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Reservoir of Ancestors

by Keith Garebian

On the night I should have started reading Keith Garebian’s first collection of poetry, Reservoir of Ancestors, I instead went to see Ararat, the film by Atom Egoyan about the Armenian genocide in Turkey (1915-1917). Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened Reservoir of Ancestors to discover that the first section of the book is set on the same historical stage.

The connections between Egoyan and Garebian are not limited to my serendipitous scheduling. Both artists share an Armenian heritage that they struggle to inherit through their work. As Garebian writes in “On Seeing Egoyan’s Calendar”: “These places make him feel a stranger/remind him he has forgotten/ancestral dreams./He is from here, but being here/has made him from somewhere else.”

As with his previous memoir, Pain: Journeys Around My Parents, Garebian offers no cathartic resolution to the events he unfolds, only the open-ended anguish that cries out of so many untold, and now untellable, stories: “These words mourn/many deaths/in smoky ink/carrying their blood and fear/in perpetual shadow.”

The poems of this first section, appropriately the “Ancestors” in this Reservoir of Ancestors, are vivid, passionate, and angry. The images within them are so animated that they seem to defy the death and annihilation portrayed, which is perhaps why, even after Garebian has shifted to other subjects, these poems continue to haunt the collection.

As a series, the Armenian poems build a momentum that the eclectic poems of the second section simply cannot maintain. It is only in the final pages of the book, in a section titled “The Derek Jarman Poems,” that Garebian again writes with the fine balance of despair and rapture that infuses the Armenian poems: “These words kiss his memory/and the flowers in blue mourning/ on his shadowed grave.” The shifts between the sections are just too jarring to form a cohesive whole, and so the collection fragments into three neat, but ultimately discrete pieces.