Sweet Delights: Alec Ekmekji’s The Unauthorized Biography of Tango Woman

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Alec Ekmekji’s The Unauthorized Biography of Tango Woman: A Tone Poem in Fifteen Movements is an eloquent reminder of the redeeming power of beauty. The recently published volume of haikus and illustrations, (August 2021), confirms French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet’s words, quoted in the book, that “The true writer has nothing to say. What counts is the way he says it.” Indeed, Ekmekji’s book testifies to the power of words, and of images, to help transcend the trauma of a past, no matter how destructive or how painful that past has been.

The Tango woman’s biography may be “unauthorized,” yet it has the authority of lived experience behind it. The woman who “writes long haikus in the sand” and who “does yoga with the swallows,” moves around in the company of history’s greatest. Einstein holds the elevator door for her. Proust hears every word she confesses at La Madeleine. Socrates, Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, Chopin, Rodin, Kafka, Truffaut are all inspired by her. There is nothing gossipy about the flattering portrait of a woman who is cherished and admired by all.

Nonetheless, Tango woman longs for her roots. She confronts a present of exile with memories of her rich Armenian past. The poems invoke Ara Keghetsig, an Armenian king renowned for his physical beauty. They invoke King Ardavazt, the first Armenian playwright of classical Armenian theatre, and also Dikranagerd, the ancient Armenian capital of King Dikran the Great. But they also recall the horrors of the killings and the deportations that forcibly removed her people from their ancestral lands and scattered them into the remotest corners of the world. “My tango woman/sings me The Song of the Bread/does Varoujan hear?” evokes the silencing of an entire generation of our poets at the onset of the 1915 Genocide. An all-black page—the only all-black page in the book—accompanies the seventeen syllables that conjure this darkest chapter in our history.

No matter how chilling the memory, however, the reader’s attention is inevitably called to the words and to the images that dramatically capture the spirit of the poems. “My tango woman/hands a pistol to Tehlirian/Gomidas forlorn” shocks and upsets, but it also captivates with Ekmekji’s astonishing ability to compress so much history into a few syllables.

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The ”sweet delights of poesy,” in 16th -century English poet Sir Philip Sydney’s words, carry the day. The poet himself writes of “the joys of men, born of mind and pen/They stroll arm in arm in meter and rhyme” in a poem published in his 1917 collection, Beneath the Glass Bell. These “dear pleasures” do indeed, in the poet’s own words, “lure the sorrow/From the hearts of men.”

The past returns, but tango woman is not consumed by her memories. Ekmekji’s is an attempt “to revive gently rolling, gently fading memories.” His “My tango woman/hails a cab in Yerevan/“Melancholy Lake,” penetrates deep into the sadness ingrained in his culture, yet there is nothing melancholic, or even ambivalent, about “my tango woman/hikes the trail to Ararat/Apovian’s footprints.” “My tango woman/roams the plain of Avarayr/ancient poppies sway” is a celebration of the poet’s Armenian roots. The past has been reckoned with.

Those familiar with the allusions to Ekmekji’s Armenian heritage pick up layers of meaning and emotion that add immensely to the pleasure of reading the poems. But for those who do not have the background, or share the knowledge, in other words, for those who are not, for example, aware that in Berlin, in 1921, Soghomon Tehlirian shot and killed Talaat Pasha, one of the masterminds of the Armenian Genocide, to avenge the death of a million and a half of his people, the meaning is obscured. For these, Ekmekji provides a glossary of names and of events, which turns out to be a happy addition to the book.

 

The poems are easily understood, with no complicated images and metaphors to decipher. They retain the rhythm of ordinary speech, even as they maintain the formal pattern of the haiku. The lightness of touch of Ekmekji’s verse also contributes to the pleasure of reading it.

Topics: Books, Haikus
People: Alec Ekmekji

 

“Tango Woman at Maxim’s” is magical:

My tango woman

takes me to dine at Maxim’s

a roasted peacock

 

my tango woman

carves the peacock with one glance

knife falls from my hand

 

my tango woman

bites into the peacock’s leg

I exhale feathers

 

The visual and the poetic images, printed on facing pages in the elegant volume, delight the reader. The Unauthorized Biography of Tango Woman vindicates a whole history of loss, evidencing that a poem is more than a “momentary stay in the confusion of life,” to borrow famed American poet Robert Frost’s words. Art can indeed be lifesaving. One leaves Ekmekji’s Tone Poem “in calm of mind, all passion spent,” to use yet another celebrated English poet’s words (John Milton).

What the poet says and how he says it are not mutually exclusive. What a writer has to say definitely matters. “The way he says it,” however, makes all the difference.

 

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