The Serpent and The Crane

by Aram Bajakian & Alan Semerdjian

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1.
GRANDCHILDREN OF GENOCIDE Alan Semerdjian, In the Architecture of Bone, Genpop Books, 2009 We think of bombfields and big when we think of genocide. We think of mass cleansing. We think in holes. We think the whole page. We think what’s under it, what they’ve been covering up. We think there might have been people in those whole pages. We think of chambers when we think of genocide. We think of people crying. We think of people climbing. We think of people climbing and crying, crying and climbing. We think of both people climbing and people crying. We think in chambers. We think in those horrible chambers when we think of genocide. Those horrible 20th-century chambers. When we think of genocide, we don’t think of mountains and deserts. We don’t think of bazaars. When we do think of them, we don’t think of young democratic people and pomegranates. We don’t think of young democratic people with pomegranates at bazaars when we think of genocide. We don’t think of them next to our grandfathers. We don’t think next to them. Then there are young democratic people who don’t eat pomegranates and don’t think of genocide. We don’t think of them either. We don’t think of them when we think of genocide, but we do think of moustaches. We don’t think of long and lovely moustaches, but we think of moustaches when we think of genocide. When we think of genocide, we think of families. We think of faces of families, but we don’t think of birth. When we think of birth, we don’t think about babies. But we do think of mothers. When we think about genocide, we do think about mothers. But we do think of mothers, but we don’t think of women. We don’t think of women dancing. We don’t hear the music when we think of genocide. These things we think about and do not hear when we think about genocide. And we don’t think of civil war as genocide. We hear about it. We don’t call in enough with such information. We think about reconciliation, but we don’t think about reconciliation when we think about genocide. We don’t study the memorials, we don’t explain the play in papers, we don’t shake hands and make up. When we think of genocide, we do other things with our hands.
2.
THE HISTORY OF ARMENIA Peter Balakian, Father Fisheye, Sheep Meadow Press, 1979 Last night my grandmother returned in the brown dress and high black shoes standing on Oraton Parkway where we used to walk and watch the highway being dug out. She stood against a backdrop of steam hammers and bulldozers, a bag of fruit in her hand, the wind blowing through her eyes. I was running toward her in a drizzle with the morning paper. When I told her I was hungry— she said, in the grocery store a man is standing to his ankles in blood, the babies in East Orange have disappeared maybe eaten by the machinery on this long road. When I asked for my mother— she said, gone, all gone. The girls went for soda, maybe the Coke was bad the candy sour. This morning the beds are empty, water off, the toilets dry. When I went to the garden for squash only stump was there, when I went to clip parsley only a hole. We walked past piles of gray cinder and cement trucks, there were no men. She said Grandpa left in the morning in the dark; he had pants to press for the firemen of East Orange. They called him in the middle of night, West Orange was burning Montclair was burning Bloomfield and Newark were gone. One woman carried the arms of her child to East Orange last night and fell on her uncle’s stoop, two boys came with the skin of their legs in their pockets and turned themselves in to local officials; this morning sun is red and spreading. If I go to sleep tonight, she said, the ceiling will open and bodies will fall from clouds. Yavrey where is the angel, where is the angel without sword, yavrey where is the angel without six fingers and a missing leg where is the angel with the news that the river is coming back, the angel with the word that the water will be clear and have fish. Grandpa is pressing pants, they came for him before the birds were up— he left without shoes or tie, without shirt or suspenders. It was quiet the birds, the birds were still sleeping.
3.
Caesuras 07:59
CAESURAS Alan Semerdjian 1. First the glances this way and that of indecision likening the haphazard ant viewed from stories above when young and full of magnification and sunlight. The wait at the diner between calls, meeting the unwind after work, possibly drink, possibly cigarette, but never clear sky confirmed, penned. We’ve all dragged the hem of a tattoo from here to there, the email in the draft folder, the tick tock of hallway love in time. In time. Every space a potential waiting game and especially now—moments before the must lift, shot ripping gravity’s cloth—we must to other flying things. 2. Let’s surround ourselves with windows in a room filled with light. No. Let’s sit and stare through one, then, on another day, which will seem forever away, let’s open them wide so as to invite the wind, the feathers from other lovers it carries. No. That will not be enough either. Let us draw windows on the page then, one line each for the rest of our lives with no intention to ever finish, no end and miles of fixed distance, perpetual longing for something one will see everyday, glorious and same, well-lit and, inevitably, punished by the frames. 3. Up in this air, there is nothing but pause. The best you can do is think about it over and over again like tops on their sides. The height is silence, which also is halt. In life, if you’re lucky you get a few meaningful ones that lift an idea to and because of new elevations: on a swing, after a passing away of some dear friend’s sister, a child almost and never quite born. Up in the air, who needs music at all? The break is a wholly different demand to make history, to be heard, human. 4. Before the staid steadying of modernity, the rocking was a gift and the shore lost in mist and fog, a lift for the heart. Before the leaving the pier the waves, the glowing last farewells to leveling, were love. After the new and every horizon this stopping of two forces of beauty, this meet and form a line between. And always, at sea, the line changes, but the compass points. The surge and the heave, no oars anymore for the most part, but still reaching into the water to see how far we need to go. 5. To think, a life drenched in pursuit through the thick other atmosphere can result in literature. To dream that siren in the night, alive and swollen bell, can mean finality and flowers at the finish line. These meditations are born in gray weather, stoned whale water, mountain flow through the ripples of which one can spend an eternity or think about eternity, whichever comes first. Or watch it as it moans through the invisible beneath making all the suddens in the world freeze tag.
4.
FIGURE OF ARMEN Alan Semerdjian for Marlene Edoyan The man erupted from the earthquake sits miraculously at the side of the road, ducks the clouds, leans against a tree. He is fearless, wears a suit in the sun, walks to feed his animal. He will recite the poem that pulls him into the land. A piano, a priest’s melody for the rest of the story. There is this other country shut out from itself on both sides. Above it only sheets on these clotheslines. Below it only ghosts in the miracle village. Children made of dust sing songs in the wind. Mothers introduce themselves as scarves in the last deportations. Fingers continue to strike the keys, speak till the screen fades and then speak again in another spot under the same sun, same land, same mountain in the distance folk cry. “A people will never succumb to war,” he says, stepping over the cracks, walking away and towards me at once.
5.
Lashes 04:13
LASHES Alan Semerdjian Lashes like camel’s tongues. Lashes like desert lightning. Lashes like goat hooves cracking stone. Lashes like infinity, the mountain. Lashes on a map. Lashes like a point, lashes like a compass. Lashes with intention at the border in the rain. Lashes love pain. Lashes love borrowing. Lashes the necklace, lashes the jewel, Lashes the land title, the house, the mule in the lashed yard. Lashes to make love to. Lashes to rub against Lashes to fall. Lashes to fall. Lashes to fall. Lashes in the baklava, the lahmajoun, the tabouleh, in jar of pickled vermillion beets over time. Lashes like other things you can’t pronounce.
6.
THE ARMENIAN ALPHABET Alan Semerdjian, In the Architecture of Bone, Genpop Books, 2009 for Mesrop Mashtots 1. Font It is not simple mathematics and symbols, not just characters on a page. Language is an almanac. My alphabet is a crew of dolphins, a verdict of slanted joshua trees in transmission, in ocular mistrust of neighbor, from the bellies of which spark sharp green fragments and cadaverous song. My alphabet is a tank of definitions foliating like apricot leaves. It haunts the hinting of its crescents, the spaces that ellipse themselves to ceiling of planetarium to the nebulous of memory, brazened photographs’ tapestry. My grandfather taught me how to swim with onions on his tongue. I pried the index of his fingers free to inked palms and shells of thumbs. I was bent inside my mother until they cut her open. Someone told me four blind mice lay down in somersaults across my name. They each had a story to tell about my mutation. 2. Forensic Knot Analysis Then, they taught me how to tie my shoes, this band of migrant characters: Monkey’s Fist, Sheetbend Round Turn, Turk’s Head, Prussick, Diamond Rodi, Half-hitch. One is a snake charmed in the grass. One is a kneeling buddha, one, directions for angels, and another, a rabbi lost in Williamsburg. One is the captain of the Harvard crew team. One, a plowing tool. There are llamas and cranes, two swans on a lake, kangaroos with celtic staffs— workbooks of people—in my alphabet. They parade around the incensed corners of my life freezing in tangled poses when I dare to look. A musketeer’s ostrich plume hat— tricorne cocked, pomegranate seeds, halva manifested, all a turn of the lip around the word asvadtzim, my god. Jigsaw minded composition, theater of angles, the soft script of candle and flame alive in a night about to breeze, alone on a page of resurrections, you are the desert wizard in a sandstorm conducting last dances of secret evening gatherings of ink.
7.
THE AGED CRANE Daniel Varoujan, tr. Alice Stone Blackwell On the bank of the river, in the row of cranes, That one drooped its head, Put its beak under its wing, and with its aged Dim pupils, awaited Its last black moment. When its comrades wished to depart, It could not join them in their flight. Scarcely could it open its eyes and watch in the air The path of the little flock that went along Calling down to those under the roofs The tidings, the greetings and the tears Entrusted to them by the exile. Ah, the poor bird! In the bleak embrace Of that cold autumnal silence, it is dying. It is vain to dream any more Of a distant spring, of cool currents of air Under strong and soaring wings, Or of passing through cool brooks With naked feet, of dipping its long neck Amongst the green reeds; It is vain to dream any more! The wings of the Armenian crane Are tired of traveling. It was true To its heart-depressing calling; It has transported so many tears! How many young wives have put among its soft feathers Their hearts, ardently beating! How many separated mothers and sons Have loaded its wings with kisses! Now, with a tremor on its dying day, It shakes from its shoulders The vast sorrow of an exiled race. The vows committed to it, the hidden sighs Of a betrothed bride who saw at length Her last rose wither unkissed; A mother’s sad blessing; Loves, desires, longings, It shakes at last from its shoulders. And on the misty river-bank Its weary wings, spread for the last time, Point straight toward The Armenian hills, the half-ruined villages. With the voice of its dying day It curses immigration, And falls, in silence, upon the coarse sand of the river bank. It chooses its grave, And, thrusting its purple beak Under a rock, the dwelling-place of a lizard, Stretching out its curving neck . Among the songs of the waves, With a noble tremor it expires! A serpent there, which had watched that death-agony Silently for a long time with staring pupils, Crawls up from the river-bank, And, to revenge a grudge of olden days, With an evil and swift spring Coils around its dead neck.
8.
ARMENIAN OBSIDIAN Diana Der Hovanessian, Dancing in the Monastery, Sheep Meadow Press, 2011 Some call this rock “volcanic glass” or “devil’s finger nails” that claw their way out of what is past in arrowheads that now reclaim the old bows our ancestors aimed at mountain slopes for mountain game. Others say they’re mirrored arcs curving without cleavage, dark after years reflecting back invaders whose hearts were black. They’re from lost times and tides. But others say these stones, begun as black pieces of night sky, solidified falling to earth, wanting to see our sun.
9.
Primer 06:26
PRIMER Alan Semerdjian *first published in Hye-Phen Magazine & The Armenian Poetry Project, August, 2015 Armenia, you are more than a piece of ass parade on the newsfeed. Armenia, you are the split decision. Armenia, the schism. The first tribe to be converted. Armenia is a country of a metaphor tucked into the folds of breath and veil. In between forever bordered and borderlust, In love with a mountain felt in the pit of the groin. This aching, this naming, this never having, thick with Eurovision’s beard, sick with genocide, sucking the holy thumb and the Russian cloak spit on with angels, miles with lambs, cathedrals, monasteries, characters in suits working on tracks with impeccable shoes, pride cascading down the runways, more than all of this, a lake cupping the delicious seeds of history, which may or may not ever break the internet. I want to write a poem for you, young Armenian men and women. I want my poetry to ring loud and clear like a song from a mountain for all the boys and girls who eat dolma, for the marginalized who eat dolma, for the wealthy, for all of us ate dolma once in our lives. I want to make something that makes sense for you and all of them, and because some poetry just doesn’t make sense with all its matter of fact witty humor and subtle stabs and no big heart and big laugh, I want to make a poem that slides off of William Saroyan’s mustache and lands in a plate of fasulya. I want to write a poem that shines a flash-light on the dark rooms of my grandfather’s house of art and your grandfather’s and your great grandmother’s and her sister’s and their brothers’. I want to make sure that my words don’t alienate but reverberate, make sure that everyone in Kentucky even, near the beautiful Ohio River, in the Galt House overlooking the pedestrians, the walkways and highways and in every way can relate in the heart and in the head. If Tom Sawyer were Armenian, he’d throw pomegranate seeds at the girl or boy he loved and use the tongue to make sure each and every last one is tasted and swallowed. If Emily Dickinson were Armenian, well, she already is – pause and hesitation equal longing, and longing is what we know, young Armenian beauties, what we use to mark the time, the great and indifferent calendar of the internal universe, which is, after all, the only real universe for us or for anyone with a heart. And if Neruda were, and if Anansi, and if Obama, and if Mother Teresa. I want to make something, anything, that fills even a part of your void, young Armenians from here to there, even if you think you’ve filled it up with prayer, culture, or lahmajoun, friends, miles, or Facebook, modernity or solemnity, genuflection, navigation, or irrigation for the new gardens of the world. The void, which is everyone’s void, every nation, every person forgiving and forgiven. I want to write a poem. and give it to you. Now.
10.
LIKE A SAD MONSTER Alan Semerdjian Like a sad monster in search of grief, like the weathered ruins of pagan temples, like the body on fire without fire, a million screaming numbers without their charts, like a hole in the earth afraid of burial, like magic without a professor, like blame and its surrogate parents, like the deputy of a faceless town of pyre after pyre, like incomprehensible ignitions, like a lover going against his love, like another going towards his love, like his love alone and needing to be alone, like the neglectful farmer who pursues lust instead of harvest, night instead sun, like a pirate, a thief, a murderer, a ghost, like all the mischief in the world put to sleep in a box next to one irreconcilable act, the reverberating tentacles of that act, the play that never ends, the seat that is unbearable, like the curtain, dark red curtain that will eventually fall and, perhaps, not rise again, not open again, we continue to believe what is unbelievable, continue to do what is unthinkable.
11.
AN IMPROVISED DEVICE Alan Semerdjian, An Improvised Device, Lock N Load Press, 2005 That which doesn’t know countries or flags, no geography, that which doesn’t know men, no women, no reverence, no face, that which addresses only moments, that which materializes over time inside a moment, that which is fierce and material, that which is the moment inside, that which happens inside a second, that which happens inside the second time, that which is the third, and the fourth, that which continues, that which is a monument of the fourth or the third, that which stands in front of monuments, that which stands in front of monuments and says before you monuments were fields and hands on fields, and fields and hands together, together and folded, that which is together and folded, that which can be inserted between together and folded, that which goes to sleep together and folded because of the shape of its night, that which may be imagined together or alone, that which goes to sleep on fields together and folded or alone and still makes music, that which makes music still, that which stills the music on other kinds of fields, stills the music but continues playing, that which is quiet but ticking, that which thinks about the ticking, that which unexpectedly thinks about the ticking, that which unexpectedly because we wouldn’t expect that which is improvised to think about the ticking, unexpectedly because the tense, unexpectedly because of the tense of unexpectedly, because the tense don’t think, because the ticking is against thinking, because thinking doesn’t tick, because people say, because people say thinking is inside and warm and ticking is outside and cold, because ticking must be outside and cold, or it’s thinking. Because ticking is outside and cold it must have no reverence, because, just because, just because a clock has no face, just because a clock covers up a face, just because a clock has no face doesn’t mean no heart, no brain, no courage, no nerve, just because is the nerve, the nerve of just because, just because is a parachute waiting to open, just because clutches like an alien, clutches like an alien is to sigourney weaver just because, just because is that which is under the coat that clutches, just because is that which clutches under the coat, that which is because of the ticking, but the ticking can’t be clutch, can’t be clutching, cut the clutching can’t be cut, just cut from under the coat, just removed, but the ticking can’t be cut, but the thinking can’t be cut and separate, but the thinking can be outside and cold, but the thinking can be separate, but it can separate, but the thinking can’t be that which is divorced, but the thinking that which is separate, but the thinking that which waits to open, but the thinking that which is a flower, but the thinking is an organ, but the thinking eagle, but the thinking moth, but that which waits to transform, that which ticks, but the thinking that transforms a tick, that which waits to transform the tick, that which the tick holds onto, that which is separate, that which thinks to separate the separate, that which is impossible, that which to separate is impossible, that which to create is to separate, which is impossible, that which waits to separate is impossible, that which sees this to separate is impossible, that which sees this as separate is ticking, that which sees this is thinking, is ticking, is thinking, is doomed, maybe, that which is thinking that we’re separate is ticking, that which is thinking separately is timing, timing to separate, timing to think, that which is timing thinks of endings, but that’s impossible, the thinking we’re separate, just because.
12.
The Dance 06:11
THE DANCE Siamanto, Bloody News from My Friend, Wayne State University Press, 1996, tr. Peter Balakian and Nevart Yaghlian In a field of cinders where Armenian life was still dying, a German woman, trying not to cry told me the horror she witnessed: "This thing I'm telling you about, I saw with my own eyes. From my window of hell I clenched my teeth and watched the town of Bardez turn into a heap of ashes. The corpses were piled high as trees, and from the springs, from the streams and the road, the blood was a stubborn murmur and still calls revenge in my ear. Don't be afraid. I must tell you what I saw, so people will understand the crimes men do to men. For two days, by the road to the graveyard…. Let the hearts of the world understand. It was Sunday morning, the first useless Sunday dawning on the corpses. From dawn to dusk I had been in my room with a stabbed woman— my tears wetting her death— when I heard from afar a dark crowd standing in a vineyard lashing twenty brides and singing dirty songs. Leaving the half-dead girl on the straw mattress, I went to the balcony on my window and the crowd seemed to thicken like a clump of trees. An animal of a man shouted, ‘you must dance, dance when our drum beats.' With fury whips cracked on the flesh of these women. Hand in hand the brides began their circle dance. Now, I envied my wounded neighbor because with a calm snore she cursed the universe and gave her soul up to the stars…. ‘Dance,' they raved, ‘dance till you die, infidel beauties. With your flapping tits, dance! Smile for us. You're abandoned now, you're naked slaves, so dance like a bunch of fuckin' sluts. We're hot for your dead bodies.' Twenty graceful brides collapsed. ‘Get up,' the crowd screamed, brandishing their swords. Then someone brought a jug of kerosene. Human justice, I spit in your face. The brides were anointed. ‘Dance,' they thundered— ‘here's a fragrance you can't get in Arabia.' With a torch, they set the naked brides on fire. And the charred bodies rolled and tumbled to their deaths.... I slammed the shutters, sat down next to my dead girl and asked: ‘How can I dig out my eyes?'"

about

The Serpent and The Crane is a spoken word album by poet/musician/educator Alan Semerdjian and guitarist Aram Bajakian. The project attempts to bring the work of Armenian authors who have, in one way or another, addressed the complexities of the Armenian Genocide and its denial over the past century to new audiences through an imaginative lens. The poems in this collection are authored by Peter Balakian, Diana Der-Hovanessian, Alan Semerdjian, Siamanto, and Daniel Varoujan.

The Serpent and The Crane was funded by an Armenian General Benevolent Union Performing Arts Grant and a Creative Armenia Spark Grant.

credits

released April 24, 2020

Aram Bajakian: guitar
Alan Semerdjian: voice, guitar
Recorded by Nolan Thies at Bunker Studios in Brooklyn, NY, USA
Mixed and mastered by Mike Bloom in Los Angeles, CA, USA

Poems written by Alan Semerdjian, Peter Balakian, Diana Der Hovanessian, Daniel Varoujan, and Siamanto

Cover art by Kevork Mourad

Design by Steve Altan

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Aram Bajakian New York

The music of guitarist, composer and educator Aram Bajakian has been called “a masterpiece” (fRoots, July 2017), “shape- shifting” (FreeJazzCollective, January 2017), and “astonishing” (Georgia Straight, March 2017).
He has toured extensively with Lou Reed and Diana Krall, and is on three Tzadik albums with the band Abraxas performing the music of John Zorn.
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