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REVIEW: ‘History of Forgetfulness’ By Shahe Mankerian

Shahé Mankerian’s debut collection, History of Forgetfulness, recalls his childhood in 1975 Beirut through a series of shocking and heartfelt observations which depict the horrors of growing up in a warzone.

The poet’s battleground exists on the streets where he plays, at school, at home—even in his bed at night, where monsters lurk. Indeed, issues of abuse, domestic violence, loss of innocence and puberty all feature heavily in the turmoil encountered by our subject.

The book opens with ‘Educating the Son’, and a stanza which prepares the reader for the continuing juxtaposition of the mundane everyday with the horrific circumstances the poet finds himself in.

I got my schooling at the morgue:

a summer job, my mother thought,

would keep the streets out of her son.

Ready yourself, dear Reader, for the details to unfold—the ‘faceless men’, ‘their faces like shoes with no soles’:

and mothers who, like doves,

descended slowly on their sons’

decapitated corpses.

The poet writes beautifully, even when what he observes is marked by darkness and terror, as in ‘Before the Deluge’:

Ruptured copper pipes filled bomb craters

like cereal bowls. Bones and body parts floated like

cornflakes.

Here, the child’s eyes (through which we observe) and their innocence help the reader to somehow relate to these atrocities. But the real fear seems to be of the abuse he suffers when ‘Father wanted to speak / with his belt’ in ‘Baker’s Son’:

I closed my lids—

tight—to fake sleep.

When he reached

for my covers,

the hair of his hand

brushed my face.

By teasing the senses so subtly, Mankerian summons the dreadful feeling of what this simple gesture means.

A large part of the poet’s writing focuses upon growing up. In ‘Moses’, boys target a nun called Sister Francis, throwing rotten eggs at her and stealing her shoes.

On Saturdays, she disappeared. Once we followed

her to the basement of the chapel. There, she lay

on a bed of thorns and cried all night. We stopped

throwing things at her and never stole her shoes again.

The ‘normality’ of life continues as our subject attempts to navigate puberty, as shown in ‘Madame Bshara’s Black Skirt’:

Her ruler poked me.

I stared at the maroon

lipstick and the chalk

prints around her breasts.

This is our subject’s reality: the typical everyday contentions and life lessons amidst chaos, as people attempt to navigate the violence, lack of food, and have the resilience of their faith truly put to the test.

Our windowpanes shattered. The mosque collapsed

on the bridge. The violin broke from the neck.

The eggplants charred. Brother bled on the couch.

I waited for the rug to magically rise

and take flight into the night.

In this poem, the child holds on to the hopes and dreams of innocence in the final couplet of ‘Dear Mr. President:­­­­’ (above) – until experience teaches otherwise, as shown in ‘The Fall of the Welder’:

Don’t laugh, don’t cover

yourself anymore, because pleasure,

like a popsicle, melts before you eat it.

To buy ‘The History of Forgetfulness’ from Fly on the Wall Press, click here.

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