Reading: Ellis Island by Peter Balakian

Today I read a poem from Armenian-American poet Peter Balakian (b. 1951). He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2016 and has been vocal about never forgetting the 1909 Armenian Genocide (death and expulsion of 1.5 million people in what was then the Ottoman Empire). Here’s a poem called Ellis Island, the island of new beginnings:

Ellis Island
The tide’s a Bach cantata.
The beach is the swollen neck of Isaac.
The tide’s a lamentation of white opals.
The beach is free. The Coke machine rusted out.
Here is everything you’ll never need:
hemp-cords, curry-combs, jade and musk,
a porcelain cup blown into the desert—
stockings that walked to Syria in 1915.
On the rocks some ewes and rams
graze in the outer dark.
The manes of the shoreline undo your hair.
A sapphire ring is fingerless.
The weed and algae are floating like a bed,
and the bloodless gulls—
whose breaths would stink of all of us
if we could kiss them on the beaks—
are gnawing on the dead.
We learn that Balakian’s grandmother had been among the few survivors of a death march in the Syrian desert so the stockings that walked to Syria in 1915 placed in the middle of the poem are a personal relic. But first, what is evoked by the Bach Cantata (perfection) and the swollen neck of Isaac (sacrifice). I don’t understand what he means here, I see people arriving at Ellis Island, washing up in a way on its shore with the serene precision of Bach’s music, to be taken in by a beach that was almost given up to prove loyalty. A lamentation of white silica gems jives with Bach, the freeness of the beach with Isaac. Is the beach free for the taking, are the newcomers the ones who make the sacrifice?
The list of paraphernalia sounds like the treasures immigrants would bring with them. And then the stockings of his grandmother of course. Then, why are there ewes and rams, instead of just sheep? Difference goes before similarity?
The manes of the shoreline undo your hair: beautiful. With hair undone, you feel home, the privacy of your bedroom. Your hair undone becomes manes: freedom is contagious. The fingerless ring belongs perhaps to a family member that had to be left behind dead.
The poem ends with the gulls that are ‘gnawing on the dead’. Are they eating away the memory of those who didn’t make it to Ellis Island? We would like to kiss them on the beaks, perhaps to persuade them not to gnaw on our dead, but that is not possible. The dead disappear with the same cantata rhythm that moves the tide.

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