Finding God in the Void of the Real

the book of redacted paintings
by Arthur Kayzakian
Black Lawrence Press, $16.95






by Sam Yaziji PI Staff

Arthur Kayzakian’s the book of redacted paintings contends with deletion— first from the material world, and then from immaterial memory. Throughout the book, a multilayered narrative emerges: the disappearance of a father (his physical disappearance in Iran), and the disappearance of the aesthetic reproduction of the father (the theft of a painting depicting him). Over the book hangs the specter of the (historical and ongoing) erasure of the Armenian nation. “Armenian Folk Dance, 1915” is a stark but subdued reminder of the Armenian Genocide, with an atmosphere reminiscent of Georg Trakl’s World War I lyricism: “She tiptoes to keep quiet / from the crows outside the window / roosting upon crucifixes / that go on, row after row.”

Kayzakian’s delirious, obsessive, and fiery narrator embarks on a search for the missing painting of his father, but instead encounters the overwhelming seduction of the void. For him, that void is simultaneously the empty wall where the book’s central painting used to hang, and the negative space of national exile. Kayzakian’s narrator does not fall into the standard tenor of modern diaspora poetry— didactic, sentimental, artificial, self-conscious, and self-pitying. His lines are genuinely burning. You care about them because they really singe you, they make you consider the vivid paint splatters and abject rifts in the canvas of your own life. They often carry an aphoristic, haunting, mystical quality: in the poem “my [     ] is” he describes how “flies are angels since they are / the first to approach the dead”.

The multilayered deletions explored in the narrative are sharpest in “Notes on the Art and the Implication of Execution”: “panache in the general’s signature amidst a pile of bodies / in the center of a blown-out church … / at least the children of the victors will sleep well in their new cities, at least / they will keep a house with new paintings…”. The sequence of images—from an occupying general executing artists, to the occupiers’ families consigning the artists to historical erasure by stealing and appropriating their artworks—mirrors the movement of the book in its geopolitical layer: the erasure of the real people, followed by the inevitable erasure of the image of their reality (their cultural artifacts). The eye is refreshingly fatalistic and blunt— there are no easy solutions to historical wounds, and the geopolitical resonances of these images can apply to any number of ongoing geopolitical occupations/erasures: Artsakh, Palestine, or Cyprus.

Kayzakian’s poems (perhaps most overtly) borrow from the linguistic reservoir of the art world. The book is structured around a trio of “EXPO” poems, each a gorgeous, distilled couplet— lyrical ars poeticas. My favorite of these is EXPO 2: “Forgive me collector, I am trying to get back to my world. / I’ll leave dark pools of silence on your walls since all your paintings will be gone”. The movement from the disappearing real, to disappearing image of the real, resonates heartbreakingly throughout the book in the descriptions of a flesh-and-blood father (“home”), a photograph of the father (“Father and Son on a Bridge”), a painting of the father (“My Father Under the Stars, 1979”), and finally, the wall where the painting of the father once hung (“This Halloween”)— a gradual dilution of reality into memory, of art into void.

There are many paintings throughout the book—imagined, real, and surreal—and these paintings are cataloged in the series of poems entitled “Bibliography of Paintings that Never Made it to the Wall,” each poem a tragic recollection, a humorous anecdote, or a fabular dream. One of the most interesting revelations comes when the very existence of the painting of the father is called into question, in the poem “Just Because My Father Was Never Painted Doesn’t Mean the Painting Doesn’t Exist”. Here, the narrator reflects frankly on how the “real” painting “…involves the blast, the knock on the door, the shuffle of feet. / … My father is alive while I write this. My father’s painting / is not alive while I write this.” The strange ecstasy of these digressions and admissions can perhaps be considered as a type of mytho-ekphrasis, renderings of art that may or may not exist. As a reader, you are seduced by the certitude of the narrator’s voice— you are hypnotized by the lengths he goes to imbue sometimes contradictory statements with so much affective detail and intimate observation. More than merely unreliable, Kayzakian’s narrator is prophetic, and compels you to follow in the wake of his beautiful delirium.

Kayzakian’s poems embrace the subtle joy and needling pain of an apophatic movement towards God. His poems are Christian in their incarnational tragedy and revelatory in their (often drug-hazed) mysticism. In “Vespers”, his narrator describes “A needle of God in my arm last night, / even when it eats my brain / … I pray till my blood tastes of limefire, I pray I pray.” The seeming movement into (and eventual embrace of) the void of absence is actually a movement into divine union with “a lover who cannot be seen” (“Anna Walinska”). He forces us to contend with our own frailties and paranoid imaginings, and to find in them the kernel of transcendence. Only through negation and an honest confrontation with the pain of loss, his narrator finds a home that transcends this fallen world. To Kayzakian, it seems that God makes his dwelling in the empty darkness of the stained wall, in the silenced voices of the executed artists, in the shadow of a maimed Armenia. There is nothing more worthwhile for us than undertaking this journey into the void with him.

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