A Goodreads Review of Root River Return

I am a relative latecomer to David Kherdian’s poetry and prose, having read his “Seeds of Light” only about a year ago. But this was not my first encounter with this author’s work as I had previously read his book “On a Spaceship with Beelzebub”, Kherdian’s personal account of his spiritual journey (Beelzebub is a mythological angel working his way back to God).

I discovered Kherdian’s poetry by way of the recommendation of a good friend who saw him read at a humanities conference in my area. I was ill and missed the reading, but I asked my friend what her impressions of his reading were, and she compared him to Keats. So in spite of my not being a huge poetry or prose enthusiast, I decided to read his book Seeds of Light, followed by more of his titles. I quickly surmised that Kherdian is a master of the poem. Truthfully, I haven’t enjoyed poetry so much since I read the Beat poets in high school, and William Carlos Williams in college.

However, Kherdian doesn’t fit into any school or movement, perhaps one reason his poetry is lesser known than his bestseller “The Road From Home” (I haven’t failed to notice how many reviews there are on Goodreads of that book!). The Road From Home is an account of his mother’s experiences during the Armenian Genocide.

Kherdian simply writes from personal experience. He does not follow any style or any crowd in spite of the fact that he was active in the San Francisco scene in the sixties, was mentored by William Saroyan, and is a contemporary of Ginsberg and Brautigan. It is hard to compare him to anybody, really – although perhaps, with his new book, there are comparisons to be made with Steinbeck, who also immortalized a region of the country. Of course Steinbeck did it by way of the novel, not memoir, prose and poetry, which is what one finds in Root River Return.

I read “Root River Return” in part because I was curious about how Kherdian portrayed his early experience, the journey from childhood through adolescence. To that end, I picked up this work and read it cover to cover in one night, which I rarely do unless a book really, really grabs me.

The book is set in Racine, Wisconsin, the Midwest during the 1930’s and 40’s. The poignant story of his early life and impressions are presented through prose and poetry in a dynamic way that I have never seen elsewhere. The book feels more like a piece of music than a book of vignettes, very much as an album of songs is to be seen as a whole, rather than as unrelated single tracks. Like an entire album, Root River Return is a journey with many moods, and many emotions, and the lives of the people he writes about are fascinating, the characters colorful, universal, archetypal.

His poems and prose have a distinct universality, that could have been set anywhere, and in any era. The sincerity of his writing unearthed long buried memories in my own early life, which occurred in a totally different setting and generation. Yet, although universal, he simultaneously immortalizes, perhaps paradoxically, a small Midwestern city, its people of that era, and particularly the river, which I took as a metaphor for something very deep in our subconscious, possibly only describable in what I concluded is Kherdian’s finest element: poetry.

In one of the most remarkable poems in Root River Return, Kherdian writes about his sixth grade teacher. She was someone he overtly undervalued at the time when children undervalue so much, but internally he valued her deeply, seemingly an unconscious valuation which came to him much later, and encompassed her kindness, her generosity, her wisdom. The poem is so perfectly constructed and executed that it hit me emotionally, right in the chest. The pacing is extraordinary, because at first I expected it to be a vignette, but it took a sudden turn and I was shocked by the missed opportunity at the end, a moment in life when one fails to embrace the possibilities of the moment. Kherdian is probably the most sincere writer I have encountered in many years, who aims to tell about life as it is, not as we want, ordinarily, to see it, in illusions, and thus it becomes a completely refreshing contrast to most of the current book releases in this day and age.

– R.L (from Goodreads.com)

DEAR MRS. McKINNEY OF THE SIXTH GRADE

Hands down, you were my favorite
teacher at Garfield elementary,
or at any school since:
Your stern, austere face, that
held an objective judgment of
everything in charge;
the patient way you taught,
out of a deep belief and respect
for learning,
and the good books you chose
to read aloud—
in particular, Mark Twain;
and the punishment you handed
out (a twin cheek twist, just
once, with forefingers and thumbs)
embarrassed us only because
we had failed ourselves,
for we had wisely learned from you
the need for discipline asnd regard.

Long after I left that place
I saw you once waiting for a bus,
and though I returned your warm
smile, I hurried on.
Why didn’t I stop, as I could
see you wanted me to? I deeply
regretted it for weeks, and there
are moments when I remember it still.
And nothing, not poem, not time
not anything for which I might
stand proud, can erase that seeming
failure of feeling and regard on
my part.

I loved you, I really did, and I
wish now that in stopping and chatting
with you for a moment I could have
shown it to you then,
instead of now, in this poem,
in which only time and loss, not
you and I, are he subject to be held.

Preface to Gurdjieff’s Emissary In New York: Talks and Lectures with A. R. Orage 1924-1931

PREFACE

The disciples of Gurdjieff each brought their own essential and indispensable gift to the Work: de Hartmann—The Note, de Salzmann—The Foot, Ouspensky—The Pointed Finger—Bennett—The Voice, Nicoll—The Cross, and Orage—The Pencil. Orage was not only a writer and thinker, but an editor, a developer of talent, and more important than any of these he was Gurdjieff’s brilliant translator. He sculpted Gurdjieff’s opus into its final shape and form as no one else could have done: P. L. Travers saying of it upon publication that it resembled “a great, lumbering flying cathedral.”

This was Orage’s greatest contribution to the Work, and also very importantly his exegesis of the Tales, as recollected from talks to his pupils, and published in great part by C.S. Nott in his book, Teachings of Gurdjieff: The Journal of a Pupil, and later published as a single volume by Two Rivers Press, and more recently, and definitively by Book Studio, under the title, Orage’s Commentary of Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson”: New York Talks 1926-1930.

Although America would become one of the growing points of the Work, at its start in Fontainebleau, France, there were none inside Gurdjieff’s magic circle who were American born. One has to wonder if there would have been an American presence if it weren’t for the man who was in essence himself an American—Orage, who was able to make a blossoming of the Work in America because of his spirit, which found its correspondence there, where he formed the first group, that became for him a family in ways he had never experienced before. Orage had claimed that he was leaving the life he knew behind in order to Find God. With his American family he found love, which must have come to him as resounding answer to his striving for God.Not surprisingly, he married an American woman, with whom he fell in love at their first meeting upon his arrival in New York.

It was a case of mutual recognition: these were his people and he would be their leader. This occurrence, this birthing, this episode in time, was captured brilliantly by Louise Welch in her book, Orage with Gurdjieff in America.

Gurdjieff had said of Orage that he was his brother. America might have said the same.

—David Kherdian

Note: This book was published in 2016 and is available from By the Way Books

JENS JENSEN COMMEMORATION

RACINE — Jens Jensen, a noted landscape architect who designed the Racine park system, was honored at a ceremony May 23 at Island Park, 1704 Liberty St.

Jensen was hired in 1906 by Racine’s newly-formed Parks Commission. The renowned landscape architect and contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright designed Island and Washington parks in Racine, as well as other parks in Chicago and throughout the Midwest.

David Kherdian, author and Racine native, unveiled a sign dedicated to Jensen at the Island Park shelter. Kherdian wrote about Jensen and his influence on Racine. His piece entitled “Jens Jensen” is featured in his book “Chippecotton: Root River Tales of Racine.” Several of Kherdian’s poems will also be placed on plaques near the park’s pedestrian bridges and he will perform readings in recognition of the work of Jensen and others. This ceremony concludes a week of appearances by Kherdian in celebration of his new book “Root River Return.”

The event and the plaques are sponsored by Racine Heritage Museum, Racine Literacy Council, and the City of Racine Parks, Recreation and Cultures Service Department.

JENS JENSEN COMMEMORATION PRESENTATION BY DAVID KHERDIAN

Jens Jensen was able to weave his art with such mastery that we were unaware, in the midst of his creations that we were in the presence of a benign elemental creation confined in serene beauty, its ordered components so natural and purely revealed that one felt safely contained, for there were no doors or windows, no signs, or distant clatter here, but instead a beneficent guiding hand quietly inviting us to enter there and be at home with our God. Jensen gave us all of this without intruding his presence in any way, for if he had he would have deflected our attention from the experience we were having by revealing his hand, thereby interfering with what we were seeing and feeling and listening to, the music of nature undisturbed by man, but inclusive of man. That his gifts were meant to be anonymous was a condition of his service: his devotion to the truth, which was the understanding that the hand that sorted and arranged the materials of his art was not the creator of it so much as the servant of it. His commitment to what he served has created a feeling of worshipfullness in us, and has also strengthened our relationship with the Creator. We can consecrate this park now with this plaque, with a renewed understanding that comes with a deeper appreciation of Jens Jensen, in gratitude for the greater possibilities we have received because someone before us fulfilled his need to serve what was highest in himself in order for us to reach what is higher in ourselves.

Note for Golden Rondelle Reading

NOTE FOR GOLDEN RONDELLE READING

I want to say something about poetry and how my poems should be received before I begin reading. First, sense and sound cannot be separated in poetry, so it is essential that you take these poems in with the whole of yourself. I say this for those who might feel they might fail to understand a poem because of some key they are missing, which is simply a failure to understand what a poem is. First of all, think of a poem as you do music or painting. You don’t like or dislike either because you don’t understand them, but because they don’t speak to you. There are some who will read a poem over and over again trying to understand it. Would you play a record over and over again for this reason, or look at a painting over and over again for this reason. You would not, but only if you like either enough to want to understand them better. In any case, your brain is not your higher part, your heart is, and the intelligence of the heart is far greater than the intelligence of the brain. Our level of Being is measured by our capacity to feel. So I would like you to take these poems in by simply being open to them. You are not here to understand me, but to better understand yourself. I will begin with poems about my childhood and go forward from there, so I hope you will take them in as you would if you were again a child, when you were open to everything without needing to know in advance what you were going to find. Art is also an adventure, and enjoyment is a part of that adventure, because without joy life is a slow suicide.

Interview

One of the great things about poetry, and writing in general, is that anyone can do it. However, few are masters. David Kherdian is such a master, yet much of his most profound work, particularly his poetry, goes undiscovered, except by the small but very devoted following of fans who speak frequently of being deeply moved by his work

No doubt, he has had several commercial “hits,” perhaps most well-known is his bestselling book The Road from Home, the story of his mother, the sole survivor of her family of the Armenian Genocide, which has been translated into 17__ languages. And, in  a world where poetry doesn’t “sell”, he is a member of the small group of contemporary  poets who have had full-lengths of their poetry published by a big New York House. (The Nonny Poems—Macmillan)

As for awards, there have been more than a few… a Newbery Honor, a Globe Horn book award, the Armenian Star Award, and a nomination for the National Book Award being, several of his numerous awards. But  Kherdian’s influence has also been strongly felt by the influence he yields on his peers—he is a poet’s poet—with the likes of Philip Whalen, Elizabeth Kubler Ross, Norbert Blei, Garrison Keillor, John Robert Colombo and William Saroyan among the many working artists who have praised his work. Flash back to the sixties: Saroyan was a mentor and friend of Kherdian, and Kherdian was Saroyan’s protege, who had originally hired him as his secretary in the 1960’s, but then upon seeing his written work, Saroyan advised him to focus entirely on his own writing. Now, flash forward to 2015—Poet Sam Hamod stating  that “Kherdian is one of the greats of American literature, and one of the most underrated writers America.”

In a career spanning 50 years, David Kherdian has proved himself one of America’s greatest writers and poets. His newest release is “Root River Return,” his memoir, which combines poetry, prose, and creative non-fiction to express in words his intense life from childhood to late adolescence. As collector of his work myself, it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to engage in a conversation with David about his work:

Q: David, you turned 83 this past year. You could certainly rest on your laurels as an acclaimed writer and poet. Yet this year marks the arrival of four new releases, your memoir, a new anthology of your Stopinder Journal, the new Armenian translation of The Road from Home, and the scheduled release of the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of what some of your fans argue is your greatest written (though perhaps most overlooked) work The Dividing River / The Meeting Shore. You recently completed an intense book launch of your memoir, with appearances and readings, in your hometown of Racine, Wisconsin declaring a “David Kherdian Week” this past May. At this point, how much of this is still about the passion for writing?

A) I once said that I would die if I could not write. Writing is my “I Am”. My greatest happiness comes from writing and working on new projects, like the three journals I edited, the three small presses I started and ran with my wife. Life wants to live, and we determine our life by the way we live it. Relationships are the core of my writing, and yet I have been a loner all my life, although certainly not only that, but the paradox stands. I never knew what a dynamo I was until age overcame me and reduced me to a stillness that is now my reality. Our essence is in part a puzzle to us because we do not know the depth and order of it—along with the wonder of our life and all life, of which we are a miniscule part. Could I continue as myself if I stopped writing?

  1. I certainly have received the impression from your poetry and prose that you felt isolated from an early age, yet close with nature. However, your writings about your youth often explore warm, close friendships, group escapades, adventures, a sort of Huck Finn existence, certainly not a loner in the sense of being “anti-social.” I mention this because the media tries to condition us with idea that the “loner” equates with being “anti-social”–the introverted kid is depicted as the potentially “bad” kid, the potential miscreant.  Can you shed some light on what you mean when you say you were a loner, and how this relates to your inner world providing material for your poetry and prose?  


DK: The labels come about after an identity has been established and then defined. Certainly no child has ever labeled themselves as being one thing or another in any sociological or psychological sense. We find ourselves in the process of moving through our life. I was simply exploring and searching and trying to make sense of everything around me, as the child of survivors of the genocide, which had impacted on me in ways I did not understand. Like most children, I am sure, I was thrown back on myself, and my only support, which was actually all I needed, was the love I received from my parents. I was secure enough in my being not be given to imitation or envy. I did not dance like anyone else, and years later when this was pointed out to me, with the label of good dancer, I was bothered because I did not want to be singled out as being different in that sense, i.e., being better or even different; I was simply doing what I did in a way that was satisfying and right for me, but like any child I wanted to be a part of my surroundings, and not separate, since I enjoyed doing things by myself, like fishing, which I almost always did alone, because this was my dream time in nature, beside the moving river, whose meaning for me I could not explain nor understand at the time. I was finding myself without even knowing that that was what I was doing. The patterns and characteristics in our life are defined for us by others, mostly as time goes by. I was also engaged with other boys my age in sports and other activities, and I actually excelled at all the sports I played, and I was even popular in school and also attracted to girls, but the idea of going steady was repulsive to me because it would have impinged on my freedom. I thought for myself and I was often in disagreement with the status quo. We are an unexplored continent, and I was in no hurry to put down flags anywhere before the entire territory of life, in all its possibilities, was known to me.

Beginning

When to my amazement I first began writing poetry, I had no idea how this had come about, or where it would take me. In my first book I was completely under the spell of nature, but with my second book I turned toward the influences of my racial origins, and their hold over, to explore their influences while seeking to form my own identity. It was with my third book, Looking Over Hills that I came into my own, by simply opening my eyes to what was before me; putting my ordinary concerns and interests aside to ponder the spiritual realm that I had only just begun to explore. As these unusual poems poured from me, I was overtaken with an intensity of feeling, its power blending me with the natural world I was surrounded by. I realized when the spell had past, and with my book completed, that I could now either go on with my ordinary life, or seek to find a way to make this suspended promise—for which I had no name—a permanent part of my reality and Being. Clearly this was a call to my soul to awaken and seek its perfection, which is the ultimate calling all must feel who have a real wish for actualizing their higher possibilities, for if God is to speak to us He must speak to the God inside of us, once it has been awakened to seek its completion in this life.

Herewith three poems from Looking Over Hills.

IN BERKSHIRE PINES

Not one fir tree there, but

many. They make gardens with

their sizes. Their shapes are

the forms that families make.

Haphazard, deliberate,

planned in a row,

or carried by bird wing & beak,

they are in love with a

distant mind.

Always, everywhere, a tree not

pine, and a squirrel in its

branches caught by the sun.

The walk of the people is bent

into a circle and this is their dance.

 

PINES: A POEM

Fallen to the ground

or growing from

seed to sapling

fir to fallen cone,

its branches give

a jagged shade; its

undergrowth of ferns

and moist brown pounded

earth provide substance

for a tiny world of lives

we see and cannot see.

The spirit of the tree

is happy and shimmers

for what it knows.

 

THE INSTANT

I cannot seed two squirrels playing

in a tree in sunlight, holding on

to bark and hiding each from each,

without wanting to reach my hand

up to their furred bodies and know

again such tenderness, and feel

their innocence across my back.

For an emptied instant I hold time

in the cupped brows of my thought

and I am freed at last from the

insane wars of the mind and heart.

10 Years Later

Proust had his parlor, and presumably and audience with understanding. I had none of this: what I had was an understanding innately acquired by my own consciousness, with its repository in my subconscious, which is where all of our conscious moments are stored. It is from these conscious moments that our understanding grows, but the data stored there is ours only when we bring it into the light for examination, pondering, and willful action.

How are we to uncover this hidden treasure, and what is our task once found? Proust had his madeleines, while I was stuck with the entire vista of my accidentally acquired childhood, a chaos requiring careful inventory and assemblage. I was about to stake my claim as a poet, far from my birthplace—determined to write my life in order to understand it, knowing I would have to return to my origins in order to find my way. I remember saying to others, I must remember myself, saying it aloud, while knowing I was not understood, but making it palatable for myself. As my litany grew it became a mantra, and I was taken back, and it did happen. I began to remember—but slowly, barely, and with great difficulty, until like Proust a single moment was consecrated, joining end to beginning, and beginning to end, from where there could only be new beginnings.

10 YEARS LATER

Standing on the leafy bank

on my first day back:

overlooking hills & ravines

and he river I fished;

I knelt, reached back over

the years, and threw s stick

that tumbled a wild green apple

 

One bite and it all came back.