This month’s guest poet is Sarah Mnatzaganian. We first met on a Poetry Business residential workshop a few years ago. Sarah is an Anglo Armenian poet based in Ely, UK. She grew up in rural Wiltshire and in her late teens spent each summer with her father’s family in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem.
Her debut pamphlet, Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter, is published by Against the Grain Press. Sarah’s work has appeared in The North, The Rialto, Poetry News, Poetry Wales, Poetry Salzburg Review, Magma, Pennine Platform, London Grip, Atrium, and many anthologies. She was a winner in the Poetry Society’s winter 2020 members’ competition on the theme of ‘Youth’ and won the inaugural Spelt nature poetry competition in 2021.
In the 2022 Saboteur Awards Sarah’s debut with its ‘wonderfully moving poems’ gained the award for Best Poetry Pamphlet.
Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter
Uncle Hagop planted lemon trees outside his house
where small passionate tortoises collide each spring
with the hollow pock of a distant tennis match.
At night his ripest lemons dropped into a crackle
of leaves. He grunted through the cardamom-coffee kitchen
into the courtyard to fill his hands with fruit.
Auntie soothed the juice with syrup and iced water.
Uncle drank, clacked his tongue and sang, My Heart
Will Go On, his head thrown back like a songbird.
The lemons lay thick last February. My sister filled a bag
for Uncle. She put a smooth yellow oval into his hand
and helped him lift it to his face to smell the zest.
Dad asked the nurse for sugar and a knife. He cut,
squeezed, stirred. See, Hagop, I’m making lemonade
from your trees. Watched his brother smile, sip, sleep.
To my mother, Madeleine
Give me an egg, round as childhood.
I’ll tap its innocent shell; push sideways
through its Humpty Dumpty head to find
a core of molten gold or the dry pollen
of a hardened heart. May this teaspoon
teach my tongue the taste of lunch hour
on a school day when I’m six, hugging
the bump under mum’s dungarees.
How did the morning go? Watching her
butter home-made bread. Reading aloud
while the baby kicks. Back down the lane
for the lonely end of playtime, her love
like albumen around my ears and in
my eyes. Voices water-slow. Whistle
blown from the other side of the world.
To my father, Apraham
Every time I set spade against turf,
you’re there, cutting grass-topped cliffs
into our borders, neat as the Normandy coast.
You snatch sweat from your face
and ask for Lemon, half a lemon,
squeezed, with water please, darling,
it quenches the thirst.
I silently sing each syllable to myself
in your voice, like no other voice,
licking the ‘l’ in half almost as long as in lemon,
expressing the juice of each word with your verve,
crushing the fruit’s face into ridged glass
and clouding cold water with the sharpness you crave.
Each sucked finger stings.
Now I want to watch your dark throat dance
while you drink.
At the end of my suffering / there was a door
Have you ever hated anyone enough
to ask an iris leaf to turn into a sword
sharp as the new moon, cold as a snowdrop,
irresistible as spring grass growing disorderly,
before it’s mown to match the wishes of one
demanding pair of eyes? Don’t lose focus.
Take one, narrow, curved iris leaf and hold it up.
If the heart you want to penetrate is hard enough
to steal a country and the lives from its people;
if that heart won’t learn the wisdom of the iris,
the snowdrop and the moon – that life is mutable –
then that heart will feel the leaf turn to steel
and, to grant your wish, will stop beating.
The iris will flower blue and yellow, as it should,
for the people returning to their country,
as they should, and there will be no blood
on your hands.
The title is a quotation from The Wild Iris by Louise Glück.