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Why we should read...

Mateos Zarifian - the poet who defied death
Selected Works 
Library of Armenian Classics, pp 365 - 472, 1981, Yerevan


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

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

	'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.'


	'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.

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