David Kherdian

A Critical Exclusive: David Kherdian’s Place in Time

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Sitting halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee, Racine may not be a place that many of us have spent much time pondering, but to poet David Kherdian, it means everything.

Kherdian grew up in this midwestern town on the shores of Lake Michigan as part of a small but vibrant Armenian community. Like his parents, most had relatives who had survived the Armenian Genocide. In Racine, as in other factory towns such as Worcester, Mass. and Syracuse, NY, Armenians around the country regrouped and went to work rebuilding their decimated communities.

Kherdian’s latest literary effort, A Place in Time, published in 2020, pays homage in verse and prose to a town at once utterly banal and completely remarkable. In other places, Kherdian has written about the difficulty of growing up in small town America, but here the tone turns mostly elegiac.

Kherdian, best known as a poet of both nature and man and the one-time editor of Ararat Quarterly, has published more than 50 books in his lifetime. His wife, Nonny Hogrogian, is also a prolific writer and illustrator of children’s books.

Born in 1931, Kherdian also draws a fine figure as a doyen of sorts of Armenian-American writers, having encouraged, nourished and published many who came after him. In 2007 he edited the milestone Forgotten Bread on Heyday Press. The book involved so-called “second-generation” Armenian writers in America, people such as Nancy Agabian and Hrag Vartanian and myself, each one introducing in essay form the work of a first-generation writer — which included talents such as Leon Surmelian, Harry Barba and Michael Arlen Jr. The book was vital in placing Armenian writers in context, giving them both a time and a place of their own. It also showed that the cultural vitality of Armenians spread out over several generations and was here to stay. Saroyan may have put us on the map, but Kherdian helped to make sure that we remained there.

So what of A Place in Time? Over some 300 pages, the careful reader will delight in lively, heartfelt and sometimes quaint vignettes of Racine.  Given all the divisiveness in American society today, we might do best for an instant to put down the war drums and recall quieter, more harmonious times. In his introduction, Kherdian explains:

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“This book is about a small town in the larger landscape of Middle West America, when all the parts functioned in unison, when the children of immigrants like myself, if not always treated as equals, were nevertheless seated at the same table, to not only improve their station in life but to uplift America, as equal rights participants in making it the shining light on the hill.”

Kherdian’s vision of America of course occludes  the issue of race and sexual minorities, not to mention the Genocide of Native Americans but as he cleverly sees, the main issue in contemporary America is in fact class: “The middle class that we all took for granted is now being celebrated mournfully as something from a past time, that the upper monied class have decided to destroy, by picking its pockets, destroying its image and undermining its faith.” Politics aside, A Place in Time first and foremost stakes its claim as a childhood memoir. In “The First Memory of My Father,” Kherdian beautifully describes an almost completely sensory experience:

“The earliest remembrance of my father taking me for a walk out for a few hours perhaps on a Sunday and we were in the park — Island Park…Uncle (Jack) was surely there too and the feeling was warm that was it was a warm exchange of love just between them or us or us and another the one in the carriage and the other like my father also walking or carrying one like myself out for a walk…but between everything and everyone the sun the breeze the low green voices dissolving in movement absorbed by the bushes and the breeze but a feeling a feeling of love between people and to that I have attached a life.”

More surprisingly American and Hollywood history later merge when Kherdian reminds the reader of the Racine Belles, 1943 champions of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League immortalized by Rosie O’Donnell, Geena Davis and Madonna in the 1992 Motion picture “A League of their Own.” He writes: “Marnie Danhauser, the Belles’ first baseman was a Racine native and a favorite among the hometown crowd during their home games at Horlick Field.”

Yet elsewhere Kherdian the poet communicates the goodness that comes at times from everyday events and lessons learned, as in the poem Boy Scouts, dedicated to childhood friend Chuck Kamakian. From the few vegetables at their disposal, these young scouts boil a stew, the best meal that the author has tasted to date, in the process ”Teaching me that what you suffer/to learn and suffer to make/and suffer to understand/is all that you will keep/when everything else is over and done.”

A Place in Time takes the reader on a trip to a place he does not know and a period he did not experience and somehow through the magic of the written word, delivers it with elegance and panache. As described by David Kherdian, it’s a time and place that we all wish we’d known.

Topics: Books, poetry
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