Ozone Journal

by Peter Balakian

Peter Balakian


I woke to CFCs humming out of coils.

I woke to a compressor in my head
and the compressor in the wall that made cool air come out of the vents—

couldn’t sleep—downloaded photos of the day,
to stare at them, as if the sky were something I could breathe in:

not good times by the sea, but—desert-blue and cracked ground,

some tumbleweed blowing into my jeans;
green signs of Arabic letters looked like beautiful tributaries,

as they faded out along a road going to the Iraqi border,

where oil refineries were firing on the horizon,
where a border is a road: ending and beginning.


All day I was digging Armenian bones out of the Syrian desert

with a TV crew that kept ducking the Mukhabarat
who trailed us in jeeps and at night joined us

for arak and grilled goat under colored pennants and cracked lights
in cafés where piles of herbs glistened back at me.

I passed out from sun and arak and camel jokes

in a massive hotel, my room opened to the Euphrates
that was churning in the moonlight.


When I woke I was dreaming back to the ’80s on Riverside Drive
where Ani was born on a bright spring day,

in a decade of money and velvet when the plastic voice of Sinatra
floated through fern bars where we lounged

with wine spritzers and lemon-drop martinis.
It was silver palette and more than cuisine

with its encoded sense of ending
and the smoked sable at Barney Greengrass

where we took Ani for brunch
on Sunday when the morning was lit up and open,


—dreaming back to days
(why here on the black Euphrates at 4:00 a.m.?)

after our life went up in a blue flame as the gas jet died
and—we were gone to each other—

the walls silent and the floor boards echoed;
the U-Haul came and my books got rained on—

and the flags were rippling for Saint Gennaro.
Thisbe and Pyramus disappeared as myth and symbol
and that summed it up.


Those days (no dream) the squeaky cassette going—
on Jerry in Riverdale. When I arrived the sky was graphed
through phone wires and Amtrak cables.

I was sitting beneath shelves of uncut-masters—
the 78s of 1940 when Jerry cut the modern LP
and found the lost Hot Jazz of the ’20s—

I was staring at hanging Armenian rugs and the river glare
on a photo of Miles Davis—almost liquid in the sepia emulsion

of 1947 when the smoke spiraled into Three Deuces on 52nd
at a table with Sterling Brown and Gillespie and Jerry—

and he put it (in his hammered speech), “John Hammond
was so hated by the musicians, Miles cut him out of the photo and pasted
Dizzy in—but that was before I got Miles interested in Cage.”


By noon I was leaning on the cotton white hospital wall,
gazing at the islands of purple lesions on
David’s slightly swollen leg, the edema rising

in his groin, the sheets strewn and the IV
dripping blue down the snaking plastic tube.

My year of magical thinking looped down
the drain of my brain: “Take care, cousin.”

I blew him a kiss,


before I was back at the English department table,

feeling the post mortem of the modern:
the paradigm critique essential but the artifact
thrown out with the bathwater.

Over-fetishizing indeterminacy,
or depressed expression of late capitalism?

Get Foucault and Trilling in bed—
give peace a chance.

Gorky said, take a flat brush
and work it till there are two hairs left.


Light comes diffuse out of itself over the Euphrates
from the hotel room veranda—irrigated farmland/yellow tint/
veins running through furrows/snaking green patches—


and I see David’s eyes flat and glassy;
his voice through Xanax

was a silk kerchief through a ring—
memory was focus, detail, the thing—

the way sun lit up brownstone—

the way a Burgundy was a whiff when the cork pops
and the air is Tiffany and evening comes

with its mix and synthesized backing tracks.

Pigeons flew into porch lanterns
and the spring synth notes of Donna Summer,

as the cold and hot pianos melted into riot bombs of
strobes and the dust of white powder:

off Columbus on 71st in the ’70s.


When I walked under the canopy of the Ansonia
I saw your hand in the restoration of the
turreted copper and the beaux arts angels,

the mansard roof floated in the ultra rays,

where you worked in the early ’80s on the running
frieze and the cornices

while down on the sidewalk, everyone was buffed up on glistening
shops of leather, tiers of mangos, apples, honeydew.

At night Ani slept as if we were still together.
Her breathing calmed the saw that spits the air.


Ozone Journal (Excerpt)

Last updated February 20, 2023