Sunday, 10 April 2022

Clarity and freshness, Sarah Mnatzaganian’s Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter

Sarah Mnatzaganian’s first pamphlet, Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter (Against the Grain Press, 2022), is as refreshing as the fruit it evokes and invokes. Of course, as its title immediately indicates, a key theme is origin and identity, but this is not wielded as a statement. Instead, it’s explored via fierce curiosity.

And then there’s Mnatzaganian’s use of language. This might initially seem slightly formal on the spectrum of lexical registers, as in the following choices: whom is used instead of who, until instead of till, and if I were instead of if I was. However, any lazy accusations of stiltedness can easily be dismissed due to the clarity of her sentences, which flow naturally and are easy to read. They’re far from old-fashioned, simply acknowledging a linguistic tradition behind them.

One key poem in terms of the above-mentioned theme of identity is undoubtedly Juice, dedicated To my father, Aphraham. Its closing couplet reads as follows:

…Now I want to watch your dark throat dance
while you drink.

The metrics and aural patterning are especially interesting here. Three trochees are followed by three strong syllables in the penultimate line, thus imitating the dancing movement of drinking, while the open vowels and closed consonants also follow suit. And then the final line, made up of a single anapest, stops the poem in its tracks as Mnatzaganian suddenly accelerates to its climax.

Of course, the key adjective in the above couplet is dark, especially in the context of the poems that comes immediately after it in the pamphlet, which is titled Made in Hemsworth. The penultimate stanza resonates and reflects back towards the previous poem…

Now mum knows she’s one-third Viking,
she’s proud of her pale and ageless skin,
her North Sea gaze.

In this case, the pivotal adjective is pale. By juxtaposing a father’s dark throat and a mother’s pale skin, plus the contrasting proper nouns of Aphraham and Hemsworth, Mnatzaganian is portraying the two elements of the blend that creates a person. Rather than claiming or declaring an identity, she’s working through it, portraying it, unravelling its roots, reconciling its differing facets.

The clarity, freshness and light touch of this pamphlet are the qualities that lift it out of the hubbub of contemporary poetry, especially when considered alongside Mnatzaganian’s refusal to take short cuts or reach facile conclusions. For not much more than the price of a dodgy pint in a flash London pub, Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter encourages the reader to pause, breathe in its vitality and return to everyday life, newly invigorated. Get hold of a copy for yourself and you’ll see what I mean…

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