An essential American story of the author's upbringing as the child of Armenian immigrants—and of his gradual discovery of an entire culture's genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1915. For poet Balakian (English/Colgate Univ.; Dyer's Thistle, etc.), a Tenafly, New Jersey, childhood circa 1960 revolved around food-centered rituals with relatives, some vividly characterized here, including his grandmother, Nafina Aroosian. While together they baked a sweet bread called choereg, she told him odd, parable- like stories, including one involving the black dog of the book's title. Similarly puzzling were his family's occasional references to the ``old country.'' As a student and young poet the author began to glean bits of this past, but his education in Armenia's sad history didn't really begin until after college, when, in a watershed moment, he picked up the memoir of the US ambassador to Turkey on the eve of the Great War. That text is extensively quoted to re-create Balakian's experience of reading, in rushing, energetic blasts, this difficult-to-fathom saga of persecution, brutality, and murder. Revelation of his own family's experience of the genocide came next. In dreamlike, novelistic prose, Balakian tells of his relative Dovey's suffering on the forced ``deportation march'' from her Anatolian homeland. The author encounters a ``Bishop Balakian's'' memoir of the atrocities, which he describes as ``like reading a skeleton,'' the words ``like pieces of bone.'' This and the other excerpted primary sources through which the dead speak provide dramatic perspective, authenticating the nightmare. In light of what Balakian calls the Turkish authorities' ``paper trail of denial extend[ing] to the present,'' he insists that commemoration is an essential process for survivors; and he comes to understand his family's numbed response as a necessary coping mechanism. A rare work of seasoned introspection, haunting beauty, and high moral seriousness. Includes a chilling genealogy of Balakian's parents' families.
Read full book review >