Definitive Verse about the Lebanese Civil War: Shahe Mankerian’s History of Forgetfulness

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Caveat Lector: Reader Beware! Shahe Mankerian new book, History of Forgetfulness, is no walk in the park. The poet takes an honest and often devastating look at events from his childhood when the 1975 Civil War broke out in Beirut. Death is omnipresent as is human cruelty, presented on a platter for all to see and taste. Want some dressing for your pain? Some salt for your wounds?

Some more pepper perhaps for your suffering? Written in elegant and spare verse, the poems here are particularly effective because they bring home the terrifying stupidity and harm that war unleashes on its victims.

The lead poem “Educating the Son” sets the mood for what follows: “I got my schooling at the morgue:/a summer job, my mother thought,/would keep the streets out of her son.?/It was a booming business, death.” As he does elsewhere throughout these poems, Mankerian describes the topic at hand — here dressing murdered boys his own age for burial, the precision of it and also the horror — but brings it back to his own unique perspective. The poet somehow remains alive and reminds the reader that he is still his mother’s son, one who needs her love, especially given the wartime conditions:

 

“Would she remember that I was

her only son and that I cleaned

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boys my own age? I witnessed death

before I could live. Mother, stay awake.

Don’t look for him among

the dead. He lives. He lives. He lives.”

Shahe Mankerian

What of these other wonderful strong poems? The poet’s father plays a strong role in his life, a demanding persona who likes precision in all things. The young Mankerian does everything he can to please him, to put a sense of normalcy in a daily routine gone haywire for everyone. He assiduously cleans his slippers until they shine. The identification with the father is such that the two merge in a powerful if unexpected image:

 

My fingers

have collected dirt,

20 years of panic,

and his footsteps.

I feel

Uncircumcised:

yellowish

unclean.

 

When I smell

burnt bread,

my stomach heaves.

This is your father

in you coming

out yellowish

unclean.

 

Given the poet’s age at the time of the Lebanese Civil War, school also plays a central role. And as elsewhere in these poems. from cruelty comes goodness or at least the beginnings of it. In  “Moses,” the boys make fun of an elderly nun of until whom the poet follows one day: “…to the basement of the chapel. There, she lay on a bed of thorns and cried all night. We stopped…throwing things at her and never stole her shoes again.”

In “The Last Mosque” the poet plays again on the theme forgetting, here a classmate who is killed in an explosion:

 

No one moved. The explosions

set off sirens and car alarms.

Allah is with us.

Allah is with us.

The mosque was our hiding place

even though I was a good

Christian boy. The final explosion

silenced everything—even Avo’s voice.

* * *

In her recent essay Shushi Sugar Bowl, writer Nancy Agabian grapples with the destruction of her homeland in Artsakh during the 44-Day War of 2020, which happens in real time as she is moving into a beautiful old Victorian house near her parents, for whom she is caring as they age. The images of destruction are jarring for Agabian in part because she has — or to be precise her eyes have — become accustomed of the beauty and the shapes of the Armenian churches now being bombed daily by Azerbaijani and Turkish forces. This in spite of the fact that as a feminist queer identified progressive, she has little affinity for the institution of the Armenian Church itself. The author muses: “If destruction underlies the story of beauty, then the reverse must also be true, that loss is not an end nor an absolute — beauty must be on the other side. My mother is a trauma survivor who has always used beauty to survive. When I was a child we visited art museums every week, fleeing to them immediately after she fought with my father.”

Like her mother, Agabian also finds refuge in beauty, in Mikasa sugar bowls and Victorian turrets, as it were. Mankerian’s Lebanon then and Agabian’s Armenia parallel each other, as does the succor that beauty brings the poet as well. Behind the scenes of domestic violence and war, History of Forgetfulness is by its very existence a story of triumph, here the poet’s — and of the ability of two nations, Lebanese and Armenia —  to survive through some of the most difficult circumstances known to man.

History of Forgetfulness is Mankerian’s second verse of poetry; a good 20 years have elapsed since his Children of Honey came out in 2000. He has been composing ever since and the wait has been well worth it, all told. (He has also started a family and currently serves as the principal of the Hovsepian School in Pasadena and on the Board of the International Armenian Literary Alliance.) History of Forgetfulness represents a particularly noteworthy achievement, especially given the fact that English must be Mankerian’s third or fourth language. From rhyme scheme to metaphor and imagery, Mankerian holds his own. History should be read by anyone with an interest in Lebanon and the 1975 Civil War, in part because it presents the view of a child and a member of the Armenian-Lebanese community, two voices that have not been heard from enough to date. It belongs alongside other poetic efforts such as Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness (2013), and Nicholas El Hage’s Lebanese Hymns to Love and War, and two wonderful novels, Yalo by Elias Khoury and Rawy Hage De Niro’s Game (2006). Let’s hope it gets the play it deserves, as much for the quality of its verse as for the important message it delivers.

Purchase History of Forgetfulness:https://www.amazon.com/History-Forgetfulness-Shahe-Mankerian/dp/1913211622/ref=sr_1_2?crid=2F8I9UYP4HTI4&dchild=1&keywords=history+of+forgetfulness&qid=1634228984&s=books&sr=1-2

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