Root River Return, the poetry of David Kherdian

Root River Return_cover for blog

          In 1970, I was a refugee from Brooklyn living in a broken down old house in Lyme, New Hampshire. I came into the country for the same reason that many of my generation did, to heal the stresses of the lunatic sixties and to find a better way of life. Working as a low laborer with a local construction crew, I tried to fit in as best I could. I tried to decipher their deep New England way of talking. It seemed like another language that had developed without a thought  to the world beyond.

           My goal was to learn how to do a hard day’s work and I did, hoisting plank after plank onto the roof of the house the Kherdians had bought on the edge of the big forest at the foot of Bear Hill. We rebuilt their whole roof and in the process I understood that he was a poet. We got to know each other a bit beyond the landowner/worker relationship. It was probably obvious I was not a “local” and had my own story and reasons for being where I was, and it would be especially obvious to a perceptive and sensitive poet.

          Many years passed, about forty five, and then somehow I saw an announcement of David’s book of poems, “Living in Quiet,” Deerbrook Editions 2013 and it all came back and stayed back; I can see all the scenes of long ago in perfect clarity. Or as the poet says:

10 Years Later

Standing on the leafy bank

on my first day back

overlooking hills & ravines

and the river I fished,

I knelt, reached back over

the years, and threw a stick

that tumbled a wild green apple.

One bite and it all came back.

          And so, I wrote to him from Indonesia, from Bali where we were living, and we reconnected. I sent my check and received my autographed copy of “Living in Quiet.”

          As I do with anything that is “any good” I read every single word and sometimes more than once to capture the meaning, the essence of it all. His writing is not complicated except in the sense that there is such depth in the clarity and precision of his words. He grasps and is able to express the most important feelings, those that constantly escape the net of expression.

          It takes time and quiet to think deeply, to discover how one really feels about people, situations,  and the character of one’s life. Perhaps  it also takes the perspective of age to look back and clearly see what we most assuredly missed when we first saw it, whether it be our hometown, our friends, or the people we saw but didn’t really see.

          In his new volume, Root River Return, 2015, by Beech Hill Publishing Co. David Kherdian  continues his poetic reflections, focusing on the town of his youth, Racine, Wisconsin.


The city’s smallest park

there behind the

downtown theaters

and below the street

that followed the lake

With a bench or two

a patch of grass

and a view of blue water

clear to the horizon

I had come from the busy city

to sit on the grass alone

absorbed in the life

of that place

that for the moment

was home

          David Kherdian’s poetry is evocative of past time, of a simpler world, of memory one can taste, and of feelings we all share as human beings but so few of us are able to express.

Dear Mrs. McKinney of the Sixth Grade

Hands down, you were my favorite

teacher at Garfield Elementary,

or at any school since:

your stern, austere face, that

held an objective judgment of

everything in charge;

the patient way you taught,

out of a deep belief and respect

for learning,

and the good books you chose

to read aloud –

in particular, Mark Twain;

and the punishment you handed

out (a twin cheek twist, just

once, with forefingers and thumbs)

embarrassed us only because

we had failed ourselves,

for we had wisely learned from you

the need for discipline and regard.

Long after I left that place

I saw you once waiting for a bus,

and though I returned your warm

smile, I hurried on.

Why didn’t I stop, as I could

see you wanted me to? I deeply

regretted it for weeks, and there

are moments when I remember it still.

And nothing, not poem, not time,

not anything for which I might

stand proud, can erase that seeming

failure of feelings and regard on

my part.

I loved you, I really did, and I

wish now that in stopping and chatting

with you for a moment I could have

shown it to you then,

instead of now, in this poem,

in which only time and loss, not

you and I, are the subject to be held.

          Poems like this,  short prose, and character sketches from his life follow one after another in consistent beauty. It is an experience of reliving the most important and delicate feelings of  one’s life.

          David Kherdian was born in 1931 in Racine, Wisconsin. He is in his eighties now and still vital, active, productive. He is an Armenian and grew up within that community.

          In 1915, during the first World War, the dying Ottoman Empire took advantage of the tumult of war to systematically destroy its Armenian minority. Millions died of starvation and execution. Kherdian’s mother and father scarcely survived; they landed in the promised land of America.

          Although his Armenian heritage informs  Kherdian’s  persona as it must, that fact does not define him. He refuses to be categorized either by that or by his association with the Beat poets. In correspondence I learned very clearly that he always wanted to be just himself, even if he wasn’t sure what that was earlier in life. He knew he wanted to be an artist but was not sure what kind of artist he wanted to be or what that even meant. He emerged as a fine writer of many books published in fourteen different languages. It is a long list reflecting great quality but, for me, his poetry is the heart of it all.

I didn’t want to protect myself

I didn’t want to protect myself

by seeking perfection against the

accidental onslaughts of time-

but instead to move imperfectly

through it all, not to be the best

or the only, or the one to watch,

but rather the beggar of mercy

and grace, finding new hope

in each disappointment

believing against reason

(against what the senses said could not be)

that there was an order beyond this

disorder, that there was

a truth beyond this lie,

and that I was included in its design,

that could not be seen or named

but could be believed in,

if one believed that one

was loved.

          On the back cover of Root River Return a testimonial by Aria Baliozian says, “…a Kherdian poem has this in common with a Bach prelude; it is not only beautiful but an explanation of beauty.” That is an exquisite idea and I have spent a good deal of time contemplating it. It goes to the heart of what I think art is.

          The attempt at art requires honesty, courage, sincerity, emotion, and energy. Nothing false survives in the realm of art which is why I think David Kherdian’s poems are so important. They reveal a truly authentic man exposing his heartfelt experience and the highly nuanced emotions that accompany that experience. The skill and artistry of finding the right words and combinations of words to express for us what we have always known and felt makes David Kherdian very special. By the magic of art his life becomes our life.  

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya, Indonesia

February 11, 2016