Review: Dear Gravity by Gregory Djanikian

Dear GravityDear Gravity by Gregory Djanikian, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2014, 99 pp/, $16.95.

Dear Gravity, the title of Gregory Djanikian’s latest collection of poetry, captures the volume’s intimate and affectionate tone, its ability to treat serious matters without taking itself too seriously, its concern with what anchors us to this world and to one another. Each of the book’s five sections comprises a thematic unit that picks up threads previously introduced, thus weaving an elegant and coherent whole. In Dear Gravity, Djanikian reflects on social issues, relationships, family history, domestic life, and our connection to nature, always conscious of our place in the larger world: “No one immune here, no one/merely a small flash in the pan:/everything hugely combustible” (“Violence”).

Despite the wry tone of many poems, Djanikian gives us no easy outs. In “Rural Accident,” for example, the speaker describes the rescuer speeding off to get help for an accident victim

as if your recklessness were a kind of mercy

as if you were doing all you could

to ward off the darkness

the faster you drove

the further you left him behind.

That repeated phrase “as if” along with the sonic and structural parallelism of the final couplet, that slight emphasis in the longer last line, highlights not the rescuer’s heroism but his fear. In other poems such as “One Afternoon,” Djanikian also gently holds us accountable for our frailties and self-deceptions.

Skillfully, the poet connects stories of personal, domestic, and work life to social and spiritual issues. The powerful “Pre-Induction Physical” presents a generational history through the portrayal of a single event, casting a compassionate but clear eye, as is typical of this poet, on the tension between communal fear and competition for survival, achieved, ironically in this case, by the least fit: “We were looking at each other/ trying to measure ourselves by the next in line”. Language and insight lift poems such as “Arc Welding on the Night Shift” or “Piano Lesson”—in which, despite the student’s ineptitude, he and his teacher can imagine a moment where “whatever is lovely/and improbable is always floating away/down a rivulet of dreams”—far above the quotidian. Poems about family history complicate seemingly simple moments. In “Sailing to Lebanon,” for example, the sound of a fog horn reminds the young speaker of the nursery rhyme about the old man snoring and makes his sister and him

… think of someone so fast asleep

he wakes up years later in a different country,

walking in a daze, singing

all the songs he’s never known.

The multiple shifts among present, past, and future brilliantly mirror the dislocations of immigration.

Perhaps because Djanikian realizes that “so much of the world/exists without us” (“So Much of the World”), he is at ease with the unsolved puzzles and mysteries of existence. As “Conversation with Landscape” instructs us,

Whatever is strange is strange in its own language.

Cup the wind to your ear,

the water in the palm of your hand.

Something arrives that is not of our making.

Djanikian’s craft is so consummate it’s easy to overlook. Yet this very craft, from the careful organization of the book that gives the poems resonance to the line breaks that push the narrative poems forward but slow the lyrics so each line and image reverberates, makes these complex poems seem effortless. Poets will study this book to learn how Djanikian works such magic. All of us will read Dear Gravity to experience the way it renders our lives both familiar and strange.