Monday, October 28, 2013

Death Centos - Diana Arterian

Today's book of poetry:  Death Centos.  Diana Arterian.  Ugly Duckling Presse.  Brooklyn, USA.  2013.

"I'm so happy"
     last words of Jacques Arterian (author's grandfather)

To quote the editors at Ugly Duckling Presse, "Arterian employs the ancient framework of the cento — a collage form that borrows from the language of others.

Mark Nowak, the award winning poet, playwright and critic said this about the Death Centos — "Here, Joe Hill and John Brown meet Emily Dickinson in that moment before the lights go out".

What Arterian does in Death Centos is to usher us into that most feared of conversations, the one about our own mortality, and she does it with the words of the dying.  This is fabulous stuff.

Each poem is followed by a list of the speakers and it is fascinating stuff connecting the dots.  These poems really do speak from the grave.


This is the fight of day
and night.  The taste

of death is upon
my lips.  Please

put out the light.  I want
sunlight.  The earth

is suffocating.  I feel something
that is not

of this earth.  Don't pull
the blinds.

It is very beautiful over there.
There is nothing ... there,

do you hear the bell?  Why
not?  Why not?  I see

black light —
it is nothing.

Don't you hear it ringing?

More light.
Up... Up...

Ludwig van Beethoven, Frederic Chopin, Thomas Edison, Franz Ferdinand, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Victor Hugo, Timothy Leary, Wolfgang Amadeua Mozart, Theodore Roosevelt, Tom Simpson, Rudolph Valentino


Diana Arterian is not only very clever, she is very well read.  And we are the beneficiaries.  Arterian lists her sources after each poem and it adds both depth and validity to the process without distraction of any kind, without the lists the poems might even seem less somehow.  These poems are really the product of excellence in quilting as Arterian connects all these disparate voices and makes of them one humanity.


Please don't leave me,
please don't leave me.

Nothing soothes pain
like the human touch.

I haven't drunk champagne
in a long time.  I have tried

so hard to do right.
Only you have understood me

and you got it wrong.
Does nobody understand?

I sang of pastures,
fields and kings—

I have not told half
of what I saw.

I am going away tonight
I am going over the valley.

Drink to me.  Drink to my health.
You know I can't drink anymore.

James Brown, Anton Chekhov, Grover Cleveland, Chris Farley, Bobby Fischer, Georg Hegel, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Marco Polo, Babe Ruth, Virgil


James Brown, Anton Chekhov, Grover Cleveland, Chris Farley, Bobby Fischer, Georg Hegel, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Marco Polo, Babe Ruth and Virgil.  Astonishingly, Diana Arterian is able to bring these voices together to give sorrow words.  This is a refreshing new embrace, a celebration, of a common humanity revealed in last words.  Arterian is reminding us of how the same thread of humanity surges through us all.  

Sometimes our last words are not whispered on scented pillows but instead come at the hands of others.

To the Executioner(s)


When I give
the command to fire

center on my heart, boys.
Fire straight at my heart.

Don't mangle my body.
Please, don't let me fall.

Here, here is the heart.
You are going to hurt me.

In a short while
we'll meet each other

anyway.  I will wait
for you.  Just

one more

Madame de Barry. Adolf Eichmann, John Doyle Lee, Michel Ney, Schillschen officer, Mary Surratt, Karla Faye Tucker


This very attractive chapbook takes the last words out of the mouths of historical figures and criminals to make poetry that reminds us all how terribly human we are.  Atrerian gets it right again and again.

No one gets out alive in this world or in this book.

Ugly Duckling Presse, out of Brooklyn, New York, makes some very lovely chapbooks.  Natalia Porter did the design work and the result is a very crisp looking little book.  Death Centos was published in an edition of 575.

On Innocence

Something very wrong
is taking place tonight.

I am innocent,
innocent, innocent.

We are innocent.  The state
has succeeded in its quest

for my life.  The priceless
gift of life.  Life purchased

in exchange for lies
could not live out in dignity

Leonel Torres Herrera, Ernest Martin, Julius Rosenberg


Diana Arterian is currently pursuing a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California.  My poor research skills show that this is her first book, it won't be her last.

Diana Arterian reads Death Centos.

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