Book Review: Alishan’s Poetry Illumines Dark Legacy


By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
Dead Man’s Shadow by Leonardo P. Alishan.
Mazda Publishers. 2011. 144 pp.
ISBN: 978-1-56859-287-9.

The poet’s father named him Leonardo after the great artist, Leonardo da Vinci, but most of his friends called him “Nardo.” And he had a group of devoted friends and admirers, two of whom, Lucian Stone and M.R. Ghanoonparvar, have written an appreciative introduction and afterword, respectively, to this posthumously published volume of Leonardo P. Alishan’s poetry.

His was a dark world, heavily shadowed by the Armenian Genocide, which his grandmother Guyane Abrahmian survived, but only after experiencing unspeakable horrors, including the beheading of her own father, the abandonment of her mother and a possible rape. And his life was marked by other tragedies as well — the death of his brother and the ultimate failure of his marriage. His themes are death, exile, loss, war and identity, only occasionally leavened by lyrical descriptions of the remembered lush gardens of Isfahan.

Alishan was born in 1951 in Tehran to Armenian parents, both of whom were natives of Isfahan. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1973 from the National University of Iran and was then accepted for graduate study at the University of Texas in Austin. Sacco, his younger brother, also immigrated to Texas, but the two siblings followed very different paths. Sacco, who was addicted to drugs, died of an overdose in 1997. Nardo would move to Salt Lake City with his wife, where he was hired as a teaching fellow by the Middle East Center at the University of Utah. There he taught Persian and comparative literature.

Alishan’s first language was Armenian, his second Farsi and English was his third. Yet, he wrote his poems in English, often using the Japanese models — haiku, tanka and senryu. These Japanese models all mandate short poems of just a few lines and Alishan wrote many of these. But there are also longer works, written in free verse.

The book is divided into five sections, titled “Pretending not to be Afraid,” “Tired Thoughts,” “April, since 1915,” “Nowhereland” and “Bioschizophrenia.”

The first section is devoted to very short poems, and one haiku expresses in three short lines, three important themes in his work:

new flowers sprouting

from the fallen tree…

dead, but still writing poems

Here the poet remarks on the power of nature, the state of death, but also the poet’s drive to continue writing even after death.

Alishan died tragically in 2005 in a house fire that he probably set himself, but he was well aware not only of the Genocide but of the wars which are continuing and which haunt us still. In “Pieta,” he writes of a mother huddled outside the door of a Baghdad hospital, holding her son in her arms and waiting for the door to open in the morning. The closing of the poem is pitiless:

It is almost dawn

and she will learn soon enough

her boy lies dead in her arms tonight.

Alishan felt his exile from Iran keenly and many of his poems express his longing to return not only to Iran but to a home he never knew, the home his grandmother was forced to leave in Erzerum.

In “Forty Years of Wandering,” he writes:

I know those acres of orchards

were bulldozed and condominiums

now stand like tombstones

over my childhood days, but

tell me, at least

do the flowers of Isfahan

still smell the same.

In spite of some academic success and a circle of admiring colleagues and students, Alishan became a heavy drinker, something of a womanizer and experienced bouts of severe depression. Eventually, his wife divorced him, although he remained close to her and his children. One cannot help but be reminded of another great Armenian artist, Arshile Gorky, who also achieved considerable success in his lifetime, who married and who had children, but who, like Alishan, could not escape the psychological demons that eventually hunted them both down.

Although many if not most of his poems are fraught with pain, he could also write of happy memories usually centered on his family and their gardens in Isfahan.

In “Remembrances” he draws a joyful picture:

Grape leaves, imbued with the scent of red wine

grandpa loved to drink with papa

the taste of mama’s dolmas,

and grandma’s winter raisins,

the haven of our summer’s hide-and-seeks.

With an almost eerie prescience, Alishan prefigured his own death in a poem, titled “The Few:”

They say that drunks

are responsible

for most bedroom fires.

Some believe it’s because

they pass out

while smoking in bed.

But to a few it seems

it is because

they burn in their dreams.
Alishan was only 54 when he died. One does not know how his work might have developed if he had lived to an old age. In any case, readers will find much to admire in what he did manage to complete. Although there is great sadness in this work, it is illumined by the poet’s impetus to create art from it.