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Why we should read... 'Vahan Tekeyan' - A confession in poetry Selected Works (Library of Armenian Classics, pp239-364, 1981, Yerevan) Armenian News Network / Groong September 26, 2002 By Eddie Arnavoudian Opening his autobiographical 'Confessions' Jean Jacques Rousseau writes 'I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent and which once complete will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be my self'. With all the necessary qualifications Vahan Tekeyan's (1897-1945) poetry is also a 'confession' of this order marked by a similar intellectual and philosophical depth, emotional honesty and an indisputable artistic excellence. Tekeyan's poetic embrace is broad. He delves frankly and painfully into the traumas of his personal life laying bare his most intimate emotions and desires and revealing his ambitions, hopes, fears and failures. He also reflects passionately on those national, social and political concerns that drove this intensely private man into public life. He touches besides on the role and function of memory and dream, the problem of god and faith, human ideals, war and genocide. Beautifully composed, the result is a vast poetic legacy every reading of which unveils something new, a new vision or a refreshed perception or insight. (Note: A "DDH/MM" following an excerpt indicates translation by Diana Der Hovannessian and Marzbed Margossian) I. The poet's mission and his craft In a poem 'To the Reader' Vahan Tekeyan qualifies the limits of his confession: 'My soul is mine alone and however much on every page I appear To bare it before unknown passers, My soul is mine and none can know it fully In all its brilliant lights and its awesome darkness.' He ends however on a note of regret: 'Was it necessary to open even so little of myself to so many When I wished to give myself completely only to a few.' Much of Tekeyan's poetry is the story of this regret that tells of a man rich with emotions and desires whose personal life is nevertheless condemned to barrenness and unrelieved loneliness. While writing essentially 'only for myself' Tekeyan was nevertheless 'comforted in the thought that' these 'songs from my seared soul' could 'serve to soothe another's heart.' But besides soothing private pains he also wrote to fire and to inspire resistance to injustice and national oppression. For this he drew on those 'brilliant lights' that cohabited with the 'awesome darkness' within him. Lights that were fuelled by the 'wonderful shining world of dreams' that alone held 'the keys to closed doors'. Lights that were sustained also by memories of the past 'a single ray of which can light up the present.' Memory and dream were refuges of hope which he would share with 'all the wretched of the earth'. Death held no fear so long as 'the healthy rays of his intellect served' to 'light up darker corners of people's hearts'. A 'Balance Sheet' reveals his deep generosity of spirit. Asking what he got from life he writes 'only what I gave away, extraordinary, only that; what went to others returned sweetened and strengthened to rest with me eternally.' (DDH/MM) Some poetry can be discussed in terms of its content - its ideas, emotions and vision - without significant reference to poetic technique. Not so with Vahan Tekeyan. Here form and content are an integral, indivisible whole. The intellectual and emotional depth of his best poetry derives from this almost matchless harmony of form and content. Tekeyan communicates not through logical exposition of ideas but through poetic form. His fine intellect, his vision and refined sensitivity are sculpted with loving care and attention to language, word, metaphor, synonym, image, rhyme and rhythm. Understanding the power of the word, 'one often sufficient to open entire horizons', his labour 'on each and every word and syllable consumed his being.' The result is regularly remarkable. Fertility of imagination and sophisticated craftsmanship gives the profusion of metaphors and images an unusual richness and colour. Even well trodden themes acquire an originality that enhances and refines them. Tekeyan evokes emotion, sensation and feeling with an almost lived immediacy, reproducing them as it were, unmediated, without filtering them through the reason and logic of hindsight. He succeeds in seducing the reader into a magical experience by rendering into language that which seemed beyond expression or by making conscious what normally slumbers in the subconscious. The centrality of technique to Tekeyan's poetry makes a discussion in English substantially unsatisfactory. For lack of adequate translation it is almost impossible to demonstrate poetic accomplishment through quotation. But persevere one must, for perhaps even a single spark that survives even the poorest translation may serve to inspire some to return to the originals. Or perhaps even inspire others to demand from modern poets fitting renditions into English or other foreign languages. II. An extraordinary odyssey of personal pain Vahan Tekeyan's private, personal life was scarred by immeasurable loneliness and disillusionment. 'Vultures snatched my childhood dreams/and all my beliefs sunk deep into the waters of the sea'. At the core of his drama was a 'thirst for a love that remained forever unquenched'. It was an impossible love, an impermissible love. So it was love that only exhausted and wasted. 'This infinite tragedy will endure And none will hear of it or see it And in my own darkness I shall slowly fade and waste.' The speculation, sometimes sordid, on the nature of Tekeyan's love is immaterial to the value of his poetry which tells of all noble love forbidden through the ages for whatever reactionary social, moral or religious reason. This love was 'like a secret garden concealed by flowers'. Some may have seen its 'smoke upon the infinite sky' but never did 'they see its flame.' Recording the lover's name, richly re-created 'by your beauty and my love', is also imossible, even in a coded language such as that used by Sayat Nova in similar straits. So those who inspired his 'greatest joy and greatest grief' will never know of it: 'I have loved, but none of those I loved Knew how deeply I loved... who can fathom the heart?' Occasionally this gentle, tender, almost wistfully resigned sufferance bursts forth in a flood of frustrated agony and rage. Possessed by an 'unquenchable storm of destruction' the poet's love becomes as a 'wandering bird' that neither 'nests nor rests', a bird that endlessly 'claws away at the wounds of its shattered wings.' Love becomes a hell, a 'dark, silent endless cave', whose floor is 'strewn with skulls of countless lambs.' In 'So This Is It' the cup of life flows over with bitterness and despair: 'Now like a miserable beggar I am forced to plead for my daily nourishment of love And finding it none I scavenge through rubbish dumps For anything that will ease my need. ... Not even my own mother knew or asked How I managed to endure, how I managed to nourish my soul None have suffered divine cruelty like I have.' Yet miraculously beyond this pain Tekeyan's poetry also grasps love in its joyous fullness. He depicts universal love, dissolved down to its defining elements. These he presents in images that seem to capture irrefutable, self-evident truths we feel but have hitherto found no words to express. Whatever he reflects on, whether a lover's name, eye, hair, Tekeyan's poems touch on and illuminate an essential dimension of love's eternal wonder and delight. The 'two syllables alone' of the lover's name are like 'a whole scripture' that is recited endlessly, but by him always 'behind closed doors'. The lover's eyes and voice are like 'a chain which, ring by ring, encircle me' and 'trembling I am enslaved.' In a beautiful image of blossoming love: 'my eyes are flooded with so much love, desire and tenderness that s/he is slowed in her approach as if before a flood of light.' When in love physical attributes become at the same time manifestations of emotion and spirit: 'The dizzying aroma from your hair that touches my mouth Is like incense rising to me from your soul.' Tekeyan's love poetry is not marked by overt sexuality. But some resonate with the melancholy of unfulfilled passion. As the poet's 'every single thought' centres on his lover, his own blood 'freezes at the thought that you only but think about me.' Physical desire is however ephemeral, but: 'Your soul, that I got to know so well, Lives within me concealed, It is my saint and in its honour my thoughts are endless celebrations.' Beyond love in the silence of the endless 'Open Sea', as he leaves behind the cluster of islands where he could have anchored, Tekeyan creates a haunting metaphor for the loneliness in the wake of life's failed relationships. The bitter regret of childlessness in 'The Punishment' is echoed in 'To My Son'. Denied the joy of experiencing 'my child rising as I bent' exhausted by life: 'I now go from strangers' door to door ... searching the eyes of other people's children ... for those of my little boy.' (DDH/MM) But he never will find his little boy and will die alone 'unknown, a stranger.' Meanwhile age grows upon him to become 'a vast tree whose trunk/blocks behind it my entire horizon'. Still Tekeyan never threw in the towel. In 'To Battle', a true masterpiece, he summons 'old hopes abandoned by the wayside to return to me one by one'. These, his 'undecorated yet brave troops from countless previous expeditions', he urges on once again 'into the uneven battle... against evil, lies and hypocrisies.' III. For Society and Nation Despite unrelieved personal unhappiness Vahan Tekeyan's life was a dedication to the enlightenment and liberation of the Armenian people. To them in 'thought and in action he offered up the best yield of his soul'. He raged against a god that allowed 'the weak, including (his) own son, to always fall wounded, their nakedness covered with a cloak of their own blood.' Reminding us directly of Rousseau he notes how 'The Battle for Gold' has 'transformed life's joys into pain and its ambitions into wounds'. So the poet: 'Like a flash of lightning hurls himself into the midst of the battle To seize the pile of gold and return it to nature.' For Tekeyan the World War of 1914-1918 and the Armenian genocide marked the death of 'man's great Dream' of 'love and brotherhood'; a dream that expressed 'the godliness of humanity.' While his social poems despite optimistically reflecting grand humanist sentiments lack genuine poetic flight. His national poetry is of an altogether different order. Poems such as 'Ode to the Armenian Language', 'The Temple of Zvartnotz', 'Svedia', 'We Will Forget', 'The Orphans' Hands', 'The Bridge' and many others are as fine and as profoundly touching and enlightening as any of literature's best. These poems are protests against injustice and celebrations of human wisdom, culture, civilisation, language and resistance. Tekeyan's intensely personal and intimate feeling for the march of Armenian history makes his love of the Armenian nation a love of people. He rarely refers to the reified 'nation'. Contemplating revival and recovery his focus is never the abstract 'people' but particular, concrete living, suffering, struggling beings - orphans, fathers, sons, mothers, babies. His imagery always concrete and fixed in conditions of everyday life frees these poems of all rhetorical sloganeering. 'In these dark times' Tekeyan's sought to 'be a bridge' to transmit from ancient epochs those features of Armenian culture and civilisation that could act as inspiration 'to save the nation' today. In an ode to the pagan 'Temple of Zvartnotz' he etched the terrible contrast between ancient pride and current servitude. It is an urging to get off one's knees. Once in the temple whose ruins now rest: 'beneath centuries of dust Those who were free fathers to us today Knelt forth, side by side, humbling themselves, But still they never failed to each time stand erect. Yet today, around this ruined temple I see ... Their offspring, permanently bowed, always grim Lord, free them too, for the sake of their forefathers.' This and other poems that look to the past consider the cultural and moral heritage that can be drawn on in the struggle for national liberation. The 1915 Armenian genocide dashed this dream and branded Tekeyan's poetry with anger and a vengeful hatred. Calling for a rejection of heavenly paradise as recompense he scolds God: 'Keep your paradise for the Turk Us, return us again to hell The hell we know so well The hell you taught us to know so well.' Man's crime against man has 'fashioned the orphan's hands into swords.' Hands that 'hardly recall the warmth of a father's palm/that once covered them both when still tiny paws' have become 'fists' and 'flags that race to a victory'.. Yet beyond the hatred and the revenge Tekeyan also sees the 'Day That Will Come' when 'man will be equal to man, in pleasure and of course in pain too/.../When the chain will be to transmit not to constrain'. When that day arrives 'all those of my race dispersed across the globe/who now sleep in graves and in cots / will awake to joyfully proclaim / from roof to roof from grave to grave, father to son, son to father / that one can rest in peace and the other bloom safely.' This vision is well expressed in Victor Howe's foreword to an English version of Vahan Tekeyan's poems translated by Diana Der Hovanessian and Marzbed Margossian. Tekeyan's poetry he comments: 'is nourished by the kind of millennial vision that nourishes the great apocalyptic poets, the Miltions, the Shelleys, the Schillers, a vision of tomorrow, when the Lord will send his wisdom and his kindness to the legions of the tortured and the damned. Not in Heaven, not in Paradise, but on earth. Tekeyan dreams of the day when God will 'plant love in the eyes of today's/and tomorrow's mighty.../Let the fortress of egos,/ that huge barricade crumble. And let every treasure/ go to every man...' 'Let every garden gate be open. But let no flower be crushed No single branch fall.' (DDH/MM) Vahan Tekeyan survived the genocide. Remaining true to his principle that: 'The saddest thing in life Because the most scornful Is not its passing but its Standing stationery in its old place.' He continued as political activist and poet into old age and death in 1945. 'Ode to the Sun' a late poem, written in 1941, that seems to revisit pagan themes popular among pre-Genocide western Armenian poets is a fitting epitaph to one who never succumbed. 'In the evening, in the shadows, I sing to the sun That has created the dark by its absence Like the face of God, Sun, you are far From touch, but near enough to feel. I sing to you from the dark of night that you make when you depart. Like god who also creates evil When he forgets us, you create the dark world. But I sing to you the new sun, From this deep night that engulfs A world of souls, As I wait for the strength and light That will break when you crack This harsh dark.' (DDH/MM) ------------------------------------------------------------------- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.