Sundress Reads: Review of Swan Song

A collection’s opening line is inevitably an invitation and prophecy. The line that opens Armen Davoudian’s Swan Song (Bull City Press, 2020) reaches out, then spirals in on itself: “All over Sofeh Mountain, sensing life, / garlic escapes its winter sleep in scapes / we cut and bind together in a sheaf, / the skinned cloves sticky to the touch like lips, firm but fleshy, reeking as though alive.” Davoudian places us above life and in the all-encompassing atmosphere. Then, we are transported downwards before landing at the collection’s subject, the “we” that is constantly subject to redefinition. A single line stretches to accommodate all of these scopes, shrinking to the level of the individual clove before blooming into the conclusion that it, too, is alive.

In this poem, a jar of pickled garlic bridges the speaker with past harvests with his family in Iran. Inside the jar, the “broken heads” of garlic are “new with loss.” Showing the jar to his audience, Davoudian asks, what does it mean to be steeped in loss? How does loss “soften and age” us? The jar temporarily seals what cannot be contained, what must spill over into the collection’s following poems. The opening line’s promise of perspective is fulfilled.

In Davoudian’s search for homeland within loss, magic emerges in the meetings of two people. In rhyming couplets, “Coming Out of the Shower” is set in a family bathroom, documenting what it means to share space with others. Davoudian shows us the simultaneous closeness and questioning—“What else will you love me despite?”, the speaker wonders of his mother in this coming out poem—that arises from the compression of space, both of the physical bathroom and the constrictive rhyming couplets of the poem itself.

In “Rubaiyat,” “friendship lessens” between two men who become lovers. The third stanza is the only one that does not allude to their romantic relationship; instead, Davoudian describes: “You dunk a graham cracker in your tea / too long, then pour the thin sludge down the drain.” Writing of the undefined amount of time it takes for the graham cracker to dissolve into the tea, becoming transformed into an entirely different state of matter, he articulates the porousness of relationship. The speaker undergoes the same change; the poem ends with a recognition that the two individuals are as inseparable as cracker and tea: “I shut my eyes. You’re in my head.”

A later poem opens with the meeting—“the famous confluence”—of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. Davoudian employs a classic move, winnowing down to a localized detail: “You wore your jacket tied around your waist.” Of all his richly textured images, this one, unexpectedly small, has stuck with me the most: the simple connectivity of the jacket’s two arms, bound together into confluence.

Throughout Swan Song, Davoudian shifts between English and Persian forms with a fluency that allows for skillful clumsiness. He sequences the sonnet, the rhyming couplet, the rubaiyat, the ghazal; his poems are often sparse, consistently mindful of space.

Describing a German language immersion summer camp, Davoudian declares, “I’ve vowed to unlearn English / for six weeks.” Deployed with a mastery so self-aware it ushers in humor, the line break captures Davoudian’s relationship with the English language and its traditional strictures. 

This playful undercutting—a wry nod to the inevitability of existing in English—emerges again in his interpretation of formal rhyme schemes. “Coming Out of the Shower” yields imperfect juxtapositions like “I’m coming out” / “I knot” and “forget” / “despite”. 

These themes coalesce in one of the collection’s most striking pieces, “Persian Poetry.” Again, it invokes declaration as its opener: “I teach Robert Lowell to undergraduates at an elite institution.” The speaker’s colleagues discuss art in highfalutin terms: “Englishness, paradigm shift, other-ness—”. And yet, Davoudian is forthright about his own place in this system: “I study English poetry / because Persian would have been too obvious.” This poem follows one entitled “Alibi”; a word hanging over a piece called “Persian Poetry” yet written in English.

By the end of Swan Song, Davoudian’s twin subject matter of home and language become intertwined; both notions are constrictive yet permissive, structures which nevertheless allow for space.

The sonnet “Ararat” opens with the speaker leaving home, turning into a bird in flight. “This is where I live now. Should I cry?”, he wonders. The answer comes at the poem’s final line, delightful and wholly unexpected, made sing-songily serious with an internal rhyme: “Coo. Caw. My house is made of straw.” 

There is no right way to feel, Davoudian concludes. But throughout this collection, with “Coo. Caw” as an example, he gives us an approach: one that necessitates moments of levity, of wriggling in and out and between languages. 

Swan Song is available at Bull City Press


Claire Shang is a freshman at Columbia University, where she is an editor with The Columbia Review. She is a writer of poetry and creative nonfiction, and a reader of mostly everything. Her work has appeared in or been recognized by Peach Mag, No, Dear Magazine, and Smith College.

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