Reviewed by Heather Campbell
The Book of Redacted Paintings
by Arthur Kayzakian
Black Lawrence Press
May 2023, Paperback, 89 Pages, $15USD, ISBN: 978-1-62557-051-2
Arthur Kayzakian’s debut poetry collection, The Book of Redacted Paintings, gives us a sustained narrative exploring loss and searching: for memory, history, the missing and the taken. Kayzakian presents this loss in the form of a stolen painting. The poems document a son’s search for this portrait of his father – which may or may not have ever existed – taking us through the Armenian Genocide, Iranian Revolution, and themes of displacement, migration, and the enduring ties of family.
While the past is always tangible, in the collection we are often in a relentless present, pushing through somewhat unreliable memories and a universe of restarts. In one of the opening poems, Dear Reader, our narrator says: “At times I am an anthology of hellos” – the constant new beginnings of a migrant. We follow a path from Armenia to Iran to London and on to America, these steps tied together by the search for the painting when all else that was taken is too hard to name, much less find. The painting in question was copied from a photograph of the narrator’s father, thus the poems are taken from a painting, which was taken from a photo, which was taken in a moment before the family was split apart. The poems, in their way, are the diaspora of that moment.
The collection gives us a cohesive, quiet voice of a narrator who seems at times to not necessarily want to talk to us. We’re faced with an internal negotiation, and perhaps finally reconciliation, with one’s own version of truth. The loops of memory – there is repetition in many of the poems – tease us with the fact that history is only ever a partial account of events. Toward the end of the collection the narrator admits, “I like to pretend he had a portrait of himself that was stolen” (Just Because My Father was Never Painted Doesn’t Mean the Painting Doesn’t Exist). But as memory can tell us, even if history cannot: just because an event is denied doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
While individual poems can be read on their own, the collection has obvious intent as a whole. The order is like an informal or disputed history. In My Father Under the Stars, 1979, a passage that is repeated within this poem and in other places in the text underlines this:
The prize for this missing man causes a
florescence of body heat moving amid the trees.
Dogs and men. Flashlights brushing the woods. A tiny
shred of cloth torn from his jacket hanging on the thin
dark edge of a branch. This painting does not exist, but
in some version of this story, it was stolen in winter,
the season my father was late from the war.
All history, of course, is ‘some version of this story’. There is so much missing in this history, both through the author’s intentional ‘redaction’, and through his illustration of the stark fact that memories contain negative space where we encounter a personal edit. The printed text itself echoes this redaction: in some poems the text fades on the page, in others it partially obscures an image, in others the text is flipped, both upside down and backward, much like a life in exile and turmoil. These types of contrivances could easily get tiring, but don’t here.
The word ‘redacted’ speaks to the formality of authorised violence, as though disappearance was simply a bureaucratic procedure. ‘Stolen’ is a crime; ‘looted’ would be an act of war. ‘Redacted’ evokes the normalcy of function, simply doing what needs to be done. The passivity of the word is contrasted with more abrupt images, such as in Dear Invader where our speaker says, “We sing from the jugular”, a line echoed in When We Fled Iran: “we sang from the jugular”. We make art from what is most vulnerable.
This powerful collection was awarded the inaugural Black Lawrence Immigrant Writing Series award, and it’s easy to see why it would stand out to a jury. While at times not an easy read, it gives us a unique voice with a compelling story to tell.
About the reviewer: Heather Campbell is a Montreal-based poet with publications in Grain, Prairie Fire, CV2, The Capilano Review, and PRISM International. Her reviews have appeared in Grist, the Women’s Post and Dance International Magazine.