by Peter Balakian

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In his first book of poems since his highly acclaimed June-tree, Peter Balakian continues to define himself as one of the most distinctive voices of his generation. Exploring history, self, and imagination, as well as his ongoing concerns with catastrophe and trauma, many of Balakian’s new poems wrestle with the aftermath and reverberations of 9/11.             Whether reliving the building of the World Trade Towers in the inventive forty-three-section poem that anchors the book, walking the ruins of the Bosnian National Library in Sarajevo, meditating on Andy Warhol’s silk screens, or considering the confluence of music, language, and memory, Balakian continues his meditations on history, as well as on the harshness and beauty of contemporary life, that his readers have enjoyed over the years. In sensual, layered, and sometimes elliptical language, Balakian in Ziggurat explores absence, war, love, and art in a new age of American uncertainty.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226035659
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/15/2010
Series: Phoenix Poets
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 88
File size: 146 KB

About the Author

Peter Balakian is the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor in Humanities and professor of English at Colgate University. He is the author of five books of poems and three prose works, including The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, a New York Times best seller; and Black Dog of Fate, a memoir.

Read an Excerpt


By Peter Balakian


Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-03564-2

Chapter One



    A canvas with less turpentine, more hard edges, less bleeding,
    that was good for beauty
, Frankenthaler in Art News

    in the dining car crammed with parkas and laptops
    micro-waved cellophane, plastic plates and canvas bags,

    and the valley under fog as the cows disappeared
    and when the green came back into view I could see

    the SUVs floating on the Thruway, the cows oblivious
    to the revved engines of trucks. The river glistened

    all the way to Albany, and I could see flags on Baptist churches
    and resurrection trailers, "God Bless America" on pick-ups—

    "United We Stand" laminated to billboards
    as the fog settled then lifted, and when I woke

    a flag the size of a football field hung from the gray tower of the GW,
    where the tractor-trailers jammed beneath its hem

    as something sifted down on the silver-plated Hudson.
    And then the lights went out.


    The faces on 7th Avenue blurred in the chaos of vendors and liberty
    scarves, freedom ties, glowing plastic torches, dollars and polyester—

    and inside Macy's I was hit by cool air as "Stars and Stripes Forever"
    floated down from women's fashions into the quiet aisles of Aramis and silk

    I wanted to buy the Frankenthaler, a modest, early print,
    minimal, monochromatic; surface and perspective in dialogue;
    on 24th off 10th—the gallery still smelled like wood and plaster—

    but I didn't stop, and when the train reached the Stock Exchange
    the Yom Kippur streets were quiet, and the bronze statue of Washington
    was camouflaged by national guard. I was walking my old mail route now

    like a drunk knocking into people, almost hit by a cab
    until the roped-off streets cut me at the arm. At Broadway and Liberty
    the fences wound around the bursts of dust rising

    over the cranes and bulldozers, over the punched-out windows—
    I stared through a piece of rusted grid that stood like a gate to the crystal
    I was sweating in my sweatshirt now, the hood filling with soot,

    as I watched with others drinking Cokes and eating their pizza of disbelief.
    Zero began with the Sumerians who made circles with hollow reeds
    in wet clay and baked them for posterity.

    At Broadway and Liberty. At 20 floors charred and standing.
    At miasma people weeping. Anna's Nail Salon, Daikichi Sushi,
    the vacant shops, stripped clean in the graffiti of dust-coated windows.

    Something blasted from a boom box in a music store,
    something, in the ineffable clips of light,
    disappeared over the river.

    WARHOL / MADISON AVE. / 9-11

    When I left Eli Zabar the cut-out star on the window
    was whirling in the animation of the rich and hungry
    hunched over tables for a $30 sandwich and a Diet Coke.

    It was raining and the blurred glass of the galleries
    was the gold leaf of the Carrig Rhone frames—
    Childe Hassam's dabs of Connecticut trees

    the diaphanous blue on the fleshy rocks,
    the melting opal of the shoals.
    Inside the Whitney the rain trailed down my face;

    and I found myself in a quiet corner staring
    at the pink face of Marilyn Monroe.
    I could still smell the smoldering high-tech plastic

    as it burned the air. In the whiteness of her teeth,
    in the almost aahh of her mouth and the half-drugged eyes
    under the lids of teal shadow, the air kept singeing my nose.

    Against the pale walls Marilyn's face dissolved
    like the stretched mesh and litho ink
    where plain form is a place of no desire

    like the empty mirror of the Hudson at dawn.
    In the fissures of her make-up, the planes of color
    led back and back behind her teeth longing—

    to the deception by the Falls on her honeymoon
    (with Joseph Cotton in Niagara)—where we found her clothed
    and alarmed, and later desperate for the affirmation,

    of a President's limp dick and the crisp sheets
    the same color of these walls—as my t shirt dries to my skin
    and the faintest scent of ground zero

    sifts down on the walls
    whiter than the wingtip vortices
    of melting in the morning light.


    Every city's a response to the indifference of geology.
    From the pier on West Street the towers were sun on steel.

    I felt the tone-hole sockets vibrate in my hand,
    I felt what does it take to win your love for me

    woozy like bourbon, insistent as the crowds pushing around me
    to the lunch carts and heavenly benches.

    By the time I pressed the buttons Junior Walker's sax
    was swallowing the elevator.

    I rose up a vertigo of keys into the plane lingo
    of anodized aluminum and blue-skied-out window panes;

    if the merging of writing and bureaucracy started urban life,
    if a city could levitate on arbitrage and junk bonds—

    if the sea above were like the Hudson down here, if
    I tried, I tried, I tried in every way I could.

    The vents were cooling me down
    I had a check for a half million in my pocket (a lot for those days).

    At the sky lobby on the 47th I looked out
    at the barges and tugs on the filthy gold water—

    the Colgate clock on the Jersey side ticking
    in the late capitalist haze; looked out into the mica flakes of air—

    the gulls flat as floating money,
    the sun spilling on a geology of invisible numbers.


    Her face catches you as you come around the corner
    and see her on the far wall,

    in the white silence after the docents and guards
    have left you there alone

    (behind the veil the interior is chaos, the Lincoln slows down,
    the roses slide onto the pink dress),

    she comes to you—a kitsch Mona Lisa
    bella donna of the roses, face of revision.

    After the black-light has gone over the mesh,
    and the negative has burned itself out—

    the broad planes of her cheeks, the almond eyes
    glazed with valium, the numbed-out mouth

    (is this just complicity with the media
    or the transaesthetic fetish of a nation?)

    the impossible presence, the veil almost wrapping
    her face spreading the pixilation.


    There was no languor, no drowsy trade winds,
    or stoned-out stupor of lapping waves,

    only news, the big board of crime,
    corporate raiding, selling short and long.

    It didn't matter, I was no Ishmael.
    I just hovered there in the thick of the material—

    at the edge of a skyline of money,
    rising in a glass box.

    It was comic to think Bachelard believed elevators
    had destroyed the heroism of stair-climbing.

    In the rush of soaring metallic, past the whiff of 4-martini lunches,
    up gearless traction in transparency,

    waves of cool air coming from the vents.
    At the 85th in a sky lobby we stalled out and the sun

    flooded the glass / the river / the cliffs.
    Jersey was just gouache and platinum coming apart—
    a glistening smudge

    and some nagging line from Roethke I'd been reading—
    circulating the air:
    "It will come again. Be Still. Wait."


    The red spreads like Christmas wrapping—
    the green, a field in a Caucasian rug.

    It's almost beautiful without the metal plates for the head
    (though the plug on the floor is visible).

    Before decorator colors & Hockney,
    Calvin Klein in the summery Hamptons,

    before there were—switches to break the flow

    my mother used to say never touch a radio when you're in the bathtub,
    never fly a kite near transmission lines.

    But still, it's furniture
    still, it's a typical American way to go—

    it's Sing Sing, the silhouette of Ethel Rosenberg.

    In the rheostatic air, the absent man heard "She Loves You,"
    the British invasion and the flat line arrived at once.

    Outside Negroes were eaten by dogs.
    Johnson was sworn in. Cuba turned red in the green sea.


    I may have flunked physics
    but I was full of black holes
    and wind that was slamming the tower

    as I rose in the glass box
    up to the 80th with a check
    from Chilean Line. Black holes

    opened relativity, created frozen stars.
    In the sky lobby on the 99th I loafed
    over headlines of John Dean's testimony

    and the suicide of a CEO—
    I heard the relativity of the wind.
    Everything was like. I was trapped in similes

    I hated. I couldn't leave my head
    and so the sound was insidious, then beautiful,
    Then ... it was there

    (if I say I once heard bird-bone pipes
    in an old church in the Caucasus
    like this wind blowing in the tracery

    of the top floors, in the pipelines
    and farther up). Through the glass
    I could see the other tower wavering—

    the silver like broken mica—
    I was falling matter dislodged by the idea
    of a place from which nothing can return:

    Jackie Wilson's tremolo, Paganini's
    broken wires, the frantic shaking
    of the small bells at the altar

    going up into some place
    beyond the smudged-out sky
    above the radar needle,

    above the planes coming out
    of the fog on their way to Newark.

    It was possible to hoist an object
    out of a black hole with a rope—
    this bit of knowledge I was hanging on to.

    WARHOL / RACE RIOT / '63

    We were watching the Yankees in black & white on a Magnavox,
    while across county, or state, there was a billy-club,
    a German Shepherd and the white line unraveled on the road.

    I remember Hector Lopez's stance, because it gave me a spasmodic feel,
    like what I would later learn in salsa and mamba,
    and even on the screen we could see a white line.

    On the other side of the county or the state,
    black faces were arrested in Liquitex, dissolved by chemicals
    so the trace of sweet flowers or burning rubber almost disappeared.

    I was watching a relief pitcher named Arroyo, how carefully he went
    to the rosin bag, how the white powder dusted his hand, and then
    I poured a Coke where now there's just pixilation and red wash.

    The couch was new leather; the lawns on the block
    undulated like outfields into the evening
    where the sun flattened in the emulsified sky.


    We were falling, just after sunrise and metallic
    coffee into Nietzsche's cracked-open head.
    The black shaft swallowing the red ass of the sun.

    We lived between our zipless love
    and the global village, law and order rained
    down on us like Lichtenstein's yellow dots,
    the gearless traction was Monk Off Minor.

    I saw the rising sun on the glass,
    the fat Oldsmobiles going up in flames,
    my face disappearing in your rear-view mirror
    after we spent all night solving what we couldn't—

    Monk's keys were leaving the wires,
    traction, whine, thin-out, disappear—
    before the door opened and the day began.

Chapter Two



    The tender head of the he-goat (on the cover)
    stares through the branches of a golden tree,

    and I'm just moving on a system of fuses,
    while the fruit stands of Spanish Harlem fly above,

    and even now remembering when we were here
    after Nixon waved goodbye and rose in the chopper.

    Even now seeing it through the double glass
    as Ur of the Chaldees (revised and updated)

    Sir Leonard Woolley's Excavations at Ur
    flares on the yellow cover in the momentary dark

    that wrapped our bodies, all night like violent paint
    on the sheets; like the broken fire escape of our building.

    At 125th, the guy next to me reading Another Country;
    the white guy passed out in a suit and a brown bag.

    The steel screeches the tracks, and the vaults light up.


    To Woolley, the Crash and Wall Street
    were a Fata Morgana of palms shattered in ice.

    He paid baksheesh to the locals and they kept digging—
    baked clay and gypsum;

    Woolley loved cow dung, mud plaster huts: the world from bottom up.

    "We found a clay figurine of a pig,
    spindle-whorls of baked clay prove that thread was spun here."

    * * *

    In the last days of Babylon
    a mathematician gave zero a name,
    not far from where Woolley dug.

    No great thing comes without a curse, said Sophocles—
    So Zero = hollow circle = cylinder seal—
    "Skulls and seeds and all good things are round" (Nabokov).


    You made his lines, which were opaque as ashes,
    seem clear as our confusion.

    ("the diagonal black's a broken body")

    it was after the show, we walked from Tung-Lai Shun
    to the Bowery to the Bridge and back.

    "I like bridges," Franz Kline said, "if people want to see bridges
    in my lines that's good."

    And when we fell into the shadow of the morning,
    why did we stop talking, after all, after all of it, after everything.

    You disappeared on the train reading Merleau-Ponty
    I got lost in Queens on the E.


    I ran mail a whole summer down Greenwich and West.
    Before it even started, before we roamed Radio Row
    for 78s of Ellington and the Blanton Trio,

    before the yin-yang of real estate
    under the Kensett skies over the river,
    the wrecking balls took Radio Row down:

    florists, groceries, record shops, restaurants
    the whole mid-century slid into a pit
    and the sun made gothic trees of the falling windows.

    Out of res ipsa loquitur
    Out of Port Authority and Chase,
    Rockefeller and Tobin,
    the Twin Towers rose from the garbage.


    But to Woolley it wasn't Iraq, it wasn't post-empire or Faisal's kingdom,
    it was precise and chaotic digging into the beginning,
    as if the piece of the snake's tail that was swallowed by the mouth
    made the full-circle of history.

    "All the bodies lay on their backs, rigidly extended: hands crossed below the
    the graves, dug into the silt were"

    —after the flood: decayed brick, ashes,
    potsherds, flints, clay figurines—

    I used to think of post-diluvian as theoretical.
    But if you ask: what became of the Sumerians?

    "It grieves me to watch the end of any good work
    to which men have given so much thought and skill."

    Woolley might have agreed with Duchamp,
    who thought America's greatest art was its plumbing
    and NYC the summation of sewage pipes and sinks,

    which join here in the 59th Street Station
    where we're stuck, and before the lights go out I can see
    the pale blue and white tiles glistening like Lucca della Robbias.


    I watched it half-drugged by the sun off the West Street pier:

    "First, there was the construction of the core or rectangular elevator-service
    area where all the interior columns were clustered together. From the core,
    the floor system reached in a clear and unobstructed clean sweep to the
    exterior wall.... Although few tenants subsequently took full advantage of
    the dramatic interior layout potential, the fact remains that the architecture
    offered great possibilities. It was at the core that the giant kangaroo cranes
    lifted the steel from the outside."


    We met on a cold morning
    when the women were gathering dew.
    start again: We met at a party in a loft on Greene St.
    in the no-gravity of Barsamian's big canvasses;
    post-Magritte you called it; a vagina and no head, breasts but no limbs.

    The red wine was Chilean, this was after Allende and Neruda.
    I watched your mouth in the dark reflection of the window
    beyond which the light of the towers glared the black red.

    But still the need to ask—who wrapped the day in nectar?
    Who cracked the sun over the hedges?
    Who saw the light flare off the towers at dusk?

    What's loss if not an open grave
    where the heart is eaten by worms.


    Woolley thought the original Ur was built on a low mound
    rising only just above the surrounding swampland—

    "Here all traces of human activity ceased and we were at the bottom of

    * * *

    Among the many things the Sumerians handed down
    is the story of a flood, cf. Gilgamesh,

    and after that, kingship was sent down from on high
    so civilization could start again.

    A tweed jacket and vest in the Iraqi sun, mid-winter evenings,
    two martinis up, a supply from Harrods.


Excerpted from Ziggurat by Peter Balakian Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



Going to Zero

Warhol / Madison Ave. / 9-11

World Trade Center / Mail Runner / ’71

Warhol / Blue Jackie

World Trade Center / Mail Runner / ’73

Warhol / Electric Chair / ’63

World Trade Center / Black Holes / ’74

Warhol / Race Riot / ’63

Elevator, Midtown, ’74


A-Train / Ziggurat / Elegy


Three Decades

Reading Dickinson / Summer ’68

Grant’s Tomb

Self-Portrait with Bird

The Alley

Early Spring

Blue Room

9 /11, Emily Dickinson



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