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Reliving childhood, exploring immigration in ‘Look Behind You’

  • “Look Behind You”

  • REARDON

For the Recorder
Published: 2/5/2020 5:57:20 PM
Modified: 2/5/2020 5:57:10 PM

Local poet Elaine Reardon’s latest poetry chapbook, “Look Behind You,” is a smorgasbord of flavors and scents, family and home. Evoking a rich cultural heritage, as well as her own familial bonds, she leads us deftly through the world of her childhood in a manner that strikes the reader at once as exotic and familiar.

Poems, in Reardon’s hands, become “Distilled memories preserved in amber.”

Part of the familiarity for readers in America likely stems from our heritage as an immigrant nation — with less than 1 percent of the population descending from any of America’s indigenous peoples, most of us will have had similar experiences to Reardon growing up. (And, I suspect, the historical treatment of indigenous people in America has done much to make many of their experiences similar to those of immigrants as well.)

Reardon tells me about her own experiences with people who are quick to forget: “I think people get too comfortable. They just start obliterating their own family history.” Reardon is not forceful about her politics — her message remains unspoken, merely implied through her writing.

Instead, she invites us with her poetry to relive a childhood in which we nibble stray walnut morsels while making paklava (the Armenian variant of the more familiar Greek baklava) next to a grandmother. We inhale the aroma of golden quince preserves to see visions of grandparents’ lives we’ve never known.

“All the things you can pick up now at the co-op or anywhere, like hummus or tabbouleh, that’s what I grew up eating,” she reminisces. Laughing, she adds that on her visits to Dublin these days, Mediterranean food is available everywhere — a fact that strikes her as personally ironic considering her family consists of refugees from Ireland and Armenia.

The poem “Refugees from Endearments” mirrors the way Reardon attempts to fill in the cultural memory gaps for the reader. “I know what it’s like to have something you remember and no one will tell you or knows what it means,” she explains.

In the poem, she tells someone the Armenian endearments his grandfather called him as a child meant “pumpkin head,/ foolish, empty, like a gourd.” Then she explains: “Remember, in our culture you don’t want/ to draw too much attention to what is precious.”

Only on occasion does Reardon speak to the struggles of coming from an immigrant family. She mentions in “Assimilation” how “My teachers were often confused/ by the unusual Armenian-Irish/ accent I brought from home. Peers/ were baffled by foods in my lunch box.”

In that vein, it is interesting to note that Reardon no longer has an accent and she has lost much of her fluency in Armenian, though she cooks from “the recipe still, yellowed with age,/ thin and tattered, like phyllo dough,/ filled with handed down memories from those/ who sat at this table before me.”

Although Reardon has yet to visit Armenia, in part because she realizes that since the Armenian Genocide and because of the myriad of cultural differences in that relatively small geographic area, she could never really visit the place of her own familial heritage. However, several of her poems describe her frequent visits to Ireland and the strange wonder of encountering foreign artifacts and traditions that nevertheless tie her through the centuries to the lives of her ancestors.

About her path to becoming a poet, she jokes, “It only took me until I was in my 50s to say, ‘Wait a minute. That’s something I’ve wanted to do and I haven’t done it.’” 

Previously, Reardon worked as a special education and English as a second language elementary teacher before moving on to become an herbalist and massage therapist.

She started out down her literary path by joining a writing group, moved on to take some writing classes and last year led her first writing workshop. Stylistically, she says she’s been recently trying to experiment more with line breaks and stanzas, as well as pare down her writing by eliminating excess adjectives and gerunds.

Her work has been featured in several anthologies, as well as in her first chapbook, “The Heart is a Nursery for Hope.”

“People forget what their roots are,” Reardon says at the end of our conversation. She explains that her hope in writing “Look Behind You” was to remind people to “know what their roots are. It’s good to honor your family, your ancestors. And we need to be kinder to each other. We’ve gotten so much smaller as a country and we really need to be more open and more generous. We all come from somewhere. Our experiences are not so different. My hope is that people will open their hearts a little.”

For more information, visit Reardon’s personal website at elainereardon.wordpress.com. Copies of her chapbook can be ordered through Amazon.com or found in local bookstores as well as the Armenian Museum of America in Watertown.

Nicole Braden-Johnson, of Conway is the author of “Unheard Melodies,” a monthly poetry column in the local “The Visitor,” and has also been published in several literary journals. She is always on the lookout for poetry news and events, and can be reached at bradennicole@gmail.com. Visit her website at
unheardmelodiesnkbj.
blogspot.com.




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