All for Beauty And Truth: Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s small pieces

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small pieces (Dalkey Archive Press, 2023) is truth distilled to its purest essence. Through conversations, spoken and unspoken, over distance and in time, two women, a writer and an artist, both in their late 40s, reach deep into their souls to access the truth that resides in the “dim interiors of the self.” “I am and I am and I am in the pages of books,” avers visual artist Fowzia Karimi, creator of the watercolors paired with pieces written by Micheline Aharonian Marcom, the celebrated author of seven novels. small pieces compresses the artists’ exchange into twenty-five beautifully rendered texts and images.

The texts, each about a page or less long — Micheline calls them “miniatures” — are stunningly condensed. There is not a word to skip or a line to jump. In just a few sentences, “Time Apart” conveys a young woman’s anxiousness, as she watches the hands of the clock that will bring her lover “to his home . . . for dinner at six-thirty,” so they can be “together again.” In another piece, in just four lines, Marcom shocks the reader into consciousness of mankind’s abuse of the holy environment. “A wide assortment of synthetic polymers weighing all together 5.9 kilograms were extracted from the sperm whale’s stomach after the young male had already died in the waters near Kapota Island,” she writes.

One of Fowzia Karimi’s works in the book

“The book has been a long time coming,” says Fowzia in “Dialogos,” a candid conversation that reveals the relationship each woman has to her art. Fowzia’s “I write and paint to get to the truth, the essence of a thing,” echoes Marcom’s “The writing life is a slow, yet continual awakening to higher levels of awareness, of consciousness, from the various mirages that pass for ‘reality.’” small pieces celebrates this higher level of consciousness.

It is, in fact, humanity’s move away from this transcendent reality, the spirituality rooted in each one of us, and excessive focus on the “things . . . for sale inside the monstrous retail store,” that Marcom laments. The anguish the two women feel over the destruction of the natural world is at the core of their thinking.

Image by Fowzia Karimi

In “Both Beautiful and Strange,” Aharonian joins in her young son’s excitement to see the solar eclipse. She celebrates “The Miracle of Photosynthesis and Its Waste Product,” while she deplores mankind’s abuse of the creatures inhabiting the sacred Earth. Marcom mourns the otters that have been slaughtered to extinction, bees just disappearing to insecticides, and the lobsters in supermarkets, whose front paws have been clamped with “thick red and yellow rubber-bands” to restrict their mobility — all done for profit and greed.

Aharonian also bemoans the brutal killings and the needless loss of human lives. “The dry riverbed, the not road . . . to Der Zor . . . the abandoned villages and bones of the old Armenian clans in old Turkey; the newer (unrecovered) ghostly dead in Afghanistan,” evoke the bloody histories of both women. Wars have disrupted their lives. They now live in a new world: “We can none of us ever return.”

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The poetry and the beauty of Micheline’s writing is nothing new. I encountered Micheline some two decades ago, when I stumbled upon her debut novel, Three Apples Fell from Heaven, first in a series of three novels about the Armenian Genocide and its aftermath. I remember being struck by the shockingly new manner in which the novel did justice to her tragic past. Micheline resurrects the voices and the lost memories of the dead and tells their untold stories, as “seen” and “heard” through the imagination. She does what, twenty-three years later, Fowzia noted literature does: “Literature is where the dead go to live . . .  It is the gravesite but not the tomb. It’s where the tree comes back to life, where the grass grows perennially.” Indeed, with her writing, Marcom transforms the pain of her loss into the beauty of her words. Beauty for her is the “ally of truth.” Two hundred years ago, in his “Ode on A Grecian Urn,” the celebrated Romantic poet John Keats had sung, “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.” “I’m with the Romantics,” declares Fowzia.

When asked about the book’s origins, “It took many, many years before I had the facility of compression I sought . . . until each word, each phrase, the rhythms of the language, the images made in the mind, found a coherence and unity I was happy with,” Micheline tells “dear Fowzia” during their exchange.

Fowzia, in turn, responds to each miniature with a painting that is as condensed as the text itself. The artist refers to these paintings as “illuminations,” symbolic images that help elucidate the text, rather than illustrations that simply represent it. To the reader’s great joy, the visual artist emerges as a beautiful writer as well. It is impossible not to be seduced by the cadence and the rhythm of her, “I grieved for the loss of their beautiful and innocent lives . . . I cried and mourned and wrote. “I create, therefore I am,” is a bold affirmation of her faith in her creativity.

Image by Fowzia Karimi

Ultimately, what stands out is the two women’s devotion to their art. “Writing books has been and remains the great meaningful activity of my life,” admits Micheline. Ironically, it is that inner truth, the pain in the soul, in Micheline’s words, “that persistent feeling of out-of-placeness; an inability to communicate deeply with many of one’s neighbors, colleagues, friends,” that art communicates. That communication helps make life a little “less lonely, less alienated” for Micheline, and for the rest of us. As that other dear woman, Virginia Woolf, never ceases to remind us, “Communication is bliss.”

“I practice art for the joy of it,” states Fowzia. Once again, Keats’ words come to mind: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

Is there such a thing as overdosing on joy?

 

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