Falling Into a Rug:
Some Notes on Imagination and the Artifact

I believe that objects and artifacts can have animating powers. They can be more than evocative; they can embody what one might call a kind of psychic presence. A buried history or life can live in an object, especially an object that might in some way be tied to one’s life or one’s sense of significant experience. And this is, of course, because the viewer, the gazer, brings something to the object.

I would like to explore, in a way that I hope doesn’t intrude upon my poem, how a Persian rug, known as a Kashan, on which I grew up, came to be the object of a kind of reverie. But first, I would like to note some things about context. The rug comes with its story and the poet comes with his personal and inherited narrative— both personal history and the past of the Armenian Genocide are part of the fall into the rug.

I can only refer to the history of the Armenian Genocide in passing. I hope that the poem brings the history along in a way that is organic like the fiber of the rug, and that if the reader is unfamiliar with the history, the poem might send her or him to do some more reading. The  extermination of the Armenians has been important to me because of my family’s past, but the history is also important for understanding the modern era, because the Turkish government’s eradication of its largest Christian minority population (living on its historic  homeland of 2,500 years) on the Anatolian plateau (today central and eastern Turkey) began the era of modern genocide. In 1915, with World War I as a cover, the Armenians— who had been protesting for equal  civil  rights denied them  because of their Christian “infidel” status—were deported and massacred in a systematic  way. Before it was over more than a million were killed and more than a million permanently exiled. It’s no wonder Hitler was inspired by this event and said  to his military advisors eight  days before invading Poland in 1939 “Who, today, after all speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?”—a statement that also tells us something  about why memory matters.  In the end, of course, it’s history  in its broadest sense and the way it’s remembered that  pushes the poem.

Because I find memory a vitalizing  force, I found this Kashan  rug inseparable from my memory of childhood, inseparable from my growing up in my comfortable suburban house. The plush beauty of that carpet has been part of a life that must have been buried in me for years, and that came to life again when, at a certain age or for a certain reason, I began to dream back to my childhood.

That Kashan rug was a central object and work of art in our house. It was an object I walked on, lay on, slept on, rolled around on with my brother and sisters and, later, girlfriends. It was the true ground of the domestic world at 57 Crabtree Lane, in the suburban town of Tenafly, New Jersey, where I grew up. My parents bought the rug in 1951, the year of my birth, with wedding-gift money from my father’s uncle Edward Benlian, a prominent London rug merchant. Although no one ever spoke about it as an epithalamium, the Kashan was an artifact of celebration in our house: an object of family significance, of wedding ritual, of beginnings.

As I began to think about using the rug for my poem, I began to feel its presence as a place of things stored, and as an embodiment of both its essence and its personal meaning. It is a work of art connected to personal feeling, to something evocative. When a writer first begins to discover the beloved artifact, he begins to sniff it out like a dog taking in old but newly-discovered ground. One establishes a ground of intimacy with it. For me, the rug was something synonymous with my being, with the length of my life. I’ve stared at it, gazed on it, day-dreamed into it, for longer than I know, for more hours than I can measure by the clock.

The pile of the Kashan was so fine and dense that it felt nearly velvety as I brushed my hands and legs and face on it. A Sarouk, a Heriz, a Serapi would not have felt that way—only the wool of Kashan could produce such texture, so that a young boy felt that he was grazing into some seamless and smooth pasture of fantastical colors and forms. The rug hugged me, wrapped me in a kind of dream world engendered by those elaborate floral patterns meandering and scattered on the ivory field.

This was not an ordinary, commercial rug; it was a fine piece, probably woven in the 1930s or 40s (was it woven by those oppressed children who were co-opted into workshops to weave with their delicate fingers for slave wages by exploitative capitalists like my uncle?), and embodied the vestiges of the great art of the pre-modern Iran, or Persia, as we still called it now and then in my family.

After all, this was a Persian rug, and a high-city Persian carpet at that. (After World War II, Persian weaving would take a real nose-dive). The forms were not tiny and overwrought in a mechanical way like the most of the carpets of the post-War era; these flowers were large and distinctive. I could distinguish one from the other by color and shape. Not only were the flowers crisply drawn but they were graceful, as if the weaver’s hand were still alive in them. They had a life of their own, and although as a child I had no name for them, later I would see them as pomegranates, tulips, roses, lilies, poppies. Each flower had rich and subtle colors and beguiling insides, and I felt I was looking in at a cross-section of its anatomy, at the stamens and pistils and ovaries reconfigured. Purplish brown, a honey-like apricot, pomegranate-red, moss-green, pale yellow, alizarin. What kind of flower was this? Something organic and yet visionary in its colors and shapes, all within a six- or eight-inch form, that only Chagall or Gorky or Matisse or Sarian could have come up with it.

But I’m also drawn to the rug because of its historical resonance. It’s an artifact with a cultural context. First, in the Near East, in Armenian culture in my case, rugs are complex and unique things. They are, in some sense, the equivalents of oil paintings in Europe—a high mode of visual art. But, unlike the painting, the rug is often, but not always, a functional furnishing; it’s used in the domestic space to give warmth, to cover floors. Not only is it functional as furnishing, but it functions as part of an individual and family legacy; it’s what one passes on to the next generation; it’s an object of familial and sentimental value. And to top it off, it’s also an object of monetary value. The older it is, the better, and as the auction catalogs make clear, oriental rugs appreciate in value with time. The oriental rug is unique for these reasons, and all of this, I hope, consciously or unconsciously, seeps into  the poem.

The Kashan attracts me too because of its organic nature. It’s still alive in some way, alive because it’s made of fine wool, and spun by women, men, and children in the villages and towns of Iran. It’s made by hand on looms by women and children, knotted with almost hypnotic rhythm, with precision and knowledge of concept and form. And then there’s the color. The fabulous part of the art. The brilliant, resonant, evocative, often variegated tonality of color. The dye-makers, like the weavers, are heroes in this art. They are assigned the task of making beautiful color that will last. If the colors don’t last, the rug loses its presence, its art.

The older it gets, the richer and more complex the colors get. One might think of the dye-makers as being a bit like alchemists; they take matter from the organic world and distill it and transform it into something they hope will be permanent. They use roots, herbs, leaves, stones, dirt, berries, the crushed thorax of the kermes insect, the shell of a mollusk. Dye-makers are like poets, using everything they can for their art, compressing and transforming their stuff to make something that will outlive them. Dye-making as ars poetica. “Safflower, my dyer’s thistle, carry me on your burr, so I may always feel dry gusts at my neck.” If the color lasts, the art will last. 

If one feels the artifact’s depth, one then pushes into it more deeply. If I can find a way into the inner life of the artifact, then the rug, in this case, might allow me to move into history, and also into my own emotion and memory. For me, this rug became a variation on a flying carpet—an unraveling carpet.

Now I undo the loops
of yarn I rested my head on.
Under each flower
a tufted pile loosens.

I feel the wool give way
as if six centuries of feet
had worn it back to the hard
earth floor it was made to cover.

       Back and back, down and down, into the stuff inside the stuff. Put your hand beneath the  surface, peel back its layers. It’s important to find the connections—whatever your artifact: a map, a clock, an old toy, a vase, a photograph. To let the mind flow and associate freely. In my case, it’s to see how art and nature, and the larger culture and history I am exploring can tie into the rug. I want to keep color and form alive as imaginative triggers, so that things like a henna plant, a zither, a peacock, can emerge as sensual and cultural emblems. Texture and sense. Texture yields text. Words come out of the sensual threads embedded in the thing, so that at a certain point in the poem, I’m lost in the thing-ness of the rug. And I want to be lost. I don’t want to follow some path that is overly determined or too logical; I want the rug to take me up, the way a lover takes you up, the way the wave of feeling pours over you.
       What the rug opened up for me was process—unfolding, on-going. Knowing the artifact helps. The oriental rug is often conceived as a garden, and in this rug, it’s a garden framed by quite baroque, cascading borders that suggest winding vines. Most Persian rugs were gardens of encoded meanings to have inside your house, and so I want the poem to play with the mystery of the rug-garden. This Kashan is set on a creamy, warm-hued ivory field, of a kind that might have been colored with a bit of walnut-shell. The sensuality of the rug beckons for a kind of imaginative wandering. Let yourself wander, let yourself love the textures of the images, colliding and moving. I don’t want to think of the poem as trying to solve a problem, but as a way of opening up a problem. The floral images, the movement of motifs on the ivory field, the scrolling and meandering vine shapes in the borders, the color and all its seductive messages; the come-ons and caresses, all trigger movement, and the movement leads to discovery.
       To see the colors deeply is to follow the movement of the flowers, so they can open up. The rug now leads me into the process of its own making and also to a sense of place. In this poem, in this case, it becomes a historical place, the place of tragedy where the extermination of the Armenians occurred. Although the atrocities happened all over Turkey, it is eastern and southern Turkey that seep into this poem: Van, an ancient Armenian city on the eastern border with Russia, and Adana, another once-historic Armenian city in the south near the Mediterranean. Places on the map, places of mass killing. Once I’m this far into the rug, there’s more mobility, more leap and surprise. From sense and texture to history and pain. The rug echoing with emblems of the past.

The heavy mallet a Parsee boy
once used to beat the knots
beneath the pile so
the weft would disappear

vibrates in me
as a knelling bell
over the sea of Marmara
once rang toward the West.

       In this poem it wasn’t possible to see the rug as simply a representation of a garden, a vision of a timeless pastoral world. If you explore trauma and genocide, it’s hard to see nature in as pure a way as Emerson once did. After such catastrophe, nature too is spoiled, hence my journey into the beautiful images of the rug is also a journey of reckoning. “I pry my way into a rose/ undoing its blighted cliché.” It’s now a darker world where nature yields the tragic. Here, the inside of a flower can become a mode of consciousness, a passageway to loss—of family, culture, place. In this way, I hoped to subvert some of the rug’s tradition. Before it’s over, I want the source of color, those substances of organic matter to be vehicles for memory. The dyes, and the images they make, can open up the possibilities of hearing the dead so that history and its meanings may spill out in new ways.

The Oriental Rug


I napped in the pile
in the brushed and bruised
Kashan on our living room floor
an eight-year-old sleeping

in vegetable dyes—
roots and berries,
tubers, shafts, dry leaves

the prongy soil
of my grandparents’ world:
eastern Turkey, once Armenia.

The wine-red palmettes
puckered with apricot buds
and fine threads of green
curling stem-like over my cheek

leaving a shadow like filigree
on my eye as I closed it.

The splintering green wool
bled from juniper berries
seemed to seep, even then,

into the wasp-nest cells
breathing in their tubular ways
inside my ear and further back.

On certain nights
when the rain thrummed
against the clapboard

and my father’s snoring issued
down the hall, I slept on the rug
curled and uncovered
and the sea of ivory

between the flowers
undulated as if the backs
of heavy sheep were breathing
in my mouth.

The prickly cypress
down by the friezed border
spiraled in my night gazing.
Armenian green:

dwarf cabbage, shaded cedar,
poppy stem, the mossy pillow
where my grandfather
sat in the morning dark

staring at the few goats
that walked around the carnage.
Outside my house the grass
never had such color.



Now I undo the loops
of yarn I rested my head on.
Under each flower
a tufted pile loosens.

I feel the wool give way
as if six centuries of feet
had worn it back to the hard
earth floor it was made to cover.

Six centuries of Turkish heels
on my spine-dyed back:
madder, genista, sumac—
one skin color in the soil.

I lose myself
in a flawed henna plant
jutting toward the scroll.
Its rose-pink eyes burst

off the stems.
The auburn dust
which reddens the women
returns with a sharp wind.

The vine of lily-blossoms winding
by the fringe once shined
like fur when a spray of sun
flushed through a curtain—

that gracious shape hardens now
like a waxy twig at summer’s end.

I hear wind running
through heart-strings.

I hear an untuned zither
plucked by a peacock’s accidental strut.

Warp and weft come undone;
sludge spills back to the earth

(my liver’s bitter
as the pomegranate’s acid seed).



The heavy mallet a Parsee boy
once used to beat the knots
beneath the pile so
the weft would disappear

vibrates in me
as a knelling bell
over the Sea of Marmara
once rang toward the West.

I pitch myself
into the spinning corolla
of an unnamed flower

coral, red, terra-cotta,
get thrown down a lattice of leaves

to the dark balm
of the marshy hillsides

of my faraway land—
the poppied acres
of Adoian’s hands.



I pry my way
into a rose—
undoing its blighted cliché.

I strain for the symmetry
of its inflorescence,

slide along the smooth
cup of a petal
till I rush headfirst
down the pistil

feeling the tubey walls
muscle me to the ovary
where a bee was swooning
on some pollen.

Wrapped this tight
I suck my way into the nectaries;
feel a hummingbird’s tongue
and the chalky wing of a moth.

That wet, I wash
to the cool leaflets,

rim their toothed edges,
then back-rub

the remains of sepals
which kept the rose alive
in blighted April when Adana
and Van were lopped off the map.

I come apart in the thorn
(the spiky side that kept the jackal out)
and disperse whatever’s left
of me to the earth.



I walk with a rug on my back.
Become to myself a barren land.
Dust from the knots
fills my arms

and in the peaceful New World sun
becomes fine spume.

A sick herbalist
wandering in a century
mapped by nations wandering.

The dyes come through the wool,
break the grid of threads
holding the shapes to form:

safflower, my Dyer’s Thistle,
carry me on your burr
so I may always feel
dry gusts on my neck.

Kermes, dried like a scab,
crush me to your womanly scarlet chest.
I feel your scales
flutter in my eyes.

Madder root—
which makes the red of Karabagh
bleed along one long hallway.

Tyrian purple, from a mollusk shell
lodged in Phoenician sand—
gurgle all your passion in my ear.


                           for my daughter, Sophia




     Kashan: floral Persian rug.
     madder: herb yielding red dye.
     genista: spiny shrub yielding yellow dye.
     Marmara: sea between Asiatic and European Turkey.
     Adoian: family name of painter Arshile Gorky,
     who was born in the  Armenian  province of Van.
     Van: Armenian province in eastern Turkey.
     Karabagh: mountainous region of Armenia famous for its long rugs.



“The Oriental Rug” first published in Poetry, 1985.
“Falling Into A Rug” first appeared in an earlier version in Introspections: American Poets on One of Their Own Poems, ed Pack and Parini,  Middlebury/University of New England Press, 1997 .