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Arpine Konyalian Grenier
Part, Part Euphrates
reviewed by Celia Lisset Alvarez
38pp. NeO Pepper Press. US$10. 0978840755 paper

This review is about 4 printed pages long. It is copyright © Celia Lisset Alvarez and Jacket magazine 2008.

A New Syntax


Arpine Konyalian Grenier’s Part, Part Euphrates collapses both landscape and time in a collection of poetry that challenges the reader to reconstruct both narrative and place from language that defies logic and tradition. Grenier creates her own evocative grammar of soul, self, and society in these five interrelated poems that together make up a mosaic narrative perhaps best referred to as political ecofeminism, but that really escape easy categorizations. Although heavily imbued with bittersweet glimpses of a deconstructed Lebanon traceable to Grenier’s Armenian identity, Part, Part Euphrates is intensely personal and passionate rather than simply driven by sociopolitical concerns.

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The brief collection opens with ‘Lebanon regardless) would you rather . . . ,’ a wistful look at the mysterious relationship with ‘G’ that anchors the personal narrative thread of the book. The speaker is perturbed by the fractured realtionship to G and the presence of a woman from his past:


he was her borrowed once a bruise on top each limb
her totem pole detailing a flower near original
shadow re-examined for rainmaking


Combining free verse with prose poetry, Grenier crafts a broken narrative of loss and doubt in this poem, interspersing personal questions (‘Why do I feel her spirit interfering with my realtionship with G’) and fractured memories with a decidedly urban and postmodern sensibility best captured into the lines ‘the world is / my lover is.’ The speaker asserts that ‘nothing is new in Lebanon since you and I cracked,’ and this collapse of self and city sets the stage for the rest of the collection.


Subsequent poems play off of this classic feminist tension between the personal and the political. ‘The Enthusiast’ bemoans the relationship between Beirut’s past and present in language that attempts to illuminate a neglected women’s history: ‘So the deal is — poor ugly motherless Beirut suffering anonymity.’ Grenier examines how ‘the theme of man’ has excluded its female counterpart (‘I’m not a daughter they say / I did not see it happen mama’) in a gesture she compares to ‘backing against a one way street’ and provocatively calls ‘syntax blackened.’ She ends this poem both hopefully and forcefully, implying that women’s struggle for voice, and, obliquely, for economic freedom (‘today is the first day you’re a pay-stub mother / beaming at a new syntax’), will bring about a new vision for Beirut:


these are not ours these streets we fight in
banal for some reason and emptied star
the watch in reverse
a new syntax

out there
street signals



Though difficult to unravel, the images in ‘The Enthusiast’ suggest the overall raison d’etre of Grenier’s poetry in this collection, the creation of a ‘new syntax’ driven by a woman-centered multiplicity of voice that takes Audre Lorde’s imperative to dismantle the master’s house to a multicultural level.


Very much the anchor poem of the group, ‘The Enthusiast’ also introduces the concept of male versus female theming or viewing that unites all five poems. ‘Gatekeeper, we unthemed’ brings together the languages of science, gender, and politics to question the ways in which we relate to one another:


there is no consensus or dissent they say
within the urge to connect

is the neutral such?
how do where and how enter theme?
how does how many enter zero?
I had a dad and father and daddy
is that too synoptic for you?


Unlike in ‘The Enthusiast,’ in ‘Gatekeeper’ there is no sense of a gendered optimism. This poem is nightmarish and urgent. Grenier speaks of being ‘afraid of water and air and everything green or living’ because ‘what is free or living must be commoditized and digitized.’ There is a strong sense of disaster in this poem, where being ‘unthemed’ also means being ‘unaccounted for.’ The individual is powerless vis à vis a machinery of destruction that threatens both the natural world and its ‘private corners.’ Although sure to find resonance with many readers, the poem lacks the unity of vision of ‘The Enthusiast,’ leaving one with more questions than answers.


Ultimately, however, Grenier presents a beautifully braided collection of poems that culminate in the final ‘Public at The Pergola,’ in which all the themes of Part, Part Euphrates come together in a moving, postmodern collage of poetry and prose. Finally ‘unthemed,’ the speaker of ‘Pergola’ asks


what to do with the scissors you gave me (Ottoman)
what to do with the embroidered cross on one side
the linguist and research analyst positions at United Technologies
on the other the Biblical whole limbic


The speaker’s indecision and desperation is tenderly confessed in a letter to G and a job application that recalls the ‘enthusiasm / work ethic’ of ‘The Enthusiast.’ Grenier offers no easy resolutions. Like the river, the collection is ‘recurring . . . / breeding its underside.’ What is remarkable about it is Grenier’s ability to engage with language on its most primal, semiotic level. Words, images, and space collide and explode into each other, and meaning is accumulated rather than created. Such stylistic freshness sets this collection apart from other treatments of these (post)modern themes of individualism, gender, and ecology. Moreover, Grenier’s ability to navigate the uncharted with grace and beauty also sets her writing apart from poetry that is unconventional merely to shock or transgress. She creates her own syntax and her own myth. She writes in the epigraph: ‘With an eternal lack of selfhood and longing for ancestry I am creeping along the sidelines of rhetoric and process hoping for an outcome that transcends my ability to determine the good in it.’

Celia Lisset Alvarez

Celia Lisset Alvarez

Celia Lisset Alvarez is a writer and educator from Miami, Florida. Her poetry includes The Stones (Finishing Line Press, 2006) and Shapeshifting (Spire Press, 2006), winner of the 2005 Spire Press Poetry Award. Poems from these collections are also in the anthologies White Ink: Poems on Mothers and Motherhood (Demeter Press, 2007) and Letters to the World (Red Hen Press, 2008). Other stories and poems have appeared in the Iodine Poetry Journal, the Powhatan Review, Tar Wolf Review, Poui: The Cave Hill Literary Annual, zingmagazine, and Mangrove, and in the anthology Women Moving Forward: Narratives of Identity, Migration, Resilience, and Hope, Vol. 1. (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006). Her review of Christine Stewart-Nuñez’s Unbound & Branded is forthcoming from Prairie Schooner. She currently teaches composition, literature, scientific and creative writing at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Florida.

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