Redistribution of Groong articles, such as this one, to any other
media, including but not limited to other mailing lists and Usenet
bulletin boards, is strictly prohibited without prior written
consent from Groong's Administrator.
© Copyright 2002 Armenian News Network/Groong. All Rights Reserved.
Why we should read... Mateos Zarifian - the poet who defied death Selected Works Library of Armenian Classics, pp 365 - 472, 1981, Yerevan TITLE Armenian News Network / Groong June 3, 2002 By Eddie Arnavoudian The poetic contemplation of human frailty and death, those incontrovertible marks of humanity's ultimate impotence before nature, often produces its opposite - an affirmation of the value of life and an inspired awareness of its frequently hidden potentialities. Such is the case with the poetry of Mateos Zarifian (1894 - 1924). Reading him recalls a theme in the work of English poet T.S. Eliot. In 'The Hollow Men' Eliot notes that: 'Between the idea And the reality Between the motion And the act Falls the Shadow ... Between the potency and the existence Falls the Shadow'. However the two poets respond in fundamentally opposite ways to the 'shadow' that afflicts them. For Eliot the 'Shadow' is an unassailable, almost omnipotent force before which he resigns himself, and beneath which he lies listless and passive. Zarifian on the contrary battles with it in order to see the other side. For him, recognition of the shadow is not an occasion for despair. It is rather the grasping, albeit profoundly pained, of the vast horizons of life. So Zarifian, unlike Eliot, seeks ways to move through the shadow and to live despite it and beyond it. Zarifian was a most unlikely poet. In early youth he was a talented sportsman with Olympic ambitions. But at 27, with the sudden and unexpected onset of TB, these hopes were dashed. He was to die three years later. It was to comprehend this fate and to measure the abyss that now separated his dreams from any possibility of their realisation that he turned to poetry. Zarifian was an introspective spirit. Not for him any forays into the social, political or philosophic. Poetry was a catharsis, a means of coping with, adjusting to and also a negotiating of a new and different purchase on what remained of his life. Free of any false optimism or worthless self-pity Zarifian offers us some magnificent glimpses into the emotional and intellectual world of those who, struck down by some tragic turn, refuse to succumb to pessimism and idle despair. His soul may now be like 'a cold winter midnight' but there nevertheless still 'burn a few remaining lanterns that look up to the heavens.' With their light the poet searches for avenues to squeeze from life all remaining potency. In so doing he maps exciting adventures of spirit and imagination in untrammelled flight. I. Entering the shadow The fear and the anguish that flows from a consciousness of imminent early death constituted the core of Zarifian's poetry. This awareness was his 'Shadow', not the fact of death itself. Death itself, 'this sleep of the earth' will but serve to 'put to sleep my huge pain. It will bring nothingness; it is the final peace, the termination of all pain. For death, he reserves his indifference or defiance: 'with this rose in my hand in this springtime' the poet 'disdains that which approaches.' His torture lies instead in the momentous clash between the enduring consciousness of what was possible and the realisation that fate has thwarted all of this. 'This proud sweet boy... whose heart is ever stirred by the infinite' has no time left to search, ponder, to wonder or to love. The poet's pain is an acute consciousness of unrealized dreams, of unlived possibilities. In 'Mitcho', also a poem on premature death, Taniel Varouzhan quotes Plutarch: 'The death of the young is akin to a terrible shipwreck'. Zarifian expresses this tragedy in a more intimate, personal way: 'What have I done here on earth, what? ... I have yet to press one rose to my chest yet gathered around me are a flock of vultures God are you willing to let my still limpid and innocent eyes be their feed?' Life had once been a promise of grandeur, beauty and joy when 'poetry flowed freely from the dream in my eyes.' But now in 'the depth of his soul there rests an aged and weary dream and in a corner a love collapsed'. The poet's heart resembles an abandoned pond 'set by the side of a garden shorn of all embellishment, gloomy, empty even of water.' Love is a 'wilting flower that my breath can not revive.' It is 'a dying flame that my soul is unable to spark.' He warns 'that should you shiver in the wind with my spirit so exhausted by pain ... I can offer no warmth.' Confronted with such a grim destiny the poet seeks out 'the summits of mountains blue' where in 'a dreamy silence and peace' he can contemplate and adjust to his new condition. This journey is long, his 'fingers still bleed ... what a difficult ascent this from rock to rock shouldering my burden of pain.' But once there, even as his body moves to its inexorable end, he explodes into a revolt against the squandering of life, a protest against the inanity of early death and a determination that he shall yet live, even in the shadow of death. It is 'a shame O God, that you cast to the soil so much sparkle, so much incense, so much song and so many dreams it's a shame upon your own majesty.' For life's thwarted possibilities there can be no recompense. But until the moment of nothingness there is room to wonder and to glory in life and our universe. Despite death's imminence, emotion and imagination can still reach out to and snatch moments of fulfilment through an enhanced sense of affinity and unity with nature and universe. So it is in vain 'that you pour your ashes into my heart there are sparks there descended from the infinite ... my bones alone are your victims but my mind in flight has no need for them ... there are gods there, descended from the heavens and from the depths of my pain, look how they sing.' II. The other side of the shadow As Zarifian sifts experience and memory through the sieve of approaching death, pondering love, nature and the universe, he communicates a consciousness of the human being's boundless potential. 'My soul is a magnificent fire more luminous than the stars even the infinite universe feels confining to its rays.' (Translated by Rouben Rostamian) The depiction of a 'Glorious Sundown' is simultaneously an urging to live life at its possible fullest, even in the jaw of death. Witnessing 'the dying colours of the sky' the poet wishes 'that my sick soul would die exactly like this... A proud and powerful burst of flame Albeit soon to expire a majestic but calm conflagration A moment to live the infinite... Who could not wish a demise such as this one from which stars are born.' In 'The Universe and the Kiss' Zarifian continues on the theme of unbounded potential and possibility, this time as it is experienced in love. Along with other poets he too saw love as a vast terrain for human self-realisation that measures itself against the infinity and omnipotence of universe and god. In Goethe's 'The Sorrows of Young, Werther', the young Werther exclaims that through his love for Lotte he 'experiences the warmth of a heart and the nobility of a soul in whose presence I seemed to be more than I was because I was everything I possibly could be.' Zarifian also echoes this enhancing essence of human love. What 'is of greater value' he asks 'a single flower from her eye or all the gems of the sky?' His answer affirms the richness of our world of emotion and sensibility. The 'great Inhabitant of the sky is less wealthy than I truly his universe is so much smaller than my single kiss.' With Zarifian, naturally love cannot exist free of the shadow of death. But even here in this darkened universe love harbours a warm generosity. As his end approaches the poet refuses to embrace the 'innocent young girl who declares her love.' To do so would be deceit, for he can give nothing in return. 'She has not seen the infinite darkness of my eyes ... she has not seen into the deep dark abyss of my soul.' Therefore 'like a brother I said one gets cold in the moonlit night go, go, go home to sleep.' 'The Dream of the Drunk', another poem of impossible love is marked by beautiful imagery as a backdrop to an insight into a tortured spirit. The hopeless lover wanders into a field 'with a wild song on his lips there to sleep on a blanket of light spread by the moon.' On his way he pleads for compassion for a heart that is 'an endless inferno of pain'. The imminence of death drove to poet to seek solace in nature, to absorb its splendour as balm to his suffering soul. As he hears the enchanting, rhythmic sound of 'The Night Sea' 'the calm music of its liquid psalms flood me an atheist with a sense of the divine.' In 'The Tree', a poem that speaks to our environmental concerns today, we have a picture of ever-resurgent and ever striving life in determined battle for growth and bloom. 'From the trunk of this tree brutally axed by man that now rests like a tombstone to a dark grave twigs explode towards the heavens with the boldness of the eagle-like flight of spears.' Even as they dwell on the passing of life, even as they regret its unrealised possibilities, the best of Zarifian's poetry exudes a vision of glory and a desire for life's full enjoyment. Mateos Zarifian was not a professional poet. But his fine sensitivity to his condition, his spontaneous and uninhibited flood of thought and emotion shaped into crisp and colourful imagery and metaphor, are a genuine contribution international literature. As a conclusion and as a riposte to the inappropriate questioning of the international value of Armenian poets and poetry it is worth recalling remarks by Irish poet Seamus Heaney in a review of a book of Irish Gaelic language verse translated into English. 'Too often,' he states 'the tradition of English poetry ... forces itself into the mind as the norm against which everything is measured.' He adds, equally significantly that in the effort to translate work into English 'we are led to the Irish poems not in order to warm ourselves at the racial embers but to encounter works of art that belong to world literature.' The remarks apply with equal force to Zarifian and the best of Armenian literature in general. ------------------------------------------------------------------- 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.