Late February 2012.  

In the front seat of a butch black SUV is a local driver and a translator-guide providing transportation to the airport, courtesy of the hosts of the theater festival in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, the “Land of Fire.”

The way is not smooth; this street is blocked, then that, then another. The driver curses (in Azeri probably, possibly Russian). A long line of people traverses the crosswalk in front of us, formal in dress and solemn in manner. The driver mutters, and shifts (both his gears and the car’s); now it’s “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”—weaving on and off sidewalks, screeching U-turns, barreling down the wrong side of the street. 

The guide represents our host country—ethnically Muslim, much hospitality—and is a soothing contrast to the manic aggression of the driver. He explains the thousands of people are part of a march commemorating a tragedy 375 kilometers and 20 years away in a city called Khojaly.  

– – – – – 

The previous Thursday afternoon. 

We’re taken on a city tour, beginning with a multi-memorial park on a hill overlooking both the Caspian Sea and the incomplete gaudy theatre purpose-built for the next Eurovision singing competition. Martyr’s Lane, near the entrance, honors citizens murdered when the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago, a time known as Black January.

We speak softly near reverent locals with bright red carnations handed them by a man with hair, moustache, and suit the same shiny black to lay at the markers, horizontal like graves (probably are graves), photos etched on a marble wall, the lane stretching maybe a hundred meters. At the end is a tall stone monument with eternal flame and to the left and down some steps a cemetery for other national heroes—the same ground where the corpses from the 1918 Battle of Baku were removed by the Bolsheviks to turn the site into an amusement park. It was restored as a memorial following Black January. 

One of the guides asks if we are moved by the graves, the line of pictures, the flame. He asks several times. 

Saying yes is gracious, and I do. Yet I am not moved, not at all. 

That evening, thoughts return to my non-reaction. Is it because there’s neither a personal connection nor an easy empathetic hook? Or is it a variation on the truism attributed to Stalin, that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths merely a statistic?

– – – – – 

Sunday, a few kilometers later. 

The scene of the mourners at Martyr’s Lane screams back into focus as the SUV accelerates onto the freeway. The earnest young man in the front seat speaks more of the significance of this day in 1992, its importance based on the slaughter of civilians fleeing Khojaly – massacred this time by Armenians, not Soviets. 

What happened was a genocide, he says. Surely it was, don’t you think? 

A long silence. 

– – – – – 

Six weeks previously. 

Our Azeri hosts, arranging for visas, ask if any in our party have Armenian ancestry or passports, and if so, they will not be allowed into Azerbaijan. 

The demand is outrageous, especially when the one person with a Greek name in our group is temporarily targeted. Our trip is for art, for theater—for children, no less. 

Minimal research makes plain the wounds between the Armenians and Azeris are deep and long-standing, with violence exploding after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Khojaly is merely a recent chapter – a tragedy transformed into a rhetorical cudgel in an age-old conflict over religion, power, and who can claim a patch of ground as their homeland. 

– – – – – 

In the SUV, the young man has not been answered. 

The skeleton of the story of Khojaly is clear, but the numbers of dead are still disputed. The count ranges from 161, say the Armenians, to 613, say the Azeris. There are also accusations of ethnic cleansing and mutilation of women and children. 

Still. Six hundred thirteen. Light-years fewer than the 800,000 machete-hacked by the Hutus in Rwanda, or the 6 million murdered in the Holocaust, or the 7 million force-starved in the Holomodor in Ukraine by Stalin (see above). 

The question appears, electric and buzzy like neon, yet icy in its detachment: Just how many make a genocide, anyway?  

– – – – – 

We near the airport on a crisp and sunny morning with the wild Kzary wind blowing from the north over the Caspian Sea through Baku, the City of Winds, where everyone has been gracious, welcoming, and as warm as one could hope. It seems the wrong context for parsing the quantification of a horrible tragedy. Or massacre. Or genocide. 

Because the earnest young man in the SUV and his countryman back at the memorial park seem to be, underneath all the nationalism, chest-thumping, and culture clash, asking the same question to a near-stranger: Will you acknowledge our grief, name it as we do, share it just a bit? 

My (mostly non-) response is a sympathetic mumble, too stuck in a hamster-wheel of history and politics and defining intent to realize they both might have had family killed. And even if they hadn’t, how would that make the murders any less senseless? These are national wounds, something we Americans came to understand on 9/11. The dead are still dead, and their families and countries grieve. 

In the back of the SUV, back spasms dart up my spine – either from the hotel bed or from the disconnect between what I feel and what my empathetic depths think I should feel. It is ephemeral yet dimensional, hovering between politics and people, between clarity and cliché and impossible to reconcile because it also hovers between humanity and history. 

– – – – – 

At the airport. As luggage is unloaded, I send thanks to all the hosts with hopes to someday, Insha’Allah, return. At the terminal doorway, as I turn to wave goodbye, the winter sun slants and the Kzary gusts hard and clean.

The Sealey Challenge 2021

The Sealey Challenge was created by poet Nicole Sealey five years ago. She felt she was not reading enough poetry and decided to read a new book a day during August and invited other poets to join. It has since become quite an event in the poetry world, with everyone posting what they’ve read on Poetry Twitter. I only made it to 25 this year, but it was still wonderful for me as a writer and citizen of the world. My list is below, in alphabetical order.

  1. Mona Arshi – Dear Big Gods
  2. Peter Balakian – Ozone Journal
  3. Rachel Boast – Void Studies
  4. Breyten Breytenbach – Voice Over:  A Nomadic Conversation with Mahmoud Darwish
  5. Molly McCully Brown – The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded
  6. Paul Celan – Timestead
  7. Franny Choi – Floating, Brilliant, Gone
  8. Ewa Chrusciel – Contraband of Hoopoe
  9. Killarny Clary – Shadow of a Cloud but No Cloud
  10. Eve Ewing – 1919
  11. Carolyn Forche – In the Lateness of the World
  12. Joy Harjo – American Sunrise
  13. Seamus Heaney – Station Island
  14. Sally Rosen Kindred – Where the Wolf
  15. Jennifer Knox – Mystery of the Hidden Driveway
  16. Danusha Lameris – Bonfire Opera
  17. Sandra Lim – The Wilderness
  18. Leyva Mehta – A Story of the World Before the Fence
  19. Raymond McDaniel – Murder (a violet)
  20. Amy Newman – On this day in Poetry History
  21. Carl Phillips – Pale Colors in a Tall Field
  22. Fiona Sampson – Come Down
  23. Ales Steger – Above the Sky Beneath the Earth
  24. Hannah Vanderhart – What Pecan Light
  25. Claire Trevien, Asteronyms