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The Critical Corner - 01/14/2008

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VAHAN DERIAN AND THREE KINDRED SPIRITS

Armenian News Network / Groong
By Eddie Arnavoudian

January 14, 2008


Reading a particular poet is always an exciting adventure, sometimes
demanding and painful, in places disappointing even. But it is always
rewarding, invigorating and enchanting. As thrilling however are
detours that are inspired by images, phrases and even whole lines that
appear to be almost identical to ones we have come across in other
poets. A case in point is Vahan Derian whose imagery and turns of
phrase takes us to Bedros Tourian, Missak Medzarents and Hovanness
Toumanian.

Here there is no question of plagiarism, even when lines or phrases
are repeated almost word for word. The duplicated features remain
essential to the natural flow and the development of either poem. They
fit seamlessly into what are utterly different creations and though
occupying a significant place, they do not define the character of the
particular poems.


I. VAHAN DERIAN AND BEDROS TOURIAN

In `Line' written by Vahan Derian in 1907 we read that during his
lifetime:

    `Not a single dawn has welcomed me.'

One immediately remembers here Bedros Tourian's more famous
exclamation from an 1871 poem `What Do They Say':

    `Not a single dawn has crossed my heart'.

Vahan Derian's piece is about disappointment, loneliness and regret at
the end of a life that was lived without enduring achievement, without
the realisation of ambition, without attaining any of the
`shining/bright desires' that when he was young drove him to pick up
the `wanderer's staff'. As he journeyed through distant lands the poet
was `uselessly worn down'. He is reduced to less than he had been. Now
he is `blind', `grim' and `loveless', `quietly forgotten',
`unremembered'. An irrevocable sense of collapse and isolation is
underlined in his description of himself as `a lost falling-star.'

Life has unhinged the poet, torn him from his roots, from his
community and family. He has no home and no prospect of better
days. He is wrenched from his natural orbit, like `a falling lost star
in infinity'. Life has not been generous with its light, its warmth,
its hope and joy that are associated with the image of dawn. The poet
has ended life travelling a lone path to extinction. It is this
feeling and emotion that is then condensed in the expression `not a
single dawn has welcomed me.'

One detects in this poem not bitterness but a quiet resignation by one
who feels burnt out and powerless. But it is not a poem of despair. It
summons rather an image of the destruction to the human spirit by life
without and outside the solidarity of family and community. It speaks
of loneliness in a world that is alien, a world in which one has no
roots. This sense of rootless alienation also, incidentally, recalls
Yeghishe Charents's `Personal Song'. He too, having bid farewell to
his family home, that was `built of rough stone on a riverbank', on
`passing through the streets of foreign cities' witnesses the world as
a lonely place, one where no one `asks who are you or what have you
achieved?'

Bedros Tourian's `not a single dawn has crossed my heart' from his
poem `What Do They Say' is of an altogether different quality. It also
expresses existential suffering and acute loneliness: but at the
beginning, not the end of life. Tourian's is the sigh of a
`smouldering soul' at the dawn of life confronting the inevitability
of early, untimely death. He too has ambition, his `bright dreams'
that burn bright. But he knows his `time has come', even before he has
had the chance to reach out for them.

In contrast to Vahan Derian, Bedros Tourian suffers even as he remains
within his community. There, none feel for his plight. They are
uncomprehending, even hostile. 'They ask why the `silence', why the
`unending sadness',why `the lack of fire'? `Many reject' him, perhaps
because he is not rich and healthy. `He has but a lyre' they say.
Others whisper that `he trembles and has no colour'. And others still
that `he is about to die.' But no one asks `why do you smoulder?' No
one bothers to look into `this sad heart' in which `there is fire, not
a book.' How could he be otherwise? For:

    `not a single dawn has crossed my heart'

Though he acknowledges inevitability, Tourian differs from Derian
again in his refusal to resign to fate. That which life denied him -
`roses, fluttering, flight and stars' he hopes to grasp in `the folds
of his dark grave'.


II. VAHAN DERIAN AND MISSAK MEDZARENTS

In two other poems, one again by Derian and the other this time by
Missak Medzarents, images of light and dawn serve an entirely
different purpose being offered as celebrations of vitality, vigour
and hope. Vahan Derian's entitled `It is now cold outside' ends:

    `Let me throw to your heart
    A light-giving fire
    So that you remain powerful
    In the face of life and death'

Missak Medzarents in `The Morning', from a series entitled `Oh That I
Were', desires reincarnation as a sun-drenched morning:

    `To give even one spark from my golden fire
     To the dimming candles of darkened spirits'

In both pieces the offer of fire and light expresses a powerful sense
of human generosity, an essential social solidarity without which life
threatens to be harsh and hostile. But these are manifested in
different forms, one as a private act, the other as a social one.

In Derian's poem a `little sister' is buffeted by`wicked storms'; she
is `enveloped by darkness'. She is `tired and lonely', her `spirit in
turmoil'. We know little of who she is or about the world she inhabits
except that the world is `outside', and that in it she is`lost'.
Perhaps she is sister only in the sense of sharing with the poet a
common humanity. This lack of definition however generates an
ambiguity compounded by the fact that Derian for `lost' uses the word
`molorvadz' that can signify having lost one's way, as in a forest, or
having deviated from the correct moral path. Irrespective of meaning,
the poet offers solidarity, love and comfort.

The second verse of the poem takes one somewhat aback. The offer of
love appears not to be made as an unambiguously disinterested act of
human solidarity. The poet expects that his `shining speech' working
like a `sweet miracle' will `seduce' or `entice' his `little sister's
heart'. The intent of what seems an inappropriate romantic suggestion
is not clear and can be construed as verging on the exploitative. Why
the wish to `entice her heart' when she needs only support and
succour? Is it not demeaning furthermore to suggest that a man
`enticing' a woman's heart is apropriate comfort and protection for
her in a moment of need in a hostile world? Worse still is the hint
that with `shining speech' the poet may be exploiting a woman's
vulnerabilityfor his own personal end.

This stain however vanishes in the last verse. There is now distance
put between the poet and the `lost sister'. He has to `throw' her his
`light giving fire' that is clearly offered with nothing expected in
return. It is intended to make her independent, to enable her to be
`powerful in the face of life and death.' This image not only salvages
the poem, it gives it force and effect.

While Vahan Derian, a dedicated communist, and for a period even an
emissary of the Bolshevik government, evokes a private moment of
individual generosity the apolitical Missak Medzarent puts his entire
being to the service of a beautifully defined social solidarity. `The
Morning' offers itself to all who live in `bare and darkened hovels'
and to all `grieving souls' and `suffering spirits'. The morning is at
once warmth, colour and vitality. It is as the light of hope for all
whose lives are blighted, in any way. Medzarents's imagery is
exhilarating capturing something of the human experience of light and
dawn across the ages. It evokes morning as an almost divine
omnipotence that unfolds and spreads to dispense and enhance material
and spiritual ease.

As the morning `flows into the homes of the poor', its promise to
lighten the dark is a symbolism for the overcoming of social
deprivation, an offer social welfare. As it `lights smiling candles'at
`the table' of grieving souls' the morning, the sunrise, the dawn, is
power that soothes and heals wounded emotion; and as`rose-garmented'
and `flowing with golden hair' it resuscitates and reinvigorates the
dimming spirits of suffering beings.

Had he had the opportunity, Medzarents would surely have risen as dawn
for Derian who never experienced it just as surely he would have
become the sunrise that never crossed Tourian's heart.


III. VAHAN DERIAN AND HOVANNESS TOUMANIAN

A third couple of poems bring together a dispirited but still hopeful
Vahan Derian and the ever energetic, optimistic and gregarious
Toumanian who is now in mediation upon death. Binding both poems are
images of fantastic flowers that have about them something human,
something of a living, communicating spirit. Derian's untitled poem,
the first line of which reads `when I am tired take me to my distant
Ganzan' ends:

    And if you come some day to visit my grave
    The rosebush growing out from my heart will smile at you.

The flowers `that lie scattered' around Toumanian's graveside in `When
Some Day, are also `not common flowers'.

    They are the words of love I left
    Unuttered when I died'

On his death Derian asks to be returned to his home that is `far
away'. At the end of a wearying life in emigration he perceives his
tomb back in his home as `the return of the days that have
irreversibly passed'. Resting now within his community his dreams
promise to be`eternally charmed'. Death will not be a termination, an
irreversible annihilation of a transient person. It is but a `deep
and heavy' slumber in which the poet will recover that which he has
lost during his wandering days. Now among his own and resting `besides
his mother' he feels closeness with his community and is confident
that he will `always hear' 'its ever-melancholic lullaby'.

The metaphor of a smiling rosebush that buds from the poet's heart
communicates a great deal: ease with the prospect of death, a feeling
of immortality with the dead in continued relation with the world of
the living. The rose that grows from out of poet's heart also suggests
a unity of human and natural beauty, a oneness of all things, a unity
of life and nature in a vast universal cycle. But one cannot escape an
overwhelming sensation of sadness in the face of the `rose's silent
smile' that confesses contentment on release from a harsh existence.
In this respect the poem is less a reflection on death than on
alienated life.

Toumanian's flowers are altogether more joyful. He enjoyed life,
delighted in its pleasures and in the company of his fellow men and
women. Out of every moment he squeezed out every last drop of goodness,
joy and the pleasure that he could. The younger Vahan Derian was so
charmed that he wrote:

    `Whoever has not sat down to feast
    In Toumanian's palace
    Has not seen pleasure and delight,
    Has not seen the world.'

Toumanian experienced a multitude of dawns in life, albeit he was only
54 when he died. For him death is neither a tragic end nor happy
escape. It is not as in the poems cited from Derian and Tourian
another form of being where one can at least hope that life's wrongs
can be righted. It is simply a stage in nature's cycle, a stage where
we all will all one day join him. But this stage will always remain is
a mystery for those still theworld of the living. It is a `world
unknown':

    The path to which before you lies,
    Blocked by the tomb alone!

The flowers that are `scattered all around' Toumanian's grave are the
metaphors of unrealised potentials, of immense reservoirs of love that
the poet was unable to pour out during his life. They are his `songs
unsung', they are his `words of love unuttered' when still with us:

    They are my ardent kiss, dear
    sent from that world unknown'

Toumanian's flowers are affirmations of endless human creativity
stretching far beyond the capability of bodies that are so rapidly
exhausted. The flower and grave are also of course a comment on the
mystery of death, on the impossibility of grasping a condition beyond
consciousness.

Different as they are these poems can be appreciated singly or
together. They are all a reflection upon one human being, on the
tragedy of withered lives, on that immense generosity of spirit that
is of the best in us, on the richness of human potential, but also on
the mysteries of time and death. And each reading by each and every
individual or group will yield in consideration and discussion
something new that can be shared and shared again.


--
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.

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