A Critical Exclusive: Michael Minassian’s A Matter of Timing: Poetic Meditations on Time and Place

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Like many modern nation states, the United States of America was founded in genocide, upon the eradication of its indigenous population — in this case Native Americans. Our country was then physically built and enriched off the labor of millions of black African slaves and white indentured servants. All these groups then suffered generations of intergenerational poverty and trauma, the effects of which are still being felt today from white Appalachia to the black ghettos of urban America. In A Matter of Timing Michael Minassian seeks to lay bare this history from the standpoint of both perpetrator (he is Caucasian) and victim–he is Armenian, the indigenous Anatolians whom the Young Turks attempted to wipe out inn order to establish a monoethnic Turkish Republic. These poems limn topics of importance without righteous indignation—heartfelt and well-crafted, they received the 2021 Catherine Lubbe Prize in Poetry.

The reader welcomes the forthrightness of Minassian’s pen — he is direct and doesn’t shy away from calling a fig a fig or a trough a trough. At the same time, he delivers verse rich in metaphor and symbolism starting from the very first poem, “Tribes”:

 

“I dreamt that the trees

had organized themselves

into tribes

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[…]

the moon revealing

its long tooth,

its jagged smile

 

five hundred years of manifest

destiny and genocide—”

 

Then the italicized “we live in a stolen continent” followed by a powerful ending image also steeped in native imagery:

 

somewhere in a stone canyon

the man with no eyes

paints the wind.

Minassian repeats similar patterns throughout the book. In “You’ve Got Nothing to Lose,” he continues his American exegesis, noting in detail the many ways in which the native or so-called “American Indians” were wiped out:

“Some came on sailing ships,

others had no choice—

there was always an ocean to cross.

 

Barbed wire made an early appearance;

Buffalo robes and deer hide

Couldn’t stop bullets or disease.

 

One hundred years after Little Big Horn

we sent soldiers to Vietnam;

some went off the Rez.”

 

Minassian was born in New York City but taught school for many years in Texas where he currently resides. The passage of time weighs heavily on the poet — the state of things as perceived first in childhood and later as he ages. In “Along the West Texas Highway,” his meditation extends to the act of writing itself, cleverly set against an unchanging Texan sky. In this case, he alludes to the act of writing inside one’s head, where one composes lines and tries to piece together meaning while multitasking or involved in some other activity:

“I’m writing a poem

inside my mind

but stall after every line

like an old typewriter

with a busted

carriage and keys.

 

I keep expecting

the sky to change,

but nothing breaks

the grey monotony,

not even falling words

buffeting the car

with me inside.”

 

The poet takes up the same theme in “Lost Lines,” thus problematizing the act of writing itself, calling into question what writing actually is: where one writes, how one writes: “There must be a place/for all the lines of poetry/I compose while driving/alone in my car. –/without paper or pen, /or phone to record my voice.” Anyone engaged in the act of writing will recognize themselves in these lines.

Minassian as incisive sociologist also comes to the fore in poems such as “The Last Car.” Riding the old 3rd Avenue L train in Manhattan with his father as a child, he makes the reader privy to some of urban superstitions and habits that make city life so rich: “…we always sat in the last car/so we could see/what was behind us, /from where we had come.” Minassian fils mind you wears “cowboy hat/short pants and empty holster.” On another occasion riding the MTA, he spots a nun, and ignoring her crucifix, buries his head in his father’s shirt: “She’s a witch, I trembled.” It’s also on the subway that he learns to identify pregnant women and models alike, one in particular “her face as elaborately/made up as a kabuki onnagata.”

In “Life During Plague Time,” the wonderful line: “The rain falling this morning/smells like the bottom of the sky.” Referring to the “plague tradition” during the Middle Ages of artists representing skeletons holding hands with the nobility, Minassian lets loose his inner angst and otherwise controlled poetic emotions: “I’m overcome by a desire to amputate tradition,/torture the past,/and terrorize the present,/tossing manifestos, dreams,/ and libidos like bombs,” before the equally quixotic ending, alpha to his opening omega: “Some books are written backwards/we know how they end/but not how they begin.”

But it’s Minassian the poet of nature who remains when one has fully considered to forty-four poems in this freshman anthology. There’s a prosaically beautiful “Friday Afternoon”:

Blue sky, white clouds

the sky a noun

 

Cloud verbs,

Birds like commas—

 

That floating leaf

The end of the week.

And finally, “Padre Island,” where the mood turns decidedly Zen: “Sand glistens, /footprints crisscross/boardwalk to beach…To paint the wind/I must first look/For empty space.” It’s an empty space, one might add, that we all face daily while getting on with the business we call life.

The book is available on Amazon.

 

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