A Genocide That Still Haunts: Arda Collins’s Star Lake

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“My grandmother/and great-aunt . . . didn’t go to church/because they had survived the genocide,” writes Arda Collins in “Easter,” a poem in Star Lake (The Song Cave, 2022), Collins’s second collection of poems. “I wondered/if God was around,” muses the little girl seated in the back seat of the car, driving from church on Armenian Easter with her mother and aunt, to “My grandmother/and great-aunt waiting for us at home/with lamb and pilaf.”

It is not too often that one comes across a book that so explicitly evokes the 1915 Genocide, a specifically Armenian tragedy, while it also takes us into a space that transcends it.

Arda Collins writes intimately about her family, survivors of the Armenian Genocide, but she also summons the August wind, the pink and orange sky, the pine tree and the willow tree, images that speak to us all, to reach beyond her personal history:

 

I remember

my fear yesterday,

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swimming across the pond. In the middle

I saw deep water

all around, and nothing

near. I was nowhere.

 

The speaker in the poems is haunted by her traumatic past. “I never thought I would write so much about my family,” confides Collins. “Late Summer, Late Winter, and Genocide” recalls the 1915 deportations and killings:

Topics: Books, poetry, Yale
People: Arda Collins

 

Your great-grandmother carried her children

across the desert, your grandmother, her sister, their brother

who died,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Chert fossils

from an old ocean scatter in the desert covered over with dirt.

The river is distended

with the bodies of dead Armenians.

 

Elsewhere, Collins writes of  “at least seven Armenian children,/my cousins, who, like me, sprang from the women/driven from their homes/while their husbands and fathers were seized and murdered.” Her, “The desert is nothing./Corpses/decompose into shadows,” is a direct evocation of the Death March into the desert. Death and ashes are ever-present in the poems. “The sun is death” she writes in “Elegy from Space,” echoing,

 

August,

no one can do anything about it.

The sunlight is made of sorrow.

There’s a shadow

under the arbor

at the Blessing of the Grapes

church picnic someplace.

 

While she tries to forget, the persona cannot let go of the memories. She remembers going “with my mother to a church in a nearby town to hear a choir sing Maurice Durufle’s Requiem.” She recalls her dying mother’s face in “total repose” on the hospital bed. “My mother’s face,/I love it,” is haunting. A tone of sadness pervades the poems. “Where is my mother?” echoes throughout the collection:

 

For my whole childhood

I feared

sunny days in January

The orange light

told me

this is my mother’s death

I tried to forget.

 

Even as an adult, the persona fails to see the logic in her life and remains a stranger in a world “familiar but not known.” What’s inside her makes her grieve. However, the world she lives in is far from being a morbid world. She goes through her daily life, driving around, watching TV shows, with love present in its various manifestations. “F.P., I am in love with you beyond anything I can imagine . . . though I cannot imagine who you are,” she tells “you” in the prose poem, “Wild Love.” The poem ends with, ”One day, there was a man, another man, and another man. They are my sons. Their father came out of the ocean and I said to him, ’I love them with wild love.’”

The slim volume concludes with “Easter,” a classic symbol of resurrection and rebirth, but there is nothing typical about the poem. No easy answers are offered, no suggestions or hints even as to how the trauma of loss can be dealt with. The question implicit throughout, “Does one ever come to terms with the loss?” remains a question. Gone is the mother whose expression, as she was driving, showed the little girl sitting in the back, “that she was both asking a question and knew she was the answer to it.”

Collins’s Armenian mother’s tragic past is an inextricable part of the poet’s consciousness, and she writes about it boldly. Yet, Star Lake is not about the genocide. The poems in this second collection are the poet’s attempt to communicate an inner reality to make some sense of “the incomprehensibility of it all.” As the speaker exists primarily in her consciousness, reaching into her inner pain may well be the path to enlightening “my black mind.”

In 2008, Collins won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award for It Is Daylight, her first collection of poems. The collection was the pick of 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature Laureate Louise Gluck, as the judge of the prestigious competition. Gluck wrote the forward to the collection, which was published by the Yale University Press in 2009. What is interesting for us here is that, with Star Lake, the celebrated poet unwittingly puts her mother’s Armenian heritage out there for the world to reckon with, a recognition many Armenians believe is key to the advancement of our cause. “We need the world to understand our pain and know our demands,” asserts celebrated writer Leon Surmelian in response to the accusations directed against him for giving up the Armenian language (in which he had created some of his most beautiful poems) to write in English. Surmelian firmly believes that the artist prepares the ground for the statesman who has the capability to set things right.

With her second collection of poems, Arda Collins makes her creativity part of the beauty of being Armenian.

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