Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter, Sarah Mnatzaganian
Against the Grain Poetry Press, 2022 £6.00
I smell the small warm realities
Winner of the inaugural Spelt Poetry Competition, 2021, Sarah Mnatzaganian has produced a delicious pamphlet oozing the scent of bakeries, exotic fruits, spices, and the love of family as well as the strength, textures, colour and heat of intimacy. She observes humans so well. Every poem is a joy to read.
‘Eggtime’ opens the collection. Dedicated to the poet’s mother, it’s a tender exploration of a six-year old’s memory, packed with beautiful images of sharing a ‘Humpty Dumpty’ lunchtime. It reminds me of Seamus Heaney’s ‘When all the others were away at Mass’, in the way it celebrates an intimate moment — ‘her love / like albumen around my ears and in / my eyes.’
The reader is also introduced to the poet’s beloved father in the poem ‘Juice’. His voice carries across the years, requesting squeezed lemon with water to quench his thirst while ‘cutting grass topped cliffs / into our borders, neat as the Normandy coast.’ Profound stinging grief pours through the memory:
crushing the fruit’s face into ridged glass
and clouding cold water with the sharpness you crave.
The title poem ‘Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter’ celebrates the vitality of ‘Uncle Hagop’ as he reaches the end of his life. In a flashback, we join him planting lemon trees, surrounded by mating tortoises and the ‘pock’ of tennis balls, then harvesting dropped fruit and drinking lemonade ‘head thrown back like a song-bird.’ This section reminded me a little of Don Paterson’s ‘Two Trees’. We return to the present. Reduced by ill health, his face is lifted ‘to smell the zest’ which had left his frail body. He sips a final mouth of sugared lemonade in an moment of family tenderness.
‘Ursula’ is about letting go. The daughter is about to find her own way in life but, for this moment, her head rests on the narrator’s lap. And time stands still. My heart stuttered a little when I reached these lines:
I will not be afraid
I will not be afraid when she wakes
and walks away.