Peter Balakian’s Ziggurat: A Retrospective

BY HOVIG TCHALIAN

Peter Balakian’s latest offering of poetry, published in September of 2010 by the University of Chicago Press, is a collection intriguingly entitled, Ziggurat, after the pyramids built by the Sumerians in the ancient city of Ur.

Balakian is perhaps best known for his non-poetic writings—Black Dog of Fate: An American Son Uncovers His Armenian Past (1998), a memoir; and the book-length study, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response (2004). Like those more explicitly historical works, this collection, as its title suggests, is deeply informed by the past. The book of poems is a retrospective of sorts, bringing together some of Balakian’s recent work in a collection of just over seventy pages. More significantly, those pages are informed by – one might almost say, imbued with – a profound, visceral sense of the presence of the past, both ancient and modern.

The date of the volume’s publication is no accident. The book is a reflection on the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, nearly a decade on. Balakian witnessed the completion of the twin towers some forty years before they came down in 2001. The moving poem at its center, A-Train / Ziggurat / Elegy, deftly weaves together the aftermath of the recent attacks with Balakian’s own experience as a mail runner in the late 1960’s and 1970’s in and around the site of the twin towers, New York’s lower Manhattan.

The poem, and by extension the entire volume, may be considered an extended meditation on the meaning of the towers’ destruction and its ushering in of what Balakian has elsewhere called an age of “anxiety” and “uncertainty.” The poem traces the historic rise and fall of the Ziggurat of Ur by compressing it into the forty-year arc of the rise and destruction of the twin towers, as witnessed by a mail runner. The poem juxtaposes the ordinary experiences of construction workers and employees in the tower, his speaker’s personal experiences – riding the A-Train, going up and down the elevator, looking out at the Manhattan skyline – and the discovery of the great pyramidal structure. The result is the lyrical equivalent of vertigo, a feeling simultaneously of a great ascent and a sudden fall.

That fall, both literal and metaphorical, acts as the poem’s central structural feature. Ziggurats were built with steps on the outside whose very purpose, the poem suggests, was to act as both vehicle and emblem of soaring ambition: “O house of heaven rising / O foundation of earth / O elemental zigzag.” Likewise, the twin towers, an engineering and architectural marvel in their day, were built to feature their great, glass elevators. The original, mythic archetype of the Ziggurat, the tower of Babel, instead housed its steps on the inside: “Peter Brueghel [the late Renaissance Flemish painter] had it all wrong: / there was solid masonry in the middle, / a winding path circling eight towers, / baked brick glued with asphalt.” The more modern counterparts of the tower of Babel, it seems, proudly display their ambitions. In Balakian’s poem, that misguided ambition is itself a shallow, feeble echo of an earlier rise and fall, eerily recast in the towers’ own framing: “twenty-eight grillages supporting the columns of the elevator core of the North Tower, / core box-shaped columns and box beam framing. / Who had ever heard of anything like this?” The question is, of course, more than rhetorical – the elevator core is already “embedded” in the very structure of the original staircase, both a foreshadowing of the twin towers and itself a perverse emblem of “modernity.”

The collection is deeply retrospective, then, in this sense as well – emblematic of a modernity rent by cataclysmic events both personal and historical, human and mythic, of a post-lapsarian (what the poem calls “post-diluvian”) existence burdened by self-consciousness: “You forget that Nebuchadnezzar inherited the region [of the Ziggurat] a millennium later. / You forget because it’s just an excavation now. / like [sic] my mind when it blanks into itself, / like the horizon when it goes black and the flame / of one oil refinery flickers out at the Syrian border / where once I picked Armenian bones out of the dirt.” Like reels of film hurriedly spliced together, the ambitions of the biblical tyrant, Nebuchadnezzar, fade into the ancient Ziggurat, the ominous “excavation” of the twin towers, and the rupture of consciousness, the emptying out of the speaker’s “mind when it blanks into itself,” returning finally to the primal act of excavating the bones of Armenian victims of the genocide, strewn across the Syrian desert of Der-el-Zor. The antidote to modern self-consciousness, it seems, is a forgetting of the past that dislodges history and, ironically, dooms its victims into the Sisyphean task of endlessly repeating it.

What makes segments such as these remarkable is their ability to repeat the lyrical vertigo, to yoke the mythic to the mundane, in original and thought-provoking ways. Like the Warhol lithos that other poems in the collection return to again and again, the series of juxtapositions form a strange palimpsest, an agglomeration of myth, history and personal narrative.

In the end, it is that personal experience that most closely ties this collection with Peter Balakian’s other works. Whether as a poet, a historian, or a memoirist, Balakian has consistently cast himself as the modern observer, the consummate “witness” – a New Jersey native of Armenian descent, straddling the line between cultures, between past and present, and translating that experience into poetry. Ziggurat redefines that act of bearing witness as an act of retrospection in its deepest sense, of a looking back that is as much about the experience of a fractured consciousness as it is about what it observes.

So while Ziggurat is ostensibly inspired by the events of September 11, it speaks to an experience even larger but no less human. If we are to take seriously the proposition that it is a modern “historical” poem, then the volume serves as a partial answer to what remains an overwhelming question – how do we even begin to write such a history, in such an age?

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