Armen Davoudian's 'The Palace of Forty Pillars' — gay Iranian poet's collection emits new light

  • by Mark William Norby
  • Tuesday April 9, 2024
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Poet Armen Davoudian
Poet Armen Davoudian

Reza Shah of Persia announced on March 21, 1935 that he was changing Persia's name to Iran. A modernizer, the Shah believed the name Persia was too out of fashion and oriental.

Armenian Persian-speaking Iranian-American poet Armen Davoudian grew up in Isfahan, Iran in the Armenian diasporic neighborhood of New Julfa of the Armenians of Old Julfa along the Ottoman/Persian border. He's released his second collection of poetry in "The Palace of Forty Pillars" (Tin House).

"Julfa is in Azerbaijan, separated from its namesake, the town of Julfa in Iran by the Aras river, a river my mother is named after," Davoudian told the Bay Area Reporter in a recent interview.

With "Forty Pillars," Tin House introduces the arrival of a future star in modern poetry and a gay Iranian who emigrated from Iran to America in 2018 when he was 17. Davoudian is currently completing a PhD at Stanford University.

This is a book to hold close. Davoudian is a magnet for gentleness as equally a braveness for the expressions he now writes far from his homeland. In the subtlest of manners, he proves himself beyond well-equipped in poetic meter. Underlying his verse are surprising moments of form and content. Perhaps his style has something to do with feeling out of place in his own country of origin.

Armen Davoudian at a 2021 writers residency at the James Merrill House in Connecticut (Instagram)  

Beauty amid threats
"From the beginning I had an ambivalent relationship to Iran and to the concept of origins in general, an ambivalence deepened when I started realizing I'm gay," said Davoudian. "In the Islamic republic, sex out of heterosexual wedlock is technically punishable by death."

While the death sentence is not often carried out for being queer in Iran, one can imagine the visceral trauma of the death threat hanging over your head for being gay, and what that would feel like while growing up.

Davoudian was never out while in Iran. He didn't come out to his family until five years ago, and in Iran experienced the same type of bullying in high school that a lot of closeted gay individuals endure in America.

But Iran is also a place of beauty and inspiration for Davoudian. He cherishes his memories when he was a child, and mainly refers to those moments in the book. He grew up in a "beautiful neighborhood called Julfa" where centuries-old architecture fills much of his work in "Forty Pillars."

Two stanzas from a twenty-page poem perfectly display his talent and reflections of those memories. In a poem that encapsulates Davoudian's own separation from his home country, here is an excerpt from a poem that shares the same name as the book's title, "The Palace of Forty Pillars."

Twenty pillars drip into the pool
their likenesses, where the likeness of a boy
wavers among the clouds, eyeing the boy
who's waiting for another. All is dual:
two rows of roses frame the pool, in twos
the swans glide, each on another's breast, then fuse
in a headless embrace. All is dissolved:
the boy outside the water is no more

A boy inside the water — his no more
the face defaced by its own lines on shattered
waves overlapping like a rose, the tattered
pillars strewn like petals. All is halved,
severed, like home and school, like love and being
loved — the boy no more than a way of seeing.

Inner duality
Feeling a duality within ourselves — we have been there and always will be, in that we have been born to parents routinely expecting without question that we are straight at birth.

Then a new awareness arrives of one's own queerness — the dual character within us — we learn to be ourselves and face the myriad of potential consequences that our society holds up as the face of the status quo in contrast to our own beliefs. We are different.

Many of us come to respect ourselves for these differences through, Davoudian states, "the conspiracy of language, and the moral imperative of art."

At least in part, we reinvent ourselves. We raise ourselves. At least in part: we are the artworks of our own creations. While back in New Julfa:

27 Marjan Street
The rooms shrink down with each new coat of paint.
The house stays calm. The child inside the house
is also calm, face tucked into mother's blouse,
But the rooms shrink down with each new coat of paint.

Though the house is gone, the walls will not relent.
No more a child, at every new impasse,
you shrink the rooms with coat on coat of paint
to a house inside that child inside that house.

Woven history
Nagorno Karabakh is no longer an Armenian Republic within Azerbaijan due to Azerbaijani-Muslim aversion (to put it mildly) for Armenian economic and political successes over the centuries. Azerbaijan is geographically directly to the north of Iran.

Nagorno Karabakh is now essentially the Constitution of the Republic of Artsakh, renamed by the Azeris, and stolen from the Armenians. Armenians have faced attempted genocide at the hands of the Turks, as well as Azeris, and Armenians continue to find themselves without a homeland.

This history goes back at least as far as the twelfth century. In the seventeenth century, Armenians faced a forced relocation at the hands of Safavid King Shah Abbas of Iran. In Davoudian's art we get part of this deep history.

We get queerness in Iran from a poet, an individual sensitive to all of the complexities and all of the sufferings of the Armenian people, and we get the boy looking back at the boy he was, and the boys he left behind.

This is phenomenological work, meaning that the verse concentrates on the difficulties of consciousness, and on the subjects of Davoudian's experience. After reading the entire book, which one can do in a few days, you feel you've been to Iran, you've especially gone to Isfahan.

You might as well have your interests sparked to research a very messy and complicated region that includes not only Iran and Azerbaijan, but also the whole of the areas of both Persian and Arabic-speaking peoples. Thankfully, we have Armen Davoudian as our tour guide.

'The Palace of Forty Pillars' by Armen Davoudian. Tin House, $16.95.

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