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Why we should read...

'Rouben Sevak - the poet of innocent love and rebellion'
Selected Works
pp121-237, Library of Armenian Classics, 1981, Yerevan

Armenian News Network / Groong
April 10, 2002

By Eddie Arnavoudian

	'Poetry captures the adventurously moving,
	latently expectant world of human beings.
	(It) is an elucidated waking dream of the essential.'
				--E. Bloch

	'The poetic embrace like the carnal
	While it endures
	Forbids all lapse into the miseries of the world.'
				--Andre Breton

Attempting to grasp and comment on poetry in a language other than
that of its original composition is a forbidding endeavour. No
translation of excerpts, let alone whole poems, however inspired, can
reproduce the fine and subtle nuance and the very particular depth and
breadth of perception afforded by the inimitable contours of a poem's
first language. One is then compelled to retreat, defining poet and
poetry through ideas and images that in the original abound with a
life and sensibility that are unique and beyond translation. Delving
into the world of Armenian poetry composed in its western variant is
doubly forbidding. As western Armenian steadily ceases to be the coin
of daily discourse, its once vibrant idiom, metaphors, similes and
words lose connection with our everyday life and are emptied of their
unique meaning. Nevertheless, despite the difficulties, when reading
the works of many modern Armenian poets one can still experience that
'waking dream of the essential', as Bloch so aptly puts it.

Rouben Sevak (1885-1915), murdered in an unspeakably brutal manner
during the attempted genocide of the Armenian people, is one among
such poets. He was precocious, erudite, charismatic and handsome. His
photographs project a powerful presence: a combination of intelligence,
boyish charm, youthful melancholy, energy and anger that are preserved
in the best of his poetry.  His magnetic qualities radiate even from
the most casual acquaintance with his life or work. The bulk of his
poetry may not endure but some 15 to 20 poems do capture a dimension
of our 'adventurously moving, latently expectant world'.

Much that passes for poetry, Armenian and non-Armenian, is flawed by a
failure to communicate with any freshness and originality those hidden
and elusive dimensions of experience a grasp of which enhances our
being. Not so with Rouben Sevak. A proper discussion of the aesthetics
of his verse cannot naturally be attempted now as it requires a
substantial body of adequate translations. Suffice for the moment,
therefore, to note the simple clarity of his language, his fine ear
for rhythm touched by folk tradition and a deft use of contrast and
metaphor. In addition Sevak has both a facility for creating vivid and
epic-like characters and a talent for features of epic narrative. Thus
he produces poetry that propels the reader into an altered plane of
fertile thought and feeling. Even Sevak's lesser poems contain
phrases, lines, couplets or a verse or two that startle and arrest
one's attention to demand consideration.

Sevak's poetry embraces a wide experience of life ranging from the
most abstract considerations of the human existential condition to the
social revolt of the marginalised and underprivileged, across to the
Armenian struggle for national liberation right down to matters of
individual love and passion, joy and despair. In his finest poetry a
well-developed and coherently articulated social and philosophic
outlook acquires effective aesthetic form. It was not just youthful
fancy or arrogant fantasy that moved him to proclaim himself one of
'the New Troubadours of a New Humanity.' (As I am not a poet please
forgive the quality of the excerpts rendered into English below)

In 'Why?' the poet defined himself as an 'eagle', a 'tempest', a
'prophet of doom' and a 'Love-God'. Not for him the pedestrian, the
traditional or the predictable. Not for him silence and acquiescence,
not even where hope may be wanting.  His poetic 'roar is pregnant with
struggles yet undreamed of'. So he wields passion, rage and intellect
to challenge all abuse of human dignity. Defying the illusoriness of
human dreams he strives to reach beyond the fragility of mortal life,
and beyond the terrible miseries that make nightmares of potentially
beautiful lives.


Like many Armenian poets of his generation Rouben Sevak attempted to
produce a humanistic love poetry that traced itself back to a
pre-Christian, 'pagan' appreciation of love and passion. But his was
no one sided glorification of the sensual. Instead his poetry is a
rejection and a transcending of the life-denying opposition between an
allegedly virtuous spiritual love and a supposedly satanic carnal
passion. Poetically overcoming this ascetic Christian alienation of
love from passion Sevak shows both in their highest natural and most
human form. Through this endeavour he also reveals a profound grasp of
how Christian/eastern ascesticism legitimises the social oppression
and abuse of women.

A couplet from 19th century Irish poet John Boyle O'Reilly best
expresses the substance of Sevak's love poems such as 'Drunken Love',
'The Song of Songs', 'Aroma' and 'The Kiss': 'The love that is purest
and sweetest/Has a kiss of desire on the lips'. Infused with a
touching innocence and a youthful ardour beyond any consciousness of
disillusion or any knowledge of corruption Sevak's poems conjure love
and passion as an untainted and integral whole.  However while lovers
'in the infinity of a warm kiss/can forget/Existence, the Universe and
even themselves' Sevak remains aware of the tragedy that flows from
tearing them asunder. This does more than diminish love. It is a
violation of the human essence. It leads inexorably to violence
against life itself.

Sevak could not entirely escape the misogyny of his environment, so
lesser poems refer to 'deceitful women' with 'hearts hypocritically
fashioned'. Yet when inspired his poetry is a protest against
society's denial and suppression of women's individuality, their
desires and their dreams. It is worth noting, in parenthesis, that he
also makes a conscious effort to understand the position of women and
to acknowledge their equality. Some of his love poetry in an effort to
grasp the issue from the point of view of women is composed as if
written by a woman. Additonally in his poetry of political protest he
pointedly underlines the presence of women among the leaders of

'Like Everyone Else' is a condensed poetic history of the enslavement
of Armenian womanhood. It describes the crushing of female
personality, ambitions and sensuality by a backward male-serving

	'She was beautiful ... and desired to Be
	 but she followed her beloved mother's course
	 and so farewell to the kiss and to love
	 perpetual torture, never any joy
	 this she never expected.'

Rouben Sevak's delicate sensibility is revealed in his use of the
mother figure as a metaphor for a life of enslavement.  Traditionally
a focus of love, affection and veneration the mother as metaphor
painfully underlines both the power of custom and tradition, its
deeply contradictory character and the pain that would result from any
defiance. For 'The Armenian Woman' love has no essential part in her
real life, whatever her dreams. 'For her love is shameful' and though
her 'body was created for love' she will 'tomorrow be tainted by a
pair of brutal hands' and 'will die without ever having loved.'  Here
again a vivid metaphor, a 'pair of brutal hands', evokes both the
brutal social drama of arranged marriages and the individual anguish
and suffering they cause.

Women's lives are no better however in the 'civilised' West. Here too
they are reduced to soulless instruments of men's pleasure and worse -
to objects of trade and exchange. Prostitution brings this vice to its
pinnacle. 'The Prostitute' is stripped of all spirit, of any chance to
love or to desire.  She is condemned to

	'wait, ready, passive and mute
	 without choice and without love
	 to giver herself
	 to any Male in possession of ready money ...'

In 'The Womb of Constantinople', that is dedicated 'to our sisters',
Sevak exclaims 

	'To lust, why not!
	 but hidden from view
	 to be exchanged indifferently, like a rag
	 with any fool who has money to spend...
	 No!  No...!'

In such a world women are 'flowers denied of life'. Prostitution,
which Sevak considered a Western vice brought into Constantinople is
ironically but

	 'the other side of that medal
	  where "Man" is inscribed in letters of gold.'

Against this corruption of love, against its alienation from passion
and against the abuse of women, Sevak as 'Love-God' celebrates a love
that is free, 'that is as fearless as the nocturnal wanderer', a love
that 'is not in awe of the depths of the precipice.' Instead of being
hidden away, cowed and abused he wanted love to be 'the captain' of
'the ship of life.'


Yet even as they aspire for the beauty of a fullfilled love and
passion men and women cannot escape their existential destiny marked
by the fact of mortality. Mortality asserts itself relentlessly
threatening to empty of significance the grandest and most beautiful
of our hopes and ambitions.

	'Where goes the noble Knight racing on his steed?
	 does he not see at his rear
	 a thousand skeletons
	 now too weary to run...
	 It is said that he races to his beautiful mansion
	 or is on a mission sacred, or visiting a distant love
	 yet I know for sure
	 he somewhere has a tombstone...'

The grandeur and infinity of the natural world we inhabit serves only
to underline human smallness and frailty. The power and majesty of
sun, of starry sky, seas and land reflect disdainfully upon human
beings, those

	'wretched visitors to this wondrous world
	 roaming aimlessly, broken even at dawn
	 pathetic, miserable, rife with ills, shackled to the soil.'

It is of no avail that we invent

	'ingenious notions of immortal life
	 to soothe our last moments with Hope...'

Life is, in essence, but 'a burning ship' and the love that Sevak
seeks to humanize is the

	'captain glancing mournfully back
	 as he flees the falling, flaming timber.'

The powerful presence of death and mortality in Sevak's conception of
life was no doubt influenced by Armenian life under Ottoman rule in
the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Then violence,
torture, plunder, abuse and sudden, unexpected and premature death
were facts of everday life for ordinary Armenians.  Yet the
pervasiveness and certitude of death cannot quench human hope and
human striving. Men and women will continue to dream, will continue to
reach out to a constantly beckoning beauty.

So even

	'when the thin hand that blots this paper
	 is reduced to a handful of dust
	 some other artist, as foolhardy as me
	 will come to subject the river's flow to rhyme and rhythm'.

Even as the river

	'continues its eternal, vital, cheerful way
	 disdainful of art and the life of man'

the poet will

	'sing in lightness or in dark'.

	'So what if death be just a step ahead
	 I am a lover of the open field'

and will

	'chase those coveted dreams'


	'hurl myself
	 to wherever there appears the thinnest ray of hope
	 to wherever there is the slightest flickering of light...'

This striving and the effort is not in vain. It cannot alter the fact
of mortality that the 'prophet of doom' heralds. But it does reveal
spheres of existence where human action can fashion a more rewarding
destiny. As the poet moves from the abstract existential to the
directly social, political and national he remarks repeatedly on the
fact that much of life's tragedy is of our own making. The fallen
grandeur of the 'The Last King', the lion, snatched by man from its
natural environment, is at once a metaphor for our own capacity for
barbarism and of our own resulting alienation. 'Caged in emptiness,
like a fallen god', the lion is both man and beast inhabiting a world
created by men not by destiny where

	'no hearts soul breathes...
	 emptiness all around and an infinite emptiness within'.


In describing and seeking a release from the 'cage' we have made for
ourselves Sevak turns to the most difficult of artistic forms -
political and social poetry. Here his outstanding poems are free of
the sloganeering, rhetoric and propagandistic preaching that is so
common, for example, even in the English Penguin Book of Socialist
Verse. Like the best of Yeghishe Charents, Nazim Hikmet or Brecht,
Sevak's poems are at one and the same time denunciations of a
particular social order, a highlighting of the suppression of human
potential that all oppression entails and a pointing to alternative
possibilities in life.

Like the best thinkers of the Armenian national revival Rouben Sevak's
concern is not with the 'Nation' or with 'Justice' as abstract
entities. He is not the poet of nationalist bombast so easily quoted
and abused by aspiring elites. He gives real expression to the actual
suffering, hunger, pain and anguish of those the ordinary man and
women who become 'victims of the games of barbarians' that destroy the
earth with 'their all-consuming conflagration'. In the world of
colonial domination men and women 'are neither people, nor workers,
but beast of burden' subjected to unending brutalisation and violence.
Their homes are 'hovels with shattered blood-stained walls'. There is
no respect or compassion for the elderly whose 'dead bodies are
scattered on the mountain sides.' All that is sacred is blasphemed as
village 'chapels lie in ruins, bereft even of a hint of incense.' Here

	'beneath the hills, level with the earth
	 where our gentle martyrs rest'

all hope for divine intervention is useless and 'all the serene
promises of the Cross' illusions. Confronted by an apparently
omnipotent evil, even 'the ancient copper souls of Church bells' have
come to 'doubt not just their own, but God's voice too.'

The utopia,

	'when lamb and wolf together roam
	 is yet remote
	 today to survive
	 the lamb must covertly sharpen its teeth.'

The failure of the traditional gods calls for a new vision, one with
no room for Christian fatalism. We have only ourselves to rely

	'He who bends the knee with awe will fall
	 the sword is more powerful than the Cross
	 and life belongs to those who are brave
	 to those who will live through the death'

of their oppressors. So

	'even as our God is savaged in his chapel
	 may Revenge become my God.'

However this revenge is not blind or fired by hatred. It is inspired
by visions of a new Rome. The mother grieving for her husband whispers
to her child

	'I refused to collapse and die on your father's body
	 for I swore, like the She wolf of Rome
	 to nourish a new Romulus at my breast.'

To the same end the homesick migrant labourer, in 'The Last Armenians',
'returns his son back home to fight.' The battle may endure

	'for eternity
	 but as long as there remains on earth
	 even a handful of people fighting for Justice
	 they will be the last Armenians
	 the last Armenians.'

In 'The Last Armenian', as in many of his best poems Sevak coherently
condenses a broad set of ideas and gives them both immediacy and
emotional resonance. 'The Last Armenian' is at one and the same time a
social and individual drama of the plight of migrant labour and an
account of the historic misfortunes of all oppressed nations. The
image of a proud past when

	'the hurtling spears and arrows
	 of Great King Arshak's awesome army
	 dimmed even the glory of the sun'

contrast with the nation today living crushed beneath the yoke of
foreign domination. Were King Arshak to

	'raise his head today
	 he would see homeless, leaderless Armenians'

fleeing the homeland in search of safer havens and sustenance. Through
each verse reference to conquest, plunder, violence, mass emigration,
the longing for home, the spectre of assimilation and the unending
struggle for justice connects the national experience with the social,
the Armenian experience with that of all oppressed people.

... and social liberation

Sevak's sensitivity for human suffering took him beyond any narrow
nationalism to those ideals of universal social liberation that
prevailed in his time. Like the Armenian revolutionary movement of the
late 19th and early 20th centuries he drew inspiration from the
socialist working class movement.  In the 'The Troubadours' he tells
how the ascendancy of money has 'shattered everything of grandeur and
nobility' and 'delivered even art to the hangman'.  Reminding one of
Rousseau's protest against private property Sevak pitted himself
against the apotheosis of gold:

	'Did not the man who fired by ambition
	 who first mined the dark womb of the earth
	 to seize you, cleanse you and polish you
	 did that man not read in the poison of your gleam
	 the whole sad fall of man.'

Money has generated a world of terrible polarities where

	'while one man now a corpse rests beneath a marble tombstone
							   strewn with roses
	 another yet alive hasn't even a pillow upon which to rest his head.'

In a poem with a powerful purchase on reality today the poet
notes that while

	'a thousand glorious temples are built
	 to honour non-existent Gods our orphans have no shelter
	 and women at death's door no medicine.'

Natural harmony has been shattered, all decency and compassion
destroyed. 'What heartless animals people are' that they can compell a
bent and aging labourer to

	'sweep away the pavement mud
	 just to preserve the spotless shine of gentlemen's boots.'

The 'bread they throw at him' in return, 'not even a dog will chew.'
The street sweeper's noble human potential is evident in a 'face that
could be a king's'. But the harsh conditions of social existence
disfigure him and so 'his bony hands will make you wince'.

As with the struggle for national liberation, no hope resides in god
or church. Witnessing the chance encounter of a homeless father and
the son he abandoned for lack of means to feed him the poet exclaims

	'Did Jehovah wreathed with blazing light
	 feel no shame when to this wretched, pitiable Man he said
	 I am your father, your maker, the all powerful and all seeing.'

Responsibility for this tragedy rests not with destiny or invented
gods but with 'disgusting men', with

	'our ever so good government
	 that opens schools for free
	 as if to teach reading and writing'

but in reality

	'to instruct on how to bow before their law
	 to become their humble, obedient milking cows.'

Revolt is therefore imperative. Parents

	'must teach their children even when still in the womb
	 to hate politicians of all colours
	 who kill without resort to poison'.

There is no morality that

	'can stay your hand
	 when one day exploding with rage to realise
	 that this fate you did not deserve
	 you turn to tear the guts from your heartless tormentors.'

Such 'men are creatures to be torn apart'. Driven by an almost
elemental instinct for justice and decency those ordinary men and
women 'who have been abandoned by men and gods' will strive to 'build
a new set of scales for a New Law'.

In some of his best poems Rouben Sevak appears as a witness narrating
an encounter with another individual's most intimate experience of
living, loving, suffering and resisting. Here neither the observer nor
the observed are extraordinary or heroic figures. Both narrating
poetic witness and the 'other' are you and I, ordinary men and women,
together witnessing and contemplating life and hoping and striving for
better times. May there come the poets who will render into many
languages the vision that we find in Rouben Sevak's finest work.

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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