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DANIEL VAROUJEAN: KEEPER OF THE FAITH IN THE HUMAN DREAM PART THREE: The poetry of righteous rebellion Armenian News Network / Groong February 7, 2004 By Eddie Arnavoudian `There will be a special page in the book of life for the men who have crawled back from the grave. This page will tell of utter defeat, ruin, passivity, and subjection in one breath, and in the next, overwhelming victory and fulfilment...' -- George Jackson Soledad Brother `The Heart of the Nation' (Selected Works, pp63-206, Yerevan, 1984) was Varoujean's second volume of poetry. First published in 1910 in Istanbul, then the capital of the now defunct Ottoman Empire, it is an epic poetic history of the 19th century Armenian national revival and the late 19th and early 20th century Armenian struggle for emancipation. The `Dedication' (p63) that opens the volume summarises its ambition - to reveal the heart of the nation through a poetic exploration of the nation's history, its experience of oppression, its recovery and its resistance. Varoujean writes with a `pen fashioned from that reed' of classical Armenian mythology out of which sprang Vahakn, the Armenian god of war and strength. `Light floods out' of this pen when he recounts ancient glories; `tears flow' from it when he turns to the bitter experience of exile, his `very heart leaps out' when tracing the pain of victims of oppression. But when he sings of `struggle' and `revenge' it is `fire that shoots' from the pen. The poetry of `The Heart of the Nation' tells of that special page in the book of Armenian life when a people did, as George Jackson put it, `crawl back from the grave'. It tells of how they fought to seize back their humanity from conquerors who `had ripped up the foundation stones' of ancient Armenian cities and `used them as tombstones' (p81) for their victims. In images of defining precision and revealing passion this poetry records the Armenian people's return from centuries of `utter defeat, ruin and passivity'. Written in rich, emphatic and flamboyantly colourful language, the poetry of `The Heart of the Nation' helps cleanse minds stupefied by generations of submission. Its energy and vision aid in the dissolution of passivity and fatalism. It fires the sullen spirit, cements hope and steels the will for battle. Though dense with allusion to Armenian history and mythology, to Armenian geography, custom and tradition, Varoujean's poetry of impossibly powerful sweeps and surges gathers into itself the anguish, the rage, the hope and the courage of not just Armenians but all `the wretched of the earth'. For the Armenian people, now beyond the hooves of Ottoman rule `beneath which life was turned to dust and the dust itself to ash' (p120), `The Heart of the Nation' stands as a monument to a tremendous history of resistance. It endures too as a tribute to all, Armenian and non-Armenian, who sacrificed something of themselves in the service of national independence, freedom, equality and justice. For the hundreds of millions across the globe who continue to endure the Behemoth of oppression and exploitation it sounds an unflagging clarion for rebellion. I. OPENING UP THE HEART OF THE NATION Though touched by the shadow of hope, the poems of the first part, `At the Temple', paint a painful canvas of misery and despair that defined life in Ottoman occupied Armenia from the late 1870s to the early 1900s. During Sultan Abdul Hamid II's reign the Ottoman state responded with unprecedented repression and slaughter to all Armenian democratic impulses. In addition to its censorship, its political restrictions, prohibitions on the flourishing of Armenian education and culture, its arbitrary arrests, land confiscation and forced emigration blocked off all avenues to peaceful progress. The 1895-1896 massacres of 300,000 Armenians was but one peak in an ascending wave of strategically calculated state organised violence designed to crush the Armenian revival, force survivors to abandon their faith or to flee the land of their birth and thus terminate the existence of the nation. In `The Heart of the Nation' constellations of arresting images, metaphors and ideas worked into dramatic narratives present the ruins of an ancient Armenian civilisation as a backdrop and contrast to contemporary enslavement and dehumanisation. Under Ottoman tutelage Armenia, once flourishing, appears as `a vast graveyard/above which both sun and moon hang only as lanterns to a tombstone.' (p109) The bones from the disinterred graves of its revered forefathers, now dispersed `across numberless valleys', are the `property of wolves alone.' Palaces and churches of a grander age lie in ruins `measured by two lengths of a snail's spittle' that passes through the`dark corner of a church's alter/which a bat, like a black robed monk/has made its home.' (p84-85) Fields once worked productively are now `ploughed only by crawling snakes/that leave in their trail poison and thorn'. (p77) No more does a soaring `red Armenian flag/wipe away the sweat of eagles in glorious flight.' (p82) In `The Curse' (p126) an 80 year-old woman reviles her Maker demanding that he `rest his elbows on a pair of clouds and bend over to witness' the death and destruction that plagued Armenia in the 19th and 20th centuries. Armenian villages are aflame, `each flame higher than Mount Ararat, higher even than' God himself. Beyond the flames she points to: `.... enemy carts trundling on... Laden with our milk and honey Laden with the life of our land And with the silver we offered to your altar. Look down and see...ovens collapsed in On their stuttering flame, The dying smoke of homestead chimneys, The silenced song of the labourer. And every sheaf of corn dripping blood Every stream washing a wound, While every hyena carries to its lair a corpse.' Other poems such as `Abandoned Homestead' (p87) tell of homes that lie `like the open eye of a corpse/open to sun and to life, yet denied them both.' Elsewhere, to feed her children after the murder of her husband, an impoverished `Washerwoman' (p110) is `forced to put her orphan heart and enslaved body to the service of another's dirt' where her days `absorb the poisonous stench of laundry steam.' The child, the future of the land, `never attains full flourish' and `spring falls away, rose by rose' from `its pale forehead.' (p71) The kidnapping of women `whose beauty became a magnet for ugly crime' (p147), the abduction of children, the imprisonment of the innocent whose ` eyes starved of sun' makes them look `like a corpse erected on bones' reduce life to a forced `march to the cemetery', with the oppressed `bearing their own tombstones upon their own whip-lashed backs'. (p73) Free of romantic illusion or deluding rhetoric, Varoujean does not posit indignation, resistance and revolt as automatic responses to this suffering. With vision informed by a grasp of historical and social reality, he records how centuries of foreign domination had embedded hopelessness, fatalism and passivity within the very heart and soul of the nation. Along with many other people, Armenians too had become like humbled beast. `It does not enrage them That their fields are transformed into marshes of blood Or that their city walls and temples are reduced to rubble Neither foreigner's disdain or disrespect Lights up in them any spirit of Armenian dignity and honour. They serve and they weep And with their weeping they shape their faces more Fitting to their slavery.' (p78) But the cup will eventually flow over. `The Spirit of the Nation' (p77) heralds the dawning of a new age. Today a `noble segment of the nation' dedicated to `the Grand Idea and to struggle' works to retrieve memories of ancient freedoms and recover the cultural legacy of the past. It welds these into modern ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity and so prepares a path for the march to emancipation, a path not `just of blood, but one garlanded with roses and lilacs.' Despite the stench of death and destruction hope is afoot that: `Driven by the flaming, bursting, rebelling spirit of the nation Charred Armenian homesteads will once again erupt like volcanoes.' An acute poetic critique of colonialism and imperialism underlines why Armenians had no option but to `erupt like volcanoes'. The Ottoman state, supported by Europe, was beyond reform. Escalating repression is not irrational or accidental but an integral part of imperial strategy to stifle Armenian revival. Unable to countenance the rise of an Armenian national movement, the Ottoman state set out to `put an end to the growth' of what it regarded as `a dragon harboured in Mount Ararat's bosom/and nourished by an eagle's kiss'. So it recruited even the Empire's religious establishment to `the expedition to sow death'. Its target is a people `unarmed and unprepared', a people who: `Have their ear still tuned To the rhythm of the hammer and the saw And on their boots instead of blood One gleans yellow dirt from threshing floors.' (p117) On the other hand European imperialism's compassionate proclamations about Armenian suffering conceal only cynical profiteering and a cold ambition to `mine our rich and virgin mountains/and milk our minerals and metals to build idols to their egos.' (p132 ) The poet notes that when: `Europe when it turns away its head Appearing to wipe tears from its eyes, Is only shielding them From the smoke of our smouldering ashes.' (p121) All European `speeches received with applause and all their resolutions voted unanimously' serve only to `fashion epitaphs to Armenian gravestones.' Recoiling against Europe's hypocrisy that was costing thousands of innocent lives, the poet hopes that `a poisonous hatred' born of `Armenian veins' will spurt into `the Thames, the Rhine and the Volga' for it is in these rivers that the imperialist `Pontius Pilates will come to wash their hands and their souls...' (p116) So leading `The Armenian Doctor' on a trip through the land of oppression the poet hopes that, having witnessed the terrible destruction wrought by the very existence of an Empire supported by Europe, the doctor will now choose to wield a `sword in place of his scalpel.' (p109) II. RESURRECTION AND REVOLUTION If the poems of the first part describe the enslaved condition of the people, the second, appropriately titled `In the Field of Battle', resounds to the music of resurrection and the thunder of insurrection. For it to be effective poetry of revolution and national liberation demands the highest artistic excellence. Conceptions, ideas and theories of oppression and revolution are frequently common currency in social life and acquire sometimes the most sophisticated and even beautiful expression. Their poetic manifestation must be more that just repetitions of these. Political poetry must draw out something not available in the public sphere. It must bridge a gap between rational intellectual conceptions of politics that are social and collective in their nature and the intimate, emotional, aesthetic resonance of individual sensibility and appreciation. And this must be blended into a single artistic whole. The issue is put well by Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti: `The problem with writing what is outside yourself, writing as part of a collective, is that this will not produce literature unless it has truly become part of yourself - it is no longer `outside'...It has become part of your inner structure.... The moment of contact between events and your soul, that's where literature is born.' The best of Varoujean's poetry unites event and soul. It binds together rigorous rational thought and the realm of the senses to communicate something essential and universal about the Armenian national liberation movement. And not just about the nobility and glory of struggle, but about its profound pain, its terrors and its sacrifice as well. Poems such as `The Message', `The Call to Battle', `Mountains of the Homeland', `The Abductor', `The Apostle', `The Sword', `The Wounded, `The Traitor' and others take us through the entire gamut of revolutionary experience. Here is poetry that proclaims its own excellence. Every quote or extract neglects scores that are equally bold and telling. Each of these poems, widely and lavishly opening up particular stages in the process of the emancipation struggle, invites separate, independent attention. The best weave two levels of being, one of nature and one of society, into a seamless whole each enriching the other, giving it a deeper significance and opening up spiritual and emotional dimensions of political experience and patriotic consciousness. `Abriel' (p136) a delighting celebration of Spring as a season in nature's cycle, is at the same time a metaphor and an invitation to revival and revolt. Abriel, `daughter of the mountains', `powerful as the storm' and `gentle as the rose' brings `song with the wind' and `love to the heart'. As winter clouds drift away `like a convoy of white camels' Abriel releases `a thousand swallows, as a chorus of high priests' to honour Spring's creative force. With the judicious use of just one or two phrases this joyous picture of Spring also celebrates revolt against both natural and social ossification and death. Spring is `insurrection' against the `frozen marble cemetery' of winter. This `insurrection' bursts from beneath the snow and `aspiring for the sun' `spreads a fresh cloak of green over barren hill and naked mountain.' Associated with the life-generating season of Spring `insurrection' is not blind, destructive upheaval but the promise and the delivery of life, joy, song and love. In the context particularly of this volume, the term `insurrection' in its social and political meaning is ennobled and salvaged from conservative slander. This paean to insurrection is followed up by `The Message' (p137) that is both a fine evocation of rural life, and at the same time a moving statement about individual dedication to revolutionary struggle and the private pain this brings to individual and family. It is a farewell message from an exiled son to his mother as he is about to join the ranks of the armed guerrillas. `I have a message to entrust to your spirit' he says to a comrade returning home, `and a heart to attach to your feet that shall soon touch the land of home.' It is a message for his Mother who `counts her son's absent days' `by the drops of her tears' and who on the friend's arrival `may be tending to her beehive/no doubt offering her heart as an example of how honey is made.' In `The Message' only the last two lines refer to its content as son beseeches mother `to remain brave at heart' even as she may have to`cloak her head in black'. The six preceding verses are the images of the village, home, of domestic love, local customs and traditions that simultaneously evoke the pain of both mother and son. The `Homeland Mountains' (p143) contains majestic descriptions of the awesome grandeur of nature. But it also bring to view the source of that complex of emotions, sentiments and thoughts that, binding individuals and a people to the land of their birth, are expressed in notions of patriotism or `love of the homeland'. These mountains, to which `the sun offers itself as a crown and the clouds a gown', and within whose rocky heights `rest lakes in which only stars bud', are not just objects of enchanting natural beauty. They are guardians and servants of the people - safe abodes in times of danger and a refuge from enemy assaults. They supply raw materials for life, for homes, for weapons of self-defence as well as for luxuries, for jewellery and for temples. They are also frequently a final resting place for heroes. They are in sum the guarantors of life itself. There are other poems summoning to battle, poems of stubborn courage on the march to the homeland through mighty mountain territory. Other poems tell epic tales of political organisation and armed struggle, of fear and hatred for traitors, and of the ultimate sacrifice for the ideal of emancipation. Marked by dramatic narrative, epic characterisation and the amalgamation of realism, symbolism and romanticism, these evoke the living as opposed to the propagandistic or rhetorical sense of revolutionary national and political consciousness. `The Apostle' (p153) is a masterpiece, incisive in its realistic social detail it is also evocative of the glorious but simple hopes that drive the work of political education and organisation. `The Apostle', after years of exhausting political activity on returning to the home `which he had left long ago/still strong and healthy', knows that there will be no `welcomes and embraces from beloveds.' The door to his mother's home will be ajar and the willow will be weeping over a dry well. He too will weep by his mother's grave. But years of political organisation among the `Tired Ones' - the peasants, shepherds, the common folk - will not have been in vain. The Apostles `walking stick that he had so frequently pressed/into the soil of his motherland, will tomorrow, at the dawn, before his very eyes, bloom flowers.' Throughout these celebrations of struggle and of freedom there are powerful and recurring images of hate, revenge and the desire for retribution. In `Nemesis' the lengthy and overarching prelude that defines the substance of `The Heart of the Nation', Varoujean describes a poet sculpting a statue of the Goddess of Revenge to be honoured by the people. Here the imagery seems sometimes to verge on the celebration of bloodlust as the people, `thirsty for blood, blood, blood', are urged to `pave their path' with the `bloodied skulls of their enemy'. (p74) But this rage that is consistently coupled with demands for justice and freedom is no simple outburst of primitive emotion. It targets tyranny alone, a tyranny that drives Varoujean to `transform his pen into a spear' and `his inkwell into the red heart of his savage enemy.' (p140) Fury of this nature is of course unique neither to Varoujean nor to Armenians. In the 1970s, George Jackson used images as vivid and striking to express Afro-American rage against the racist USA. He promised to charge his enemies `like a maddened, wounded, rogue male elephant, ears flared, trunk raised, trumpet blaring'. The `only thing' the enemy will ever see in his eyes, he wrote, `is a dagger to pierce his cruel heart.... War without terms.' (Soledad Brother, p194). One need not turn to history for examples. Michael Moore's 2004 film `Fahrenheit 9/11' shows Iraqi mothers wishing fire and death upon American homes in revenge for the US and British murder of their own defenceless children. Writing that they `anger slowly but rage undimmed,' George Jackson spoke for all people who live with no means of redress and whose every cry of protest is met with the whip and the gallows. III. VAROUJEAN'S DEMOCRATIC AND HUMANIST NATIONALISM Varoujean's revolutionary poetry, for all its nationalist resonance and for all its violent passions, is framed in the spirit of a popular, democratic and universal humanism. In `Nemesis', he writes that the poet: `Conceived the Goddess of Justice and Revenge From the very moment his fertile and willing consciousness Encountered the blood of the people.' (p68) Here and throughout the volume `the people' are always the common people. The protagonists in the national insurrection are `the exploited' from `the factories', the `prison galleys and `the dungeons'. It is they who march proudly and fearlessly to honour the Goddess, as they `put to flame the gallows standing in the square' (p71). `The Apostle' addresses only `the Tired Ones' as he counsels that their `sweat will reap diamonds but only beneath the sun of freedom'. Attuned to their everyday needs `he scratches off the heaps of corn/all imprint of state taxation.' (p155) The struggle for emancipation pursues not some abstract nationalist utopia but a simple desire to secure decent conditions for life, family and community: `To see the orphan clothed and his clothing assured The peasant free of fear in the field and the field secure Life free, and freedom forward looking.' (p141) Thus delving deeply into the heart of the oppressed Armenian man and woman, Varoujean reached and embraced the universal heart of all men and women. For the hopes and desires that throb in Armenian hearts are the same for common people across the globe irrespective of nationality. In `The Heart of the Nation' concepts of the capitalised `Idea' and the `national spirit' occupy a pivotal place and play a defined role: the `Idea' as the embodiment of the principles of reason and freedom, as the concentrated expression of the notions of enlightenment and progress and the `spirit of the nation' as the summation of the legacy of classical history and culture. Both these concepts are brought to bear only in connection with the needs of the common people. Though the people are: `Dressed in rags and terrifying to behold Today, they have the nobility of the ocean For their minds have been touched by the eagle wing of the Idea By the Idea that bears the thought, the legacy and the genius Of centuries...' (p72) Like many others Varoujean in his poetry also conjured images of ancient national glories. In `Before Ghevond Alishan's Tomb' (p111) he pays homage to that great intellectual, historian, scholar and poet who: `Brought out leaves from our ancient wreaths From behind the veil of darkness, forgetfulness and silence And offered them to us on a song.' Classical heroes, though they be Kings and Queens, Princes and Generals, Gods and Goddesses are revived and pressed into the service of the common people as affirmations of their own humanity, dignity and nobility. In `The Spirit of the Nation' and elsewhere mention of ancient glories are addressed to the `resisting worker and the resisting peasant'. The `spirit of the nation' is urged to travel not through mansion or palace but `from cottage to cottage'. (p79) The `Apostle' who `stirs up the fires of ancient glories' does so `of a night, sitting' among `simple shepherds around their fire.' (p155) His tales do not try to define Armenians off from others but act as means to inspire them to struggle against oppression and tyranny `that slaughter life in the field/and the idea in the head' (p139). Such is the democratic and humanist vision that forms the axis of Varoujean's nationalist poetry. But this axis is sometimes stained, as even Varoujean was not always able to escape the more unpleasant prejudices of his day. Albeit isolated and marginal, ugly shadows in Varoujean's poetry stand out in sharp and striking contrast to his humanism and universalism. So they demand explanation lest they be abused in an effort to discredit the authenticity and integrity of his poetic legacy. In `The Massacre', `Amidst the Ruins of Ani' and `In Cilicia's Ashes', for example, there are images of Armenians as a ` diligent race' spreading the `ever flourishing mind of Europe' to a backward Asia while protecting themselves against `the rushing storm of Asian tribes.' (p82) Denigration of Asia is coupled with the characterisation of Turks as `a Race of Arsonists' `more destructive than time' itself and `deadlier than the plague'. (p131) The historical root of such prejudice is easy to divine. Here the Armenian experience resembled that of black South Africans under apartheid or Palestinians colonised by Zionism. A vast swathe of white settlers in Apartheid South Africa and Jewish settlers in Zionist Israel were, and in the latter case still are, conscious and willing participants in and beneficiaries of their state's oppression and plunder of another people. In such conditions the oppressed people are offered little room to make distinctions between the oppressing state and its citizens. Relations between the Armenian people and the Ottoman state were similarly complicated. Whipped into a frenzy of hatred by their leadership, significant numbers of ordinary Turks participated in the slaughter of Armenians and benefited from the expropriation of their land and property. Even as the Armenian revolutionary leadership sought to oppose it this created fertile ground on which a generalised anti-Turkish prejudice could flourish. Armenian intellectuals who had received their education in Europe sometimes buttressed such anti-Turkish sentiments with a European disdain for Asian civilisation. Even the most progressive absorbed not only the best of European culture but elements of its worst too. In Varoujean these came to the fore in moments of impotent rage in the wake of terrible murder. Occasional manifestations of Europeanism and of anti-Turkish prejudice are however characteristic neither of `The Heart of the Nation' nor of Varoujean' s personal life. They in fact stand in irreconcilable opposition to the more imposing, consistent and withering criticism of European imperialism and to a vision of Armenian Turkish solidarity that concludes the volume. `The Heart of the Nation' closes with `The Woman of the Ruins' (p167) that, though a poem of lesser artistic quality, celebrates Armenian-Turkish friendship and coexistence following the Young Turk coup d'etat in 1908. Despite their delusions in 1908, neither Varoujean, right up to the moment of his murder, nor the Armenian revolutionary movement abandoned faith in the eventual possibility of Armenian and Turkish coexistence. `The Heart of the Nation', for all its isolated weaknesses, has a universality that is attained by a dominant humanism and a rich, alluring art. Minas Tololyan (1875-1975), if we set aside his political standpoint for future debate, was a literary critic whose work of acute perception and enduring evaluation deserves preserving. He writes quite rightly that Varoujean: `remains that greatest of poets who in his work harmonised the national and the universal... Unrivalled in his hymn to and interpretation of Armenian social and collective life.... he yet suffered for all humanity. He suffered the misfortunes of all nations, the dark destiny of all oppressed peoples. He suffered the humiliation of the impoverished worker... Suffering in (Varoujean's poetry) echoes a collective throb. Through his own nation and through the freedom struggle of thousands of its children he focused the ideal of freedom for all humanity...' In his profoundly Armenian poetry Varoujean has sculpted the agony and the courage, the oppression and the resistance of all who have lived or continue to live lives in extremis. Here is poetry that is best appreciated in our striving to reach the other side of the tide of violence and decay that sweeps the opening of our century. Varoujean's trumpet for a free and better future is for all! (End Note: If only Zareh Jaltorossian would drop all else and devote himself to Varoujean he would gift us with a superior appreciation of this stupendous poet.) -- 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.