THE SECOND QUESTION by Diana Der-Hovanessian

Review by Mary Buchinger Bodwell

by Diana Der-Hovanessian, 2007

The Sheep Meadow Press
PO Box 1345
Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY 10471
ISBN: 1-931357-45-5
105 pp., $13.95

In this book by Diana Der-Hovanessian, a poet of Armenian descent, the Second Question of the title poem is “How did you escape/ death,” which follows the First Question “where in Turkish Armenia/ were your people from.” The poem explains how the children of the women who had asked the second question now only ask the first. However, Der-Hovanessian will not allow the second question to be discarded. In this collection, she demonstrates—shows rather than tells—how death was and continues to be escaped. As one means to this end, Der-Hovanessian, a prolific translator of Armenian poetry, engages in dialogue with international poets. In a poem entitled “1915”, she writes: “The Israeli poet says/ even Satan has not invented a revenge/ for the death/ of a child…” She then poses the question: “And when there/ are not enough/ names for sorrow/ how can there be/ a revenge that/ will not cause more?”

This is a volume of difficult questions—questions posed by someone outside, an exile, a “foreign associate” who, for example in the poem, “For Luda Laughing”, snaps at Luda’s husband who has asked Luda to get him a drink of water: “Why don’t you get it yourself?” Asking bold questions is one way Der-Hovanessian insists on life and change; another is through humor. A sense of humor, often dry and ironic, streams through these poems like sunlight, illuminating, in its own fashion, how death is escaped. From pointing out how Emily Dickenson’s bread won first prize, while her poetry went unnoticed in her lifetime (“Emily Baking”) to “Seven Warnings in Search of an Armenian Feminist”, including the lines: “Beware the man who over-praises your cooking./ He’s going to invite his friends over,” Der-Hovanessian shines her laughing light on dark corners.

The Second Question is organized into several parts: the section “Little Story” begins with the wry poem of the same name:

In your arms,
half asleep
your breath on my cheek;
in your arms
you asleep
everything complete;
in your sleep
the name you speak
is Ani. I am Marguerite.

So many of the poems in this collection share these qualities as they lull the reader with their beguilingly simple and sweet, nursery-rhymesque lines only to end with a stinging twist. This particular section of the book is filled with short, aphoristic poems like “Women’s Rib”: “Man might have been a lot wiser/ if Eve came first as supervisor.” The final section, “Other People’s Stories”, contains translations and adaptations, reminding us that Der-Hovanessian is also an award-winning translator. The range of the work in this collection is startling; each page presents a surprise and the reader soon learns to expect the unexpected.

Mary Buchinger Boswell’s poems have appeared in Rattle, Massachusetts Review, The Cortland Review, Buffalo Carp, Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, Theology Today, Re)verb, Facets, Penumbra, Heat City Review, and other journals. She is the recipient of the New England Poetry Club’s 2005 Daniel Varoujan Award, and a 2004 Cambridge Poetry Award. She holds a Ph.D. in applied linguistics and is Assistant Professor of English at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston.

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