Book Review: History of Forgetfulness // Shahé Mankerian

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History of Forgetfulness by Shahé Mankerian is a stark record of life during the 1975 Beirut civil war. From starvation, to a learnt familiarity with death, Mankerian does not shy away from visceral descriptions that are all the more shocking for their similes. In particular, the explicit image of “bones and body parts float[ing] like cornflakes” will not fade for some time. Using such a quotidian point of comparison is effective both by showing how every-day such death can be, and by its ubiquity: almost everyone can imagine cornflakes floating in a bowl, so will be able to picture body parts floating in a crater with equal, uncomfortable, ease.

Yet it is not a collection solely about war, and touches upon family, religion and childhood. Some of these poems might be read as more generalised interrogation of relationships and growing up, yet the undercurrent of war bleeds through, for it affects all aspects of life, from home to school and the streets between.

These descriptions are not without a hint of humour, albeit dark. ‘The Fall of The Welder’ is undeniably funny, yet in such a setting the noting of the welder’s religion hints at the sectarian violence, and his “parched” lips link into the hunger that pervades the collection. Such poems also link to the earlier childhood poems and so give a taste of how love still prevails despite the presence of war.

Mankerian writes with a straightforward honesty that blends the images of war and daily life without the juxtaposition feeling forced or deliberate. For these are not poems about war as a dramatic event, but the ever-present violence that lives are lived within. And war is not the only source of trauma, domestic violence marks the memory just as firmly.

Such poems are given a heightened poignancy as the result of the conflict remains. The civil war may have ended, but the violence and lack of basic provisions remains. The retrospective aspect to the poems highlights how powerful such memories can be, for with almost fragmentary descriptions, Mankerian brings an immediacy of vision that elides the passing of time.

There is something very tight and taut about Mankerian’s poems. Even with frequent enjambment, the lines have a staccato feel, as if they are uttered quickly before they can be silenced. Yet at no point does it feel rushed. It has a perfect immediacy that belies the richness of the poetry.

His undeniable skill is also seen through the layout of the History of Forgetfulness. Broken into two sections, there is a clear sense of progression, providing an almost narrative flow that binds poem to poem. This structure is used down to the lineation. A poem about the poet’s mother’s growing forgetfulness as she ages, progresses with mundane slips of the memory, until the last three lines which note that she cannot sleep, for when she closes her eyes “she remembers everything”. This would be strikingly powerful however it was laid out on the page, but the enjambment from the penultimate stanza to that bare final line shows the way that some memories will stand out no matter the passing of time, and wish for them to fade.

Words by Ed Bedford

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