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This report is taken from PN Review 227, Volume 42 Number 3, January - February 2016.

Handfuls of Ash: Looking again at Armenian genocide poetry Jamie Osborn
2015 was the centenary of the Armenian genocide. In August, I visited Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh with a human rights charity for which I had been working. The trip was both to mark the centenary and to find out about the continuing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh – a separate issue, but one also tied up with Armenian identity. On arriving in Armenia, we were each given a copy of The Earth Speaks, a collection of poems and writings by those who died in the 1915 massacres. The brutal, unadorned descriptions of atrocity were sickening, undeniably powerful, but most of the poetry consisted of sentimental hymns to the motherland or to unrequiting lovers. The cloying diction and the equally cloying nationalism seemed unnecessary; where the poems dealing more explicitly with the atrocities were direct and unerring in focus, these others meandered through honeyed fields of wheat and smiling flowerbeds. This writing seemed confused by questions that had nothing to do with the genocide.

‘One day I will see the sea again in Baku’, our guide in Nagorno-Karabakh told me. ‘We will go all the way there with our tanks.’ He said it with a smile that did not try to conceal his sadness. He was an ethnic-Armenian refugee from Baku who had fled Azerbaijan following anti-Armenian pogroms in 1988. He was a known historian, warm-hearted, funny, belligerent. Wherever we stopped he would uncover some proud moment of Armenian history. Here was Shushi, a historic centre of culture heroically – and relentlessly – fought over in the 1990s. Here, a prominent rock on a hilltop was ...

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