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Sailing to Lebanon
1957, after the Suez War
We were steaming northward, leaving
Alexandria behind us, the white city
receding, floating at the edge of the sea.
My sister and I were singing together,
"Day-ay-ay O...me wan' go home,"
something we'd heard on the radio
though we didn't know where home was
or if we'd ever see Stanley Bay again,
the minarets, the tram cars at Ramleh Station.
We wanted to be Harry Belafonte on a record,
we wanted to be in America
where everything might last for some time.
Our parents were talking in whispers.
Clouds were passing across the sun.
It was almost evening, we had never seen
the horizon as far away as it was.
In our small cabin with the port hole open
we could hear the sound of the ocean
lapping at the ship's side,
we were smelling the odor
of salt, iron, rust.
In a few days, we would be in Bhamdoun,
Dhour El Choueir, mountain towns
where we could stay a few weeks
looking for further passage.
Everything seemed on a rise and fall,
the sea was growing thicker.
Sometimes the fog was so heavy
the ship's horn would sound
and we'd be startled into laughter.
"It's the old man snoring," I'd say,
and we'd think of someone so fast asleep
he wakes up years later in a different country,
walking in a daze, singing
all the songs he's never known.
First Winter in America
I walked out into the January blizzard,
my breath froze into small clouds,
and ice was hanging from the trees.
The dunes were dreamy animals,
I heard shovels striking music.
White eyelashes, white mittens,
I thought I could become
whatever I touched.
A year before, in another language,
I held the desert in my hand,
I tasted the iridescent sea.
Now I stayed quiet, afraid
I would never see it again, the sky
shattered into a million pieces
and falling all around me.
I watched my mother inside
walking back and forth in her heavy coat,
and my sister rubbing her hands
to make some kind of spark.
I could imagine furnaces rumbling
all over America, heat rising
through the vents, parching the air.
And I stayed where I was,
someplace I had no name for,
not for the snow or my standing still
and watching it fall
with hardly a sound.
Williamsport, PA, 1963
My father was studying Spanish,
had two feverish weeks to learn it.
Soy un plato de comida, he was repeating
like a school boy from his notebook,
walking around the kitchen table,
"I am a plate of food,"
tripping over the chairs.
Someone had made an error,
told the authorities he knew
one more lengua than he did.
My mother was reading her cookbooks,
imagining the vol au vent, the bouillabaisses
she would never serve in America.
"I am a piece of sunlight," my father was saying,
yo soy un pedazo de sol,
"there is no darkness I cannot eat."
Our visas were hanging in the balance,
it was life and death, it was
getting it down or being sent back,
and my sister listening to the radio
knew big girls shouldn't cry.
Once, I found him in the cellar
writing on the white-washed walls,
higo, granada, mango, fruits of his other life
that crossed idioms, hemispheres,
the dry orchards of Sinai, Sonora.
At the dinner table, no one could say a word
for fear of breaking the spell,
razing the strange house he'd been living in.
On the day he left for the big city,
I saw him under the full-leafed maple
reciting Verde, que te quiero verde,
as if he'd known it all his life,
as if he felt a green
more green now than any other.
-from Dear Gravity
PROMPT: "Sailing to Lebanon" is a poem of departure, from one's home as well as from one's "sense" of home, one's identity, the essential element that makes us who we are. Robert Frost defines home in his poem "The Death of the Hired Man" as "the place where when you have to go there, / they have to take you in." In "Sailing to Lebanon," Gregory Djanikian's definition is a little different, a bit more mysterious and, perhaps, dangerous. Think about home and what that word means to you. How do you define home? Is home a place, a person, an idea, a thing that can't be defined? Start your writing by simply listing various definitions/interpretations of "home." Then select one of these definitions and explore an instance you left it. Maybe you ran away from home. Maybe you ended a relationship with a friend. Maybe you abandoned your past for a more hopeful future. Were you leaving for good? What pushed you away? Who was with you? Did you know you were returning at the time or not? Did you ever return? And, as always, enjoy.
BIO: Born in Alexandria, Egypt of Armenian parentage, Gregory Djanikian came to the United States when he was 8 years old and spent his boyhood in Williamsport, PA. He is a graduate of the Syracuse University writing program and is past Director of Creative Writing at the University of Pennsylvania where he was an undergraduate and where he now teaches poetry workshops. He is the author of six collections of poetry, The Man in the Middle, Falling Deeply into America, About Distance, Years Later, So I Will Till the Ground, and, most recently, Dear Gravity. He has been awarded a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, two prizes from Poetry magazine (the Eunice Tietjens Prize, and Friends of Literature Prize), the Anahid Literary Award from the Armenian Center at Columbia University, and multiple residencies at Yaddo.
His poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The American Scholar, Boulevard, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Shenandoah, TriQuarterly, and numerous other periodicals and anthologies including Best American Poetry, Good Poems, American Places (Viking), Killer Verse: Poems of Murder and Mayhem (Knopf), Seriously Funny (Georgia), Becoming Americas: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing (Library of America), Poem in Your Pocket (The Academy of American Poets), Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond (Norton), 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day (Random House), among others.
He lives outside of Philadelphia, PA with his wife, artist Alysa Bennett.