Why we should read... Rouben Vorperian: journeys without joy (Library of Armenian Classics, 1981, pp31-120) Armenian News Network / Groong November 19, 2012 by Eddie Arnavoudian In Armenian literary life Rouben Vorperian (1870-1931) occupied only a peripheral post. Figures such as Varoujean, Yessayan, Toumanian, Derian and others were as if always at the centre of debate on culture, literature and the nation's future. Vorperian on the other hand, leaves the impression of residing quietly, on the edge, unnoticed, remote, and this not just metaphorically. He lived most of his life in Djibouti and Paris, where he died. Today we have: `Placed upon him the stone of oblivion and Left silence as guardian to the tomb' Revisiting this poet however, repays. It was not flattery that prompted plaudits from novelist Zabel Yessayan or fine critic Minas Teoleolian. Never mind that the bulk of his work is pedestrian, frequently versed in the inauthentic voice of some youthful poetic idol. Vorperian had a passion for poetry and pressed into his writing that spark of creativity which is the gift of every human being. Though a businessman in his own working life, he could with appropriate adjustment say as English poet John Clare did that `a peasant in his daily cares' he was however `a poet in his joy'. So, albeit only rarely Rouben Vorperian has inspiring flares of poetry that at its best starkly shape the anguish of exile and its particular Armenian manifestations. In the cumulative flow of his poetry one can feel the pain of the poet's own exiled soul as well as the cry of all wounded global wanderers, who uprooted from their homeland, unable to cast happy anchor elsewhere are condemned to unending emotional turmoil. On some of the qualities that describe the essence of yearning for homeland and also on the attraction of Soviet Armenia for an exiled patriotic intelligentsia, Vorperian is additionally illuminating and thought provoking. I. THE JOYLESS WANDERER Rouben Vorperian is most evocative when articulating the endurance of migration. `Oh if there was anyone to understand the sorrow of my soul del last To feel it being scorched by longing ... Oh how I smoulder as I fall towards the damp soil.' (p92) Vorperian's verse implicitly affirms an exile life that failing to sink new roots has been cut through with pervasive unhappiness. It has become `a door before the abyss, a door before a dark road', while men/women's smiles appear as `froth concealing pain'. In search of soothing balms, from distant exile the poet turns to recollection and remembrance, a remembrance that is almost always a counterpoint to a wounded, impaired present. In the register of this Vorperian is deeply moving. `My Village Path' and `My Little Cottage' capture well oppositions between rootless, isolated alienation in exile and homeland life defined by a collective solidarity. Revealing autobiographical verse draws the map travelled by the poet, who when fuelled by youthful spirits journeyed to see glorious wonders of the world. But nothing has replaced the community that was enjoyed in his home village and family cottage. Valued by Zabel Yessayan for its perfection of form the first poem opens with a confession of the sum of emptiness that the poet's life has amounted to. Life's boat left not a mark behind it Forgetfulness took all from me Old dreams vanish like clouds Memories vanish like a song As he ambles along `to a seaside' in a foreign land, the poet's `crushed spirit' recoils against a present devoid of the `youthful innocence' that had `skipped along the winding village paths' in tandem with the `clear stream' that often `hidden beneath a bridge or by a field' moved as if a living `spirit of the emptiness.' Though rather bland the term `youthful innocence' still speaks of the experience of disappointment, treachery, lies, deceptions and corruptions encountered in new worlds despite its more advanced `straight, stone-hewed road'. Passing through the enchantingly reconstructed landscape of his youth, the village path leads to `My Little Cottage': A few pillars and black walls Bent but holding each other up Like the aged of ancient days This `single cottage' however, lit with `a single lantern' was `for us enough'. It was home and hearth, fortress and abode against misfortune and calamity, a foundation of stability, of rooted existence, of warmth and security. Meagre, ramshackle, almost dilapidated it is. But it still is the source of dreams, of the flow of happiness and ease of life amid family and community. `Around that candle it was that my first cry was uttered There my dreams were born - happy and sad There my mother gave me the feather of a crane Write she said, let this be your pen. (p36) Alas the misery of exile and time, have worn away both cottage and the poet's spirit. Like `my thousand and one dreams' `my family cottage' too `has become pitiful ruin', `fortune has turned both...to dust'. This weariness of exile, this yearning for home, the evocation of which is perhaps the most attractive feature of Vorperian's poetry, was and remains a reality not just of the historical and contemporary Armenian experience but that of all oppressed peoples and classes today. Described by genius poet Daniel Varoujean as `that disease of longing, the deepest of sorrows felt by Armenian people', it features centrally in Armenian poetry and prose. In Vorperian's powerful communicating of this experience we are reminded that it is not a mere sentimental dreaming for an idyllic past. For those born into what are collective structures of rural life, the dream of return to familiar terrains of youth are often expressions of a desire to recover the individual self that wrenched from this collective mould is severely seared and fractured. In contrast to the solitary individualism that has today reached its abyss in modern city life, in rural society an individual's sense of being was shaped more decidedly by collective solidarities and support of community and family relations. To be rent asunder, to be snapped from these was akin often to tragic personal fragmentation and loss of self, to the loss of foundation and anchor. In another context the point is put well by George Monbiot in his fine article on John Clare whose poetry: `documents both the destruction of place and people and the gradual collapse of his own state of mind...What Clare suffered was the fate of indigenous peoples torn from their land and belongings everywhere... (This) has torn us from our moorings, atomised and alienated us, sent us out, each in his different way to seek our own identities. (Guardian Weekly, 20.07.12) For Vorperian and for the segment of the western Armenian intelligentsia that survived, the individual traumas of exile were compounded by the 1915 Genocide that had uprooted an entire people and blocked all possibility of collective return to ancestral homes. With life on the wane, `body immobile', perhaps bedridden, with `no hope emerging from the chaos of dark clouds' the present offers nothing more. The poet can now `live only in the bosom of the past' as: Grim days follow upon each other ... Distant dawns blocked Suffering the fate of a hunted bird... Vasken Gabrielian who introduces the 1981 selection from Vorperian harshly judges his poems of longing to be, at least in part, a failure of vision, `a retreat to tradition', an `inability to see the way out of capitalism's alienated human relations (p6). Of course recollection of a distant or youthful past can functions as metaphors for social vision, conservative or progressive. With Hovanness Hovannissian for example it constructs a utopia of social emancipation (see Groong, The Critical Corner 28/2/2011). Recollection of youth in old age is also perhaps an existential moment pitting remembrance of healthy, energetic and carefree existence against the fact of inevitable later decline. In Vorperian's case it serves neither one nor the other purpose, underlining rather the distorted and tragic personal and national experience of forced exile. Remembrance for him is not backward gazing socio-political nostalgia. It is regret not for vanished conservative rural relations but for the absence of private and collective solidarity. II. A PHOENIX ARISES It was not only endless wandering that buckled Rouben Vorperian's being. When young like many of his generation he experienced the 19th century as an epoch of promise, with welcome `fires of science' spreading `happiness across the earth.' Science also `opened up the deep of the abysses' in whose `stormy oceans of doubt' God, a permanent `boyhood companion' retreated to be replaced by the idea of human progress. But as the 19th became the 20th century: Make-up fell away from its cheeks To reveal instead of sweet smiles A hyena's gaze and wolves' claws Beneath its shiny gloves Together with an alienated life in exile, the savagery of Genocide and World War One shattered all confidence in independent human potential and left the poet bereft, utterly desolate yearning now not just for homeland but for the return of faith too. Oh I am alone and endlessly pleading "Return, God, as to my boyhood days" Whether he ever recovered faith remains unclear. But a few deeply felt poems clearly not written for the occasion, express the solace that Soviet Armenia at least offered this tired exile in his frail closing years. Never mind that it was a mere stump of the historical homeland, that it did not incorporate his beloved family village and cottage. Still upon his table a gift of 'Apples from the Homeland' Brought to the poet's throbbing heart An infinite unending dawn sun These apples have been `touched by a breeze fragrant with Etchmiadzin's and Sevan's aroma'. The trees from which they have been picked have `resonated to the song of the river Arax while `its roots have been fertilised by the sweat of the Armenian peasant.' The excitement and the emotion are tremendous. On the wing of memory the poet still wanders through western Armenia; through Kharpert, Malatya, Mush and Arapgir. All are now beyond reach. But Sevan and Etchmiadzin are different. Not in western Armenia, they are nevertheless central to the space that defines the historical homeland and form furthermore components of an actually existing Armenian state and republic. Ambitions for nation building in the western Armenia may have been shattered. But in its stead Soviet Armenia emerged Phoenix-like, appearing as a port of call and a nation-saving lighthouse. It had offered in addition refuge to tens of thousands of Genocide survivors and stood as bridge of hope, perhaps a possible stepping stone to lands lost in the wake of the Genocide. There is a little cottage on the slope of Mount Aragatz There a fireplace, and by its side an empty chair There at its door open and its window ajar Ancient Mother Armenia awaits the Return of her distant migrant children. Soviet Armenia provided the foundation for the flourish of national culture and literature, language and music, architecture, history and art that for the intelligentsia were essential coordinates of nationality and perhaps for them, more immediately significant than the material and social emancipation of the common people. Even though obviously moved by the plight of the masses, for the intelligentsia, the ideal of nation remained constructed by language, literature and culture and here Soviet Armenia despite its political colour, fulfilled essential expectations. Thus for Vorperian and indeed a large number of Armenian intellectuals, Soviet Armenia despite all its tangled complications, was in its early days powerfully magnetic. Energetic efforts by leading Soviet Armenian intellectuals of the time, central but not sole among them the communist historian and political activist Ashot Hovannissyan, succeeded in recruiting an entire battalion from all political persuasions, to return and participate in nation-construction. Rouben Vorperian was not among those who made it back. In the Soviet era 1979 5th volume of `The History of Modern Armenian Literature it is said that his 1920 departure from Djibouti to Paris was indeed the first leg of a planned return to Armenia. Serious illness however prevented the journey's completion. But from distant Paris he too was in some measure consoled by a recovering Armenia. . . . . . Vorperian has other scattered verse that glows. The almost impeccable `Wedding Ring' for example is a harsh, telling reminder of the contradictory form of marriage in conservative Christian society with the ring at once legitimising potential violence and oppression against women but also giving free reign to love and lust in the marriage bed. Another, `The Watch' is a gentle contemplation of the passing of time and of ageing with intimations of mortality caught well in an image of the old poet `smiling before infinity' as he gazes at his now timeless, old, broken watch. One must therefore reject Hagop Oshagan's crude and vulgar evaluation that `Armenian poetry can, with great ease of heart, forget Vorperian the poet.' With a mean spirited edge Oshagan goes on to qualify that if Vorperian is to be remembered, he should be as a salutary warning, `an example to all those among us who take to the pen without appropriate vocation.' Against such ossified and dogmatic criticism dictated by borrowed templates that block natural appreciation one prefers the truth of Minas Teoleolian's enthusiasm. Vorperian he writes is `rare among poets' who `so humanly...so movingly' and `so forcefully bring to life the ... bitterness of longing for homeland.' Rouben Vorperian himself, as epitaph perhaps, wrote that even as `time withers both rose and memory', were some of his `songs to speed from one heart to another' he would rest easy never mind `beneath a forgotten tomb'. The finest of his poems do indeed still sweep from heart to heart and it is a pleasure to note the poet hosted at Lola Koundakjian's `Armenian Poetry Project (http://armenian-poetry.blogspot.co.uk). -- 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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