Sojourners of the In-Between By Gregory Djanikian

By Frank Wilson
The opening lines of “Even During the Slightest Changes,” Gregory Djanikian’s poem in memory of James Tate, could well serve as an epigraph for this latest collection of  Djanikian’s poems:
Everything is in flux, Heraclitus said,
and I believe him with my ragged heart.
Heraclitus also said that “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”  Djanikian seems to have taken this to his ragged heart as well, even wondering who that man is now. As he puts it at the end of “Loose Ends”:
Someone, come knock on my door.
Let’s see who’s inside.
He’s already confronted this question in “Nostalgia,” the poem that precedes “Loose Ends,” when he thinks “if I had a photograph of every second / of the life I’ve already lived / I might feel bedraggled by it. // Or maybe not, maybe I’d pore over every snapshot, nuance, every shade of gray …”
Like all of us who reach three score and ten and beyond, he is supremely aware of time passing and past, with the future growing ever foreshortened — “the past / coursing into the present, the then / and the there / into the here I am.”Again and again the words hand and touch figure decisively:  “Therefore,” the first in  suite of poems titled  “Uneven Dozen,” begins:
The hand at the end of my arm,
how far away it feels
from what I think I am.
But another poem in the suite, “Without Saying,” concludes thus:
Little magical hand
I am attached to,
waving in the rain.
Then, on the facing page, in “Reconstitutions, Dispersions,” the speaker tells us “I smell the earth in a handful of earth,/ touch the atoms I might one day be colluding with.”In “Therefore” the speaker’s hand is somehow detached from the speaker’s self, the same self that feels attached to the hand that seems magical in “Without Saying,” the self that may amount one day to a handful of dust.
This is quite a step away from “Sometimes”:
… what is it about holding the hand
         of your best girl and feeling at 14
     nothing of the past or future
just the desire of a boy
              who’s lost all his marbles
somewhere between a touch and a kiss?
“Body to Body,” a couple of pages after “Sometimes,” concludes with a reference to “the sufficient touch / of the touch.”
Lest you think this is all morose brooding on mortality and possible oblivion, rest assured there’s more than that to be found here. Take “Beauty,” for instance:
Sometimes it’s almost nothing at all,
a long whistle in the distance,
a startle of new rain,
a woman’s delicate hand appearing
in a window, then disappearing
before any implication. 
There’s also  “Poem With Clouds.” The speaker’s wife “mentioned in passing / that what they were really feeling / each time they kissed /were her electrons, his electrons, /repulsing each other without touching.”
So the speaker starts kissing everything — tree bark, cat’s fur, piano keys:
He wanted to see why one cloud
of electrons was mystifyingly different
from another, why he could distinguish
just by kissing, a potato from a peach pit.
“After a while, his lips grew inflamed … // One day, a tree fell and he heard it. /Then, he kicked at a rock and it hurt.” And so …
He went back to his wife
and gave her a kiss everywhere.
And then there is Djanikian’s mother. This wondrous lady has made appearances in Djanikian’s other collections, always stealing the show. She makes two appearances here. “My 90-Year-Old Mother Would Be an Alpinist” tells of her “climbing my high porch stairs /pulling herself up by the railing.” With each step she calls out the name of a famous mountain peak:
“Jungfrau,” she says, without stopping
to take a rest, “Kilimanjaro.”
He tells us “I’ve offered her my arm / but she loves saying the name / of each difficult mountain….”
She has transfigured a chore into an adventure and more:
Here, too, where steepness is a stairway
leading only to my front door,
every breath is hard won and holy,
Every step, a kind of prayer.
“My Mother Considers Her Death During Cocktail Hour” wastes no time making plain her viewpoint: “It will be a sleep without dreams, she thinks.” Either that, “Or someone ushering her into a plush limo. … though she’d like the limo / to carry a full bar.”
It is, in fact, cocktail time, and “she’s after a dollop of bourbon.” A toast is raised:
… here’s to the sheer improbability
of being where we are, making
a small place in the world
where a history of our loves and losses
shapes us into who we are.
The tone of these poems varies a good deal, sometimes humorous, at other times almost testy, unavoidable sadness redeemed by tenderness.
But let us give the canny Mrs. Djanikian the final word:
“Here’s to forgetfulness, too,” she says,
turning on the lights, “give me an absence
that stays absent without any trouble.”

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