A Critical Exclusive: Celeste Nazeli Snowber: On Motherhood, History and Longing

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“The Marrow of Longing”: a strange but fitting title for an idiosyncratic and ultimately satisfying book of poetry. Dancer, poet, professor, spiritualist: Celeste Nazeli Snowber is a polymath and interdisciplinary artist who has created her own unique creative identity.

When her poems hit, as in “Beneath the Skin of Plum Black” they are lovely, heartfelt pieces that penetrate the reader’s consciousness deeper perhaps than those of more established wordsmiths. This poem encapsulates much of what Snowber expresses elsewhere about food, tradition and familial love:

“Aromas took second place
to hues of dark purple
it was your colours
my mother was
in love with.

Eggplant.
Jeweled in sautéed onions
adorned with red
pepper, a hint
of green parsley
a slice of lamb.

Plum black
you are love marinated
in drips of oil
tenderized in
the h/earth
in a New England kitchen.”

Later on in the poem, Snowber’s mother offers a culinary lesson that the poet passes down to the reader:

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Never leave the pan without
a hint of green, she said,
Look how stunning the red
Pepper accents blackened violet

Here the poet paraphrases her mother, whose speech is itself poetic, so she doesn’t heighten or embellish it with fancy turn-of-phrase or rhyme.

Snowber’s relationship to her Armenian mother who was also an artist and her evident love for her are reflected in her longing for history to have somehow been thwarted and her mother’s talent celebrated. This longing informs the crux of poems such as “In praise of the Kitchen-Studio”: My mother’s kitchen was an art studio/cooking with color/creating flower arrangements/with metal, plexiglass/driftwood and plant life. In “Where is the lexicon of women artists?” Snowber delivers a prose-poetic ode to her mother’s brilliance and her love of all things artistic: “At the early age of five she brings me to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, weeps in front of “Improvisation 28,” where I have my first art history lesson—aesthetics of color has hidden meaning.”  And the title poem “The Marrow of Longing” which begins with “Longing resides in my marrow” and ends with “Longing is the land I dwell” brings home the Armenian notion of garod which drives much of the poet’s personal and creative search.

Some of Snowber’s metaphors and images are less convincing as in “Seaweed Torment,” when she dives into “the seaweed/of my own torment” or in “Vowels of the Body” where “Seasons enter my flesh/internal tides, external rhythms/rain, mist, flames, ice/hormones.” And then there is “Diaspora Dreams” which is a fine poem even if it repeats tropes that we’ve seen before in Armenian American literature, revolving around a sense of shame and the loss of language: “I was never taught/the vowels, syllables of her native tongue/my mother held the shame/of being an immigrant.”

Snowber’s poems are accompanied by some fascinating artwork by Marsha Nouritza Odabashian who uses an ancient Armenian onion skin dyeing technique to create her work. The many hues of brown and shades of grey and orange have an earthy appeal and the designs manage to be simultaneously abstract and representative. Interestingly enough though, my favorite of Odabashian’s pieces is a pink watercolor at the beginning of the book titled “Kitchen Studio” which doesn’t seem to use this technique: it has a rare lightness to it as a cook joyfully dances around her kitchen.

From the one example of Grace Terzian’s work in the book, a photo of a large arresting flower sculpture titled Tricentennial, 1976 (Interpreting Light Year 2076), it seems clear that Grace Terzian had a unique talent.  Snowber links her mother to other female artists such as Anne Sexton (and why not Sylvia Plath and Virginia Wolf) —who suffered for being women and/or mothers. In the 1940’s Terzian was apparently friends with some of the luminaries of the time such as Hyman Bloom, Ravi Shankar and Alan Hovhannes.  But lack of opportunity, of time to create, and of psychic space to mend, as well as her responsibilities as a wife and mother meant that she had could not follow her dreams, as her male counterparts did.  In one poem Snowber fille recounts her mother’s many screaming fits and one imagines the effect that they had on her as a child who probably could not fully comprehend their roots or context. I for one would be interested in knowing if more of Terzian’s sculptures exist still and how they might be exhibited, even if in photographs.

In her introduction to the book, Snowber notes that the poems that follow were danced/sung as well as read, and it would be interesting to see how they are all rendered in such performances. Snowber is to be credited for her remarkable bonhomie in reaching out and working with other artists—The Marrow of Longing feels and reads like a true collaboration.  There are some lovely poems and thoughts expressed in this volume, and much history too that make it well worth reading.

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