Armen Davoudian

Armen Davoudian is the author of the poetry collection The Palace of Forty Pillars (Tin House, 2024) and the translator, from the Persian, of Hopscotch by Fatemeh Shams (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2024). The Palace of Forty Pillars does the work of documentation—recollecting places, sensory memories, people, and animals. How do you view the archival power of poetry?

Armen Davoudian: Like archives, poems preserve. Unlike archives, poems, in preserving, also transform. As far as technologies of preservation go, maybe poems are more like pickles. Archives attempt to negate time. Pickles, on the other hand, use time as a crucial ingredient. They refigure loss as gain, bartering mass for flavor, freshness for intensity—an uneven trade, but worth it. The oldest poem in The Palace of Forty Pillars, about making garlic pickles with my grandmother, indulges in several pairs of uneven rhymes: alive and save, language and age, molasses and loss

The word archive shares an etymon with architecture, whose other half connotes stone, as in tectonic. But the Palace of Forty Pillars in Isfahan is more than a monument of stone. Its pillars, standing on stone bases, are only twenty; but mirrored in a pool, they become forty. (Such reflective pools are a formal feature of Persian gardens, going back to Achaemenid times.) Reflection, imagination, language prop up the second half of the palace, completing a monument that is as much mercurial as marmoreal. I think that’s what I want from poems: not just to preserve what was there to begin with, but to supply what is missing. The poems I love best make loss tangible, like a shock of silver in a lover’s hair. In “Coming Out of the Shower,” the shower seems to represent a liminal space in which the speaker exists, once more, both alongside the mother and outside of the dream realm, as his true self. The spillage of water creates a mirroring effect on the tile and leads to the reflective, searching question posed in the end. Could you speak more about this transformative moment? 

AD: I appreciate your pun on “reflective.” It gets to the heart of the poem. A pun squeezes two or more meanings into the space of one word, and as such is emblematic of poetry in general. Like the pun, poetry is about condensation: steam condenses on a shower screen; a family of four share one bathroom; a mother and son are mirrored in the small surface of one tile. But enclosure is also disclosure: the clothes that cover your body also uncover something about how you feel or who you are. In “Coming Out of the Shower,” which I wrote before I had come out to my family, a gay son wraps himself in his mother’s bathrobe. 

The pun, and poetry, are also like muscle memory. Even when all contextual cues point to one meaning, a pun can’t help but remember its other meaning or meanings. In the first few months after my family and I immigrated from Iran to the U.S., I had the strange sense that my dream life was playing catch up with my actual life. There is a wishful interval after you lose a person when you wake up every day still reaching to embrace them. After great pain, a formal feeling comes: it’s as though an emotion has been drained of its content, but its form, its contour, survives, like light after a star is dead.

And losing a place is not unlike losing a person. You dream of one place only to open your eyes elsewhere. Or since what we call “waking up” is often not instantaneous but dilated, it may be that you wake up in Isfahan, stumble out of bed, open and close a series of doors, groggily walk into the bathroom, get undressed, climb into the shower, turn on the tap, and are shocked to find yourself in L.A. Poems can recreate that jolt. An enjambment can whisk you from one continent (I’m always going back …) to another (… on going back). A volta can turn back time; a rhyme can cross the gulf between breath and death.

All this aside, I also want to get into poetry the little quotidian details that are usually left out. There is a particular thrill in the mere fact of putting into a poem my mother’s insistence on stepping on the bathmat to avoid spilling water on the bathroom floor. And then there is an extra thrill in scrutinizing this detail for, or in infusing it with, meaning and intention: don’t overstep, don’t spill, but even if you do, I’ll probably forgive you. The eponymous poem is one of several sequence poems in the collection. What is your relationship to this form, and during which point in your writing process did “The Palace of Forty Pillars” emerge? 

AD: I knew “The Palace of Forty Pillars” was going to be a sequence as soon as I wrote the first sonnet. It just made sense: twenty sonnets, each asymmetrically divided in the middle like the pillars of the palace, half real and half imagined.

But to be frank, I feel quite ambivalent about the sequence form—about the poetry book in general, really. On the one hand, you want each and every poem to stand on its own, without the need for paratextual propping up. On the other hand, I think the sequence form can allow a poem to be even more itself. Ambiguity and ambivalence can be sublimated from the individual poem to the sequence. This allows each poem to occupy, however provisionally, more extreme positions, to play devil’s advocate, to pursue a point to and beyond its logical conclusion, because the next poem always presents an opportunity for retraction, adjustment, and rearticulation. This rhetoric of paradox and antithesis is particularly salient in the sonnet tradition, going back to Petrarch’s bittersweet oxymorons for the pleasurable pains of unrequited love. “In faith I do not love thee with mine eyes,” Shakespeare writes, “But ’tis my heart that loves what they despise.” 

True to this tradition of hateful homage, my own sonnet sequence was instigated in part by a sonnet I detest. On a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty (“Mother of Exiles”), Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” welcomes immigrants to America with stupendous condescension: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” etc. Reading this, I wanted to respond with an un-American sonnet, one that centered not the immigrant’s country of destination, but the country of origin. “Isfahan is half the world,” a Persian saying goes. Writing from the other half, the sonnet form felt almost predestined to embody precisely this sense of division, caught between two worlds and belonging to neither. Again, this is a division that traces back to the cracked cradle of the sonnet: Petrarch’s rime sparse (“scattered rhymes”) point up the dispersion that is also at the etymological root of “diaspora.” “The Yellow Swan” echoes James Merrill’s “The Black Swan,” while “Swan Song” is inspired by Mehdi Hamidi Shirazi’s “Death of the Swan,” translated from the Farsi. In what ways are you in conversation, both thematically and formally, with the work of these poets, and what is the significance of the swan motif in this collection?

AD: These two poems are among the few stragglers from an earlier chapbook titled Swan Song, and I confess I still don’t quite know what it is about those weird birds—elegant in an ungainly sort of way, with their lanky necks simultaneously erotic and ridiculous like something out of Botticelli, disproportionate, pure, twisted, silent, monogamous.

“And the swan-song it sings,” Merrill writes, “Is the huge silence of the swan.” Shirazi’s “Death of the Swan” attempts to transcribe that silence, rendering it into a beautiful ghazal I’ve freely translated as “Swan Song.” Ghazals are too demanding in English to write with the same frequency as they appear in the Persian poetic tradition, where they occupy a role not unlike that of the sonnet in English: no poet writes only one. This rarity in English somehow makes the ghazal an even more appropriate form for a swan song: according to legend, swans sing only once, just before they die. 

Merrill’s “The Black Swan” charts a triple transformation: a moment of coming of age, coming out, and coming to poetry, as a child “with white ideas of swans” is confronted by the “paradox” of a black swan. The black swan is a cypher for queerness: “past the jonquil lawns / riding” [my italics] (quill, writing: later we get a “black plume.”) Merrill’s swan remains mysterious, inaccessible, frozen in time: “[it] does not change but is.” At the poem’s close, the boy “stays / Forever to cry aloud […] I love the black swan” [my italics]. I wanted to convey a more liquid sense, in syntax that spills from stanza to stanza (Merrill’s stanzas are end-stopped), of the volatile crisis that is early love when the world sees that love as a perversion. I love you and I hate you, Catullus wrote. In a queer context, the statement can be quite literal, as love turns to the self-loathing of shame. What are you reading now?

AD: I just finished reading one autobiography and started another. Report from Part One by Gwendolyn Brooks details the circumstances of her conversion to a more direct, more confrontational voice (“I want to write poems that will be non-compromising”). The next one is a book I’ve been curious about for years, after encountering it in a biography of Elizabeth Bishop, who would assign it to students to teach them that people have died for poetry. The book is Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir of her husband’s final years in a Siberian gulag, where he was sent after satirizing Stalin in a poem. What are your favorite poems on

AD: John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” is my favorite poem here. It’s my favorite poem anywhere. Somehow, Like gold to airy thinness beat [my italics] is always drifting at random through my head. Addressing his wife in anticipation of a journey overseas, Donne tries to convince her (and himself) that distance can belie intimacy: 

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
   Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
   Like gold to airy thinness beat.

I’m only going to be able to say sentimental things about this poem, so I’ll stop here.