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Memory Through a Refracted Post-colonial Gaze:
Keith Garebian's Against Forgetting

Keith Garebian's Against Forgetting
Keith Garebian, Against Forgetting
Calgary: Frontenac House, 2019.

“The menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority.”

– Homi Bhabha , Of Mimicry and Man

Keith Garebian’s Against Forgetting develops the poet’s ongoing passion for memory. Ethnicity, education, and the presence of paternal lineage continue the poet’s exploration of family history and evoke a strong and engaging sense of inter-generational discourse. Maternal images arise throughout, giving the collection a powerful, conflicted, yet loving sense of intersecting cultural/familial influences that have shaped the writer’s life and practice.

“Mimicry,” a pivotal poem, balances a powerful citational tone by inserting an instructional and poetic meditation. The concept of mimicking indirectly references Homi Bhabha’s work on hybridity, whereby individuals living within colonized societies take on the culture of the colonizers. As a poet/theatre arts journalist/actor, Garebian adeptly navigates this balancing act in his life and in his work. His heritage contributes to an exquisitely refracted and deconstructionist way of perceiving past, present, and future. “Mimicry” straddles all of these time periods, creating a reflective space for the reader to consider the pages and the words that have come before:

I was never in love with the mud tablets
of Indian provinces, manacled mantras,
saffron Benares, the inner ears of shells…
Their styles were beyond my mimicry.

This pointed list, culled from the memory of the poet’s life as a queer artist born to an Armenian father and an Anglo-Indian mother, constructs a configurative identity that reveals many aspects of a refracted post-colonial gaze. “Mimicry” quickly moves, as do many of the poems in Against Forgetting, into another list of memories originating within particular literary and cultural experiences that Garebian encountered at a very early age:

in school, imitation was imperative
in writing. We copied or echoed,
in elegant murmurs, fastidious facsimiles,
morphing into literary mimics …
some virtue in our practice:
mimicry showed variety
in being adept.

This personal take on post-colonialism renders colonialist intrusion a challenge that the subject utilizes to his advantage. The echoes and murmurs of Garebian’s self-identified virtue lend an essential conflict and rhythmic power to a decidedly racialized gaze—a gaze inflected here and there with subtle gestures toward the queerness lying at the homosocial heart of the writer’s tone and subject matter: “School dances, chastely homosocial, / chaperoned by teachers, priests, / and asexual parents” (“Jesuits, Shri, and Sex”).

Nearing the end of the collection this queerness gently surfaces again in “Second Country” as eloquently nonchalant rhythms are cited from Frank O’Hara’s poem “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” :Don’t worry about your lineage / poetic or natural. / The sun shines on.” Garebian’s poems always worry, in elegant, explorative and powerful ways, about lineage—cultural and literary. He crafts memory through rich tapestries of identity in order to both rage against and pay homage to a past that shapes a future. This gentle rage against forgetting resists the potential loss of all that has gone into the construction of a particular poetic voice. All the world, a varied post-colonial stage, as Shakespeare—Garebian’s lowercase “god” (“We Are Unalike, This Land That Houses Me”)— rules. The iconic bard frequently guides Garebian’s literary trajectories as spaces for high drama marked by sharp sighted poetic reflection.

Against Forgetting moves across borders from India to England, and ultimately Canada, finding theatrical solace and colonial grandeur in the mouths of colonized schoolchildren, actors (e.g. Sir Laurence Olivier), and queer poets, ultimately resting in the final line of a stunning collection by an artfully insightful colonized soul: “The past is here” (“Self-portrait In A New World”’).

 

David Bateman is a Toronto-based poet, painter, and arts journalist. He has taught creative writing at various universities across Canada. His first novel, DR SAD, will be published by the University of Calgary Press in November of 2020.

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