“Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter” Sarah Mnatzaganian (Against the Grain) – book review

Sarah Mnatzaganian Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter book cover

“Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter” explores themes of origin and identity and the implications in terms of what a person inherits and the perspectives a blended identity bring as an individual travels through the world in a spirit of curiosity. A recurring motif is food. Food is shared and frequently represents nurturing and nourishment through parental love. The first poem, “Egg Time” is dedicated to the poet’s mother, a memory of when the mother was pregnant with a sibling and the six-year-old speaker is home on a school lunch break,

How did the morning go? Watching her
butter home-made bread. Reading aloud
while the baby kicks. Back down the lane
for the lonely end of playtime, her love
like albumen around my ears and in
my eyes. Voices water-slow. Whistle
blown from the other side of the world.”

The answer to the mother’s question about a school morning is not important enough to remember. What is remembered is the evocative taste of butter on home-baked bread as the child reluctantly returns to school, tempered by knowing her mother loves her. The love forms a protective layer around the child as the whistle is blown for lessons to get underway again. The mother’s world is the domestic one of the kitchen. The father is outside gardening, assisted by the daughter until a break, in “Juice”, when he asks for half a lemon squeezed in water,

“I silently sing each syllable to myself
in your voice, like no other voice,
licking the ‘l’ in half almost as long as in lemon,
expressing the juice of each word with your verve,
crushing the fruit’s face into ridged glass
and clouding cold water with the sharpness you crave.
Each sucked finger stings.

Now I want to watch your dark throat dance
while you drink.”

It’s easy to forget a bland drink a bland drink of water, but adding the lemon to it makes the refreshment memorable. The mood of the poem contrasts with the mother’s poem which was soft and the daughter sharing her voice as she read aloud, whereas she sings silently to herself rather than to her father. The clouds of lemon in the water are not fluffy but invasive, changing the water. Sucking is something children do for comfort, but here it leaves her fingers stinging with bitter juice. In these two poems her mother’s yin complements her father’s yang.

In the title poem, lemons reappear, this time they have been harvested from the poet’s uncle’s trees,

“The lemons lay thick last February. My sister filled a bag
for Uncle. She put a smooth yellow oval into his hand
and helped him lift it to his face to smell the zest.

Dad asked the nurse for sugar and a knife. He cut,
squeezed, stirred. See, Hagop, I’m making lemonade
from your trees.
Watched his brother smile, sip, sleep.”

There’s a softer side to the poet’s father here. The recuperating uncle’s lemon drink is sweetened and he is able to hold and taste the fruit from the trees he grew. The act of giving him lemonade is a gesture of care and support, a means of touching both to nurture and to say ‘I’m here.’ The food is care motif is picked up again in “Cake Again”, where the unnamed baker ponders,

“the gentleness of chocolate would

say it better, moist enough not
to stick in his throat, wrapped

noisily in foil, nosed into a jiffy bag.
Cake again? the post office lady says.

It costs more to send than make.
More to let go than hold.”

The cake’s ingredients were already in the kitchen as if stocked just in case they were needed. The woman at the post office seems to scoff at the idea of sending something so cheap that costs less than the postage. However, her scoffing ignores the value of the cake, what it represents, what it communicates when words don’t seem to be the right vehicle.

Later the speaker is in “Green Valley Supermarket” where,

“I try to tell the staff my dad taught Arabic
to the owner’s sons, but they don’t understand.
I want them to know I’m here to buy
the flavours of my father’s childhood.

I’m looking for the foods his mother Takouhi
first fed her youngest son, smiling as he kissed
her neck and kissed again until she laughed”

The speaker has specific, family reasons for going to the shop, but the staff aren’t interested, perhaps thinking of just getting through the day and the cycle of getting up to do it all again tomorrow. The place is somewhere that pays their wages, not where they feel part of a family. The speaker fails to win them over and starts to think about her father waking after a scheduled operation,

“when he’s home, safely stitched, meshed, glued;

when he sits with us as she never did again
we can tear good bread, pour oil, sprinkle salt
and watch him close his eyes to the smoke
of aubergine, the sharpness of strained yoghurt.”

Again, a mix of textures: the fluff of bread, scent of aubergine and sharpness in unsweetened yoghurt. The last reminiscent of the lemons, but this time the reader has met the father through the previous poems and knows the sharpness is not bitter.

“Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter” is an exploration of connection, roots and family relationships through the nourishing qualities of food. Sarah Mnatzaganian’s poems are tender and compassionate. Family is a symbol of support and love that allows its members to find their own way.

Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter” is available from Against the Grain.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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