Armenian Literature for the 21st Century... `Never Die - this is what I have to say', by Hovhannes Grigoryan, (164pp, 2010, Yerevan, a digital version is available at: https://yavrumyan.blogspot.co.uk/p/ebook.html thanks to the fantastic work being done by Marat Yavrumyan) Armenian News Network / Groong January 31, 2017 By Eddie Arnavoudian IT'S TIME TO USE POETIC STONES! Hovhannes Grigoryan's `Never Die - this is what I have to say' (164pp, 2010, Armenia, Yerevan) supplies us a heap of granite-hard poetic stones to hurl at the mansions of power, at the social and political hucksters, thieves, charlatans, hypocrites, warmongers and environmental barbarians who today rule the roost, in Armenia and globally. These poetic missiles are as clean and as ready for use today as they were when he first wrote the poems gathered in this collection. Not common in Armenian poetry surreal, grotesque and often gruesome imagery and narrative, dipped in sardonic humor and irony display an Armenia devastated during the decades of transition, from the Second, Soviet Armenian Republic to the post-Soviet Third, that commenced in the 1990s. Grigoryan possesses the clarity, the integrity and that power of judgement peculiar to genuine artists in periods of dramatic social transformation. Witness to life during the era of exit from the Soviet age, he never takes the slogans of transition, its ideologies and its promises, at face value. We are struck by a proper refusal to join the fraudsters in passing off corruption, abuse, plunder and destruction of community and nation as the natural norm of `transition. Verse here registers rather that sullen, silent, hostility of a disempowered mass, the stony-faced despising for what is being done to the land and the people. Here are poems of a reality immorally at odds with the proclaimed ideals of 1989, poems of a nation being wrecked not by Armenian-Azeri or Turkish Armenian conflicts but by the new powers in command of an Armenia allegedly in transition to `prosperous', `peaceful' and `independent' existence. Hovhannes Grigoryan's voice remains urgent for it appears that the awful miseries of `transition' have become a permanent rule of life in the `new Armenia'! Witness the never ending queues for visas to foreign lands. I. NO REST FROM THE WICKED `Sunday' (p6), a snapshot of everyday life during the `transition' is also a metaphor for the emptiness of the promise that was supposed to follow the end of a metaphorical never-ending alienated working week of Soviet life. Sunday should be a day of rest, a holiday from the hardships of labour. But spent in Armenia with Hovhannes Grigoryan it is a blight of positive expectation besieged by poverty, by aggressive evangelists seeking to snatch a tithe, by the nepotism of council politics, by venal officials chasing accolades, by useless politicians `canvassing for my permanent vote', for after all `of what value is my voice for myself.' At the desperate end of the day, `in own my front room `wearing my Sunday best' `I put my head through the noose and kick away the chair.' Read the final lines yourselves for a shocking scene of bitter resignation! `Hot Seasons' (p44) tells in bizarrely humorous fashion of the poverty that accompanied `transition'. In Soviet times with affordable gas and electric prices, a dash of boiling water would silence the jarring howl of mating dogs. Now cold water must do! But even that is becoming too expensive and so these days cursing must suffice - `words being the only commodity whose value has fallen!' Worse still now, `For a scrap of bread', men and women must `learn to crawl expertly through dirt and trash' (p8). And whilst common people are priced out of normal life it is `utterly terrifying how/ a small group of people, before our very eyes/is enriched at savage speeds.' (p76). In such a world there `are no stars in the skies', or `perhaps there are/but bent beneath dark thoughts/we never raise our gaze from the ground' (p13). Democracy, the supposed jewel in the crown of the new republic is a total farce. In `Pre-Electoral Promises' the `mass of the electorate/ is worn out and down by the tedium/of endlessly electing the same candidate' (p33) who utter platitudes about `improving the well-being of the people'. Unsurprisingly in the promised post-electoral paradise when `our long suffering people finally straighten up/ draw breath to live lives fit for humans' they find themselves `inhabiting the large and small prisons, the central or provincial hospitals, and most particularly the cemeteries.' (p17) Grigoryan's vision was international. He targets warmongers everywhere who `speak most fervently of friendship between people' `just before war' or `during breaks from mutual communal slaughter' (`About Men' p11). Triumphal celebrations with marital music only drown the deafening noise from factories producing yet more weapons of war. When not waging war against each other we war against the environment. We may have left the Stone Age behind and the Iron and Bronze ages too, but in these `New Times' (p70) `if we look deeply into the soul of man/we can confidently say/that we are actually living in the Early Trash Age!' It appears as if God, for some awful wrongdoings in another life has condemned us to `The Worse Punishment' (p29) `he could design' - reincarnation into new the Armenia. `All that is left' (p43) today is to dream, to dream of sunny isles endowed with natural bounty and inhabited by good people. And from this dream it is `better not to wake', for if we do, we will find ourselves again in `an ocean of bile and poison.' II. PESSIMISM OF THE MIND, OPTIMISM OF THE WILL Unlike Barouyr Sevak's bounding optimism or revolutionary Shoushanik Gurghinian's rousing calls to action, Hovhannes Grigoryan seems to have no window onto a sunny side. It would be careless however to cast his poetry as no more than a passive, albeit powerful display of the cup of popular bitterness full. Passivity or fatalistic resignation cannot produce the surreal brilliance or the disturbing macabre that are screams of horror at the sacrificing of decency among men and women. Grigoryan's surreal and grotesque expose distortion and degradation and in unusual form they measure the magnitude of loss. He echoes an abyss between reality and a deeply felt moral order. This is not of course the order of the Soviet age despite the hints that material life was more tolerable then. But nor is it the order of anti-Soviet ideology or of Armenian nationalist ideology. Animating this poetry is a desire for essential mutual decency in relations and conditions that are born of our being simultaneously individual and collective. `A New Line' (p155) is a telling expression. A young man recalls his twin sister who died a few hours after their birth on a hot `half-starved post-war morning'. Today no one remembers her. But he does and oh so clearly and movingly. Recalled against the reality of war, poverty and insecurity, he remembers the nine months of warm, secure, gregarious and stable life in the security of the protective womb. These `were the best times of my life', In a 2008 interview for the journal `Gretert,' Hovhannes Grigoryan spoke of the `transition' having devastated `the greatest capital inherited from the Soviet age - human capital.' Nevertheless, he was hopeful that recovery had begun. But by 2013, the year Grigoryan died the notion of `transition' already appeared as blatant fraud. There had been no `transition', just the enforcement of mass degradation that endures to this day. III. THE NECESSITY OF HOVHANNES GRIGORYAN! Art and literature serve life and society. It cannot be otherwise. The individual artist can be and often is passive or indifferent to society. But, if their work does not speak to life it is not art, it is irrelevant. Whether appropriated individually or collectively, art and here poetry produces experience. It refines, enhances, alters perception, sensibility and consciousness, whether individual or collective and so influences men and women in their actions and relations. Grigoryan's poetry contributes emphatically to life. In our age of global turmoil for any artist, more important than all else is being necessary to our times. Hovhannes Grigoryan is! His is a startling alternative voice to the soulless and heartless lies and propaganda, to the financed deception and fraud that pass for public life in Armenia and the world. Recited aloud to a mass audience or read alone quietly his surreal and macabre not only confirm experience lived by the people but by affirming an essential human need, fortify will to action and resistance. * * * * * Together with those of surreal mix, a passion for life ran deep in Grigoryan's poems of more traditional form. In one beautiful poem we see an elderly man at his window in cold mid-winter. He `gazes enraptured' as `two small children tumble about in the snow' `shrieking with laughter and joy'. `Unawares', unconsciously, he is `stretching out his frozen hands' to `warm them over a bonfire of children's joyous shrieks and laughter.' Elsewhere with echoes of Vahan Derian, Hamo Sahyan, of Thoreau and Walden, Grigoryan offers exhilarating gems of the four seasons. He makes us feel afresh that wondrous sense of unity with nature, with nature as an almost divine foundation of life, when it is free that is of human violence and destruction. 2017 is still a good time to read this volume; take it with you to school, to work, to meeting rooms and to the streets and the public square! -- 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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