Poochigian and his friends “We felt we were near it/We were aroused.” The question then becomes why “crazy”? Why “dumb”? Is Satanism not in a sense just an inverse of Christianity and Satan an inverted vision of Christ our Lord? Who after all gave Shaytan, the fallen angel, such a bad name?

In another killer poem “A fool at Christmas” Poochigian attacks our monetized secular religion. Christmas itself is of course a Christian holiday tagged on to a pagan one, one meant no doubt to smother the latter out of existence. Here the poet hears the Salvation Army jingle and turns his attention to the Christmas tree, symbol for the holiday itself:

 

“…May they be crowned

each, with a star. May they be bright and grand.

I need their limbs to guard childhood’s demand

For wish-fulfillment. Every sweet, spellbound

Gasp like a gasp in never-Never Land.”

 

In “Multimammia” a hymn to the divine feminine (“The Gods are down here, and they can be hard/to look at, hard to take — hard, hard, hard.”) we are made privy to the poet’s encounter with a pregnant bitch — grotesquely titted, she pays little attention to him and moves on. And in “The Gospel of Prosperity,” Poochigian indulges in a not-so-subtle ribbing of a Protestant Reverend who in good capitalist fashion extorts tithe money from parishioners with the wonderful refrain: “…Why do we pay? For something in return./A person has to give so he can earn.”

The reader’s head verily spins as Poochigian delivers a tour of Buddhism, Hinduism, paganism: you name it. He ends his section on religion with “American Osiris,” a Made-in-USA version of the Egyptian God of fertility and the afterlife. The poet pleads with Osiris, imploring him to appear and wipe clean his doubt, in the process affirming the existence of a greater divinity:

“Dead god, dead God, come alive

on the count of number five.

One, two, three, four…”

Interestingly enough Poochigian’s view of America as a real, concrete place in the end dovetails with that of the religious or abstract aspects of human existence. In “That, Too” he foresees that everything we hold as dear and permanent — statues, churches, racehorses, stock trades are impermanent and will one day disappear. Given climate change and global warming, his prediction may come sooner than later:

 

The wind will blow away,

Someday

Grand statues in the square,

The words with which I play,

Good times, and my despair.

 

All that I do

And say —

That, too,

the wind will blow away.

Relax, Pachoogian seems to be telling the reader, there’s nothing you can do. In the end the trees and the grass, the mountains and the seas, our grandest cities and even the Great Pyramids themselves will turn to dust. And yes he concludes, the poet will also one day inevitably disappear.

Purchase American Divine: https://www.amazon.com/American-Divine-Aaron-Poochigian/dp/0930982797

To see a list of his publications, visit https://www.aaronpoochigian.com/

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