London Grip Poetry Review – Sarah Mnatzaganian

Poetry review – LEMONADE IN THE ARMENIAN QUARTER: Rennie Halstead welcomes the messages of love and forgiveness in Sarah Mnatzaganian’s pamphlet

Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter
Sarah Mnatzaganian
Against the Grain Press 2022
ISBN 978-1-9163447-8-5

Sarah Mnatzaganian’s debut pamphlet delves into a store of memories from her background of visits to the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem. In many cases, food is a trigger for memory. The title poem, ‘Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter’ combines these two themes in a recollection of Uncle Hagop, who planted lemon trees outside his house:

At night his ripest lemons dropped into a crackle
of leaves. He grunted through the cardomom-coffee kitchen
into the courtyard to fill his hands with fruit.

Auntie made the lemonade, ’soothed the juice with syrup and iced water’ to Uncle’s great delight. But time moves on, and Uncle Hagop, now needing care, delights when his niece “put a smooth yellow oval into his hand / and helped him lift it to his face to smell the zest.”

‘Cake Again’ picks up the importance of food in family life from a different perspective. Here food, in the form of cake, is the perennial way to express love for the family:

When there’s no way to touch
or give anything but words

it’s time to reach for butter eggs
spice syrup honey nuts apricots,

to make a cake to celebrate love, and to send it to distant family, so that both the making and the sending are acts of love. The cake:

noisily in foil, nosed into a jiffy bag.
Cake again? the post office lady says.

It costs more to send than make.
More to let go than hold.

‘In Praise of Armenian Cooks’ looks at the idea of cooking from an entirely different perspective. Mnatzaganian recalls the expulsion of Armenians from Anatolia in 1915, with casual murder and forced marches into the Syrian desert. The title of the poem gives no hint of the horror that is to be unfolded. The poem opens with three lines

I cook in memory of women
who lifted heavy breasts
into the mouths of children

But the next three lines switch to horror:

whose fragrant heads
were snatched from their arms
and broken against walls.

The horror continues in the next stanza, referencing the actions of Djevdet Bey, who in his persecution of Armenians is said to have nailed horseshoes to his victims’ feet:

Women whose feet were shod
with horseshoes by their neighbours,
marched into wilderness, herded
into caves, pushed over cliffs.

The poem then transitions to remembrance and realisation of consequences:

I cook in silence without sisters,
without aunts. We should be noisy 
round the table, shaping pastries
on our palms for Easter,

and the tone shifts away from the horror and loss to hope and the future. The cooking may be done in silence, but it has purpose, it is for someone, not merely a remembrance. Life goes on and the poet manages something positive even out of this horror by observing “Our children are coming home.”

The theme of casual indifference to minorities is picked up in ‘Intifada Street’ where the shuttered shops in Hebron rarely open, where “Black nets veil the streets to trap the rubbish settlers throw / down onto their hosts” and again the reality of discrimination is accepted and the poet moves on, finishing with the anticlimactic line “Uncle Hagop used to catch bus 231.”

This is not just a collection of poems about food. Mnatzaganian has more to say about love, memory and family history. In ‘Ursula’ she focuses on the brief moments growing children allow their parents to share their lives:

Sixteen years, eight months and ten days later
she puts her head on my lap
and becomes very still,

The poet traces the different ethnic strands that make up her daughter: Armenian forehead, Jewish eyes, English mouth and nose; and she sees her as no longer a child in her fashionable dungarees that “grin tightly round her hips with shiny, / square teeth.” She shares the mix of loss and pleasure to see a child grow up and become independent:

I will not be afraid.
I will not be afraid when she wakes
and walks away

The delightful ‘My father taught me at night’ picks up the theme of parental love from another angle. The title runs straight into the poem:

My father taught me at night
whispering love words into the womb
while my mother slept.

True to the child’s mixed heritage, the father whispers his love in many languages: Armenian, telling of love and beauty; Arabic from the West Bank to “make my heart / strong enough to live”, a smattering of French to assure her of his love. But as in other poems in this selection, the conclusion edges us back into the reality with the recognition that along with life and love comes uncertainty:

        How many ways are there to say,
	I’m here. C’est moi. Who am I? Ov yem yes?
	Ana khayfa. J’ai peur. I’m afraid.

This is a memorable pamphlet. Some poems have that sticky quality; like earworms, they remain in your mind and can’t be dislodged. The brutality and forgiveness in ‘In Praise of Armenian Cooks’, the practical love of ‘Cake Again’, and the huge sense of parental love in ‘My father taught me at night’ create an overwhelming impression of the importance of love and forgiveness. It was a pleasure to review this pamphlet. Highly recommended.