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The Critical Corner - 02/07/2005

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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

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.


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

	`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...'

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)


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

`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


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

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

	`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.

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