824: Head of Anahit / British Museum

824: Head of Anahit / British Museum

824: Head of Anahit / British Museum


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

Having grown up in Philadelphia, I am a sucker for public sculpture, monuments, and memorials. To cool off during the summer months, I played beneath the waterspouts of Alexander Calder’s Fountain of the Three Rivers in Logan Square. Nearby, across from the Franklin Institute, the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors brought me tremendous pride. One soldier’s likeness put me in the mind of my grandfather, who served in World War II, and my uncles who fought in Vietnam.

As a kid, I wasn’t so drawn to memorials that merely exalted some war general or another. I somehow understood at an early age, that monuments are part of the rhetorical force of a state that wishes to justify its power. But I still realized even then, the importance of marking history. Today, I appreciate the ways in which monuments point to abstract ideals that bind us; they reflect back our ideological inheritance, commitment, and progress. But what happens to that ideological inheritance when its monuments are claimed and taken from their place of origin, when another power puts that inheritance out of context?

Today’s poem uses that question of ownership to frame the speaker’s outrage at the destruction of the chapel in Deir ez-Zor by ISIS rebels, a structure once erected in memory of the victims of the Armenian genocide.

Head of Anahit / British Museum
by Peter Balakian

You said anyone could walk in
with a pack of explosives as we passed through
the crowds of tourists and school kids—

under the glass-grid ceiling lit with sun.

I was saying: She’s our earth, our body, our sex,
as we drifted down the halls of statues and colonnades
and hunks of facades of Greek temples until we found

Room 22 The Hellenistic World where a face
in a glass box on the wall stared back at us.

Head from a bronze cult statue
Of Anahita, a local goddess
In the guise of Aphrodite (200-100 BC)

The text hung there in space: Found in Satala in NE Asia Minor
(Armenia Minor)

a left hand holding drapery was found with the head //

and out of some bad Comedy Central joke,
my iPhone buzzed with a flash news update
about ISIS or ISIL, or whatever they called themselves this week—

Temple of Baalshamin at Palmyra—blown-up—
the phrase re-circled—blown up—

and my head was back in the white van with the 60 Minutes crew,
winding through the buttes and roadside gullies of the Syrian desert,
to the Armenian memorial in Der Zor,

before going to Palmyra, where I sat under
50-foot Corinthian columns—
the corners chipped by wind and sand

in late May when it hit 110 °F at noon
and the sun melting the plastic rim of my cell phone—
as our driver appeared out of nowhere with stacks

of za’atar bread and Diet Cokes—
we found some shade under a portico
as the visionary pillars disappeared into blue sky.

Outside students were buzzing through the gates
of UCL and the brown brick of Bloomsbury was lit up
with sun after rain—

Inside the Wunderkammer of Hans Sloane
stuffed with the stolen stuff from the Middle East—

(“What is the Middle East,” my Turkish publisher
asked an audience at NYU—
“Istanbul, Jerusalem, Mumbai, Srinagar?”)

you kept asking: “What is year zero to us?
Didn’t our war destroy some temples and museums?”

I called the curator on the phone at the info desk
to leave my complaint on the message machine
about the signage:

“Zatala wasn’t Armenia Minor / NE Asia Minor—
it was central Armenia Anatolia—make correction.”

What questions were we asking,
staring at the misinformation on the wall
and the beautiful Armenian head of Anahit?

Why was I back in Der Zor at the chapel
digging Armenian bones out of the baked ground—
scratching the marrow and dried mildew?

In the age of throat slitting on Twitter,
the imperial shock and awe of the burning Tigris—
the lynching of Saddam on the internet,
vanishing tomb of Jonah—

Who owns the fetishized objects . . . whose museum?

I’m gazing at the head of Anahit—Armenian
goddess of fertility and love—
(no more local than the Brooklyn Bridge)

staring at the green and red paint still speckled on her bronze head.
I love her serpentine upper lip, her eyes of black space—

I stare into the screw hole in her neck
the two curlicues of hair on her forehead
her august throat, her dense acanthine hair.

“Head of Anahit / British Museum” by Peter Balakian from NO SIGN, © 2022 Peter Balakian. Used by permission of The University of Chicago Press.