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Leonardo Alishan

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'Always Drunk and Asleep Before Me, My Guardian Angel' Leonardo Alishan wrote those lines five years ago. He died tragically in a house fire January 9, at the age of 53.

By Jenny Kiljian

Celebrated poet Leonardo Alishan died on January 9, when a fire tore through his Salt Lake City, UT home.

Born in Tehran, Iran, Alishan came to the United States in 1973 for graduate studies. He earned a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Texas at Austin before moving to Utah, where he taught Persian literature and comparative literature for 20 years at the University of Utah.

He published two books of poetry. Dancing Barefoot on Broken Glass was published in 1991, and Through a Dewdrop--a collection of haiku, tanka, and senryu--in 2000. He also contributed his poetry to literary journals, including the Burning Bush and Aspora.

His poems explored love and romance, the Armenian Genocide, and feelings of isolation. Many people have characterized Alishan's work as being distinctly Armenian in feeling, even though the poems are in English.

Alishan focused heavily on his grandmother, a Genocide survivor who took care of him in his childhood. Her hands figure as a central motif in several poems from Dancing Barefoot on Broken Glass.

Those who knew Alishan are reeling from the news of his death.

"It's a terrible loss," said his friend Ara Oshagan, who interviewed Alishan in the early 1990s for the Asbarez newspaper in Los Angeles. "We don't have that many accomplished poets in the English language and he was definitely one of them, both widely published and recognized. It's a great loss to Armenian letters."

While he was in his basement apartment, a fire on the first level caused the floor to collapse, trapping Alishan under the debris.

Firefighters arrived on the scene minutes after neighbors called 911, but the damage was insurmountable.

"We don't know how long the fire had been burning before neighbors called 911," said Capt. Michael Jensen, public information officer of the Unified Fire Authority. "Our crews did the best they could, but it was too late to save him by the time we got there."

Firefighters discovered Alishan's remains on his bed; officials believe he was not aware of the fire, according to Jensen. The cause of the fire will remain undetermined. "The floor had collapsed, and the evidence was destroyed in the fire," Jensen said.

Leonardo Alishan is survived by his former wife, Neli, and their three children, Ara, Michael and Eileen. Funeral services were held Saturday, January 15, 2005, at 11:00 a.m., at St. Thomas More Catholic Church, 3015 E. Creek Road.

The family suggests donations, in lieu of flowers, to Asian Tsunami victims in care of the Red Cross, P.O. Box 38436, SLC, UT 84110.

Used with permission from Armenian Weekly - Jan 15-21, 2005