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The Critical Corner - 09/21/2009

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Armenian News Network / Groong
By Eddie Arnavoudian

September 21, 2009

            Let there always tears or laughter in your heart
            When it is silent, it becomes a dark death

Vahan Derian (1885-1920) was a path breaking and vastly influential
Armenian poet. With poetry of unprecedented gentleness and tenderness
he refined eastern Armenian to an exquisite perfection, echoed with
precision the pains of the lonely and alienated individual and
registered the tragic disintegration of an oppressed Armenian people
and nation. Vahan Derian was simultaneously a dedicated revolutionary,
indeed a communist, a Bolshevik, a Soviet delegate with Leon Trotsky
at Brest Litovsk and the first to translate Lenin's `State and
Revolution' into Armenian. But there was no contradiction between the
poet's art and his politics. Both derived from the same source - a
consciousness of and an insistence upon community, collectivity and
human solidarity as a condition of both individual and social

With Derian politics and poetry served a single purpose - the effort  
to rebuild community as a means of overcoming individual alienation  
and social dislocation. This unity of purpose is evident even in ten  
arbitrarily chosen pages from his Selected Works (608pp, 1989,  
Yerevan) published as part of the Armenian Classical Writer series.  
Here Derian registers the existential dramas of the passing of time  
that wither loves and passions leaving behind only their memory. He  
describes those cold craters of loneliness and loss that we are  
hurled into by the harshness of everyday life. He reacts particularly  
against the terrible blight of forced emigration, an experience that  
for Derian was also a significant reflection of Armenian national  
oppression. In what becomes protest and struggle against individual  
atomization and loneliness and the dislocation of social being caused  
by ceaseless hostile, often violently effected change and instability  
Derian's poetry is totally contemporary.


Very few Armenian teenagers who loved to read Armenian poetry would  
not have encountered Vahan Derian's melancholic, brooding, sighing  
poems of loneliness, regret, isolation and loss. Without precedent  
among Armenians, Derian acknowledged as authentic the emotional  
anxieties and woes of youth that parents and educators often dismiss  
as self-indulgent excess and even as nuisance. But the charm of  
Derian's poetry that is so completely and effectively reflective of  
teenage emotion expresses, in this very completeness, more than just  
the transient forms of life's early years.

Derian caresses the soul of the young at a potentially most profound  
and fearful moment, at a moment when it begins to leave behind the  
securities and certitudes of family and close community in search of  
independence and self alone in a world not yet fully known. The  
`teenage crisis' that then foments, the almost existential loneliness  
and alienation, the fear and the anxiety  is however only the first  
of many episodes, and so perhaps one of the most defining dramatic,  
that will recur throughout lives that will be pressed, constrained  
and shadowed. The passage of time and change of circumstance  
threatens to puts ends not just to our early cherished and formative  
experiences but to all those that follow, not just to our early loves  
and friendships but to all future loves and friendships leaving for  
the present only the promise but never the certainty of new bonds and  

In its gentle rhythms, its wonderful alliteration, its enticing  
pastel colours and with the acutest feel for the most nuanced  
variations of emotion Derian's poetry offers something of a cathartic  
experience. It opens up to young and to old, our own troubled,  
alienated and lonely souls to reveal there an essential and enduring  
yearning for stability, love and community and that terrible  
melancholy and pain when these are absent. As he delves into the  
gloomy, the grim and the blighted Derian never wallows there, he  
never glorifies melancholy nor does he surrender to pessimism.  
Confessing his `weariness of sad thoughts' he feels however compelled  
to speak them out loud for he cannot ignore a social reality that has  
made `life a master and we its slave'.

In this `master-slave' relationship Derian also marks critical  
distinctions between melancholies that are born of inescapable  
existential realities and those that result from our own constructed  
human relations. He is acutely conscious of the difference between  
the inevitability of the passing of time, of the ephemeral quality  
youth and of the finiteness of individual life on the one hand and on  
the other the crueler loneliness, the greater harshness of lives that  
are lived at the behest of other human beings over whom one has no  
control. In second aspect life becomes all the more harsh and cruel  
because it does not necessarily have to be so. However in both cases  
Derian's poetry is more than just the telling of truths, it is also  
the seeking for ameliorations and overcoming.


In the alertness to youth's urgent impatience for the passions of  
body and soul and the premonition of their vanishing with time some  
of Derian's poetry reminds us of John Donne. In `Is It Not a  
Pity' (p224 No. 84) the poet bewails the fact that `this evening'  
when two lovers are `for the first time left alone' one of them  
spends the time reading an ancient classic. `Look!' exclaims the  
poet, `that old pensioner posted here to guard us is already deep  
asleep,' Let us seize the opportunity `I am your slave! Order me!'  
The poet challenges doubt and coyness:
            `Oh Margo, this night will pass
            Will vanish into the infinite
            At least let there remain in my book a page
            On which my sweet Margo will live for ever.'

Passion must be enjoyed when its flame is at its most fierce for  
thereafter it will surely wane or be smothered by time and  
circumstance. `I remembered beneath the heavy flood of rain' and  
`This simple fragile song' - (Nos. 86 and 87) tell of the facts of  
waning and the smothering of those times when there were `kisses amid  
lustful embraces' when `breast burnt against breast' and `my soul  
stormed in yours'. But then there came the `sad and cold goodbyes'.  
Trapped before the public gaze, frozen by fear of public moral  
censure, the lovers even for their very last goodbye are `unable to  
embrace one another' and are condemned to `extending hands coldly and  
without meaning' as if they were already dead and lifeless, beings  
devoid of feeling and passion.

There is certainly melancholy and grief in these poems but no  
bitterness. Memory of spent passions survives not to haunt the  
present or to counsel surrender to it. Nor does it speak of endless  
suffering after the passing. Memory of love and passion endures as a  
living thing, as an element of our present, as a luminous part of  
ones being that accompanies one to the end.
	But perhaps there will survive in your soul too
	A fiery song, a shimmering memory
	Like a page from a beloved poet
	That will always smile with a sweet caress.'


The quality of injustice felt with the ineluctable passage of time,  
with the vanishing of youth and the dwindling of passions is however  
altogether different, less brutal than the alienation and  
fragmentation caused by social relations, one expression which is  
forced emigration where life's whip is felt all the more cuttingly  
for being wielded not by time and destiny but by other human beings.

Vahan Derian was never able to reconcile himself to the fact of exile  
and of the loss that this represents in the life of man and woman.
	Oh heart of mine, beneath a foreign sky,
	Homeless and restless, you die.

The experience of exile accentuates all the contrasts and abysses  
between early expectations and ultimate reality that can define life.  
When the poet first sets off for a foreign land all was hope:
	My soul was rich with proud song
	A new highway opened up before me

But rapidly hopes are dashed. The highway has led into a nightmare. Now:
	In a foreign land I have been silenced
	By the endless sound of its unending sighs

Tired of exile that is a `dark world' Derian wants to `be taken home,  
taken back to my mountains.' He dreams restlessly:
	Tonight I am far, far away
	It is as if I have returned home.

Though only as suggestion, the roots of discontent are manifest in  
the absence of family, of home, of native community and of familiar  
homeland that are together all so central to the first shaping of the  
life of the individual. Home promises that which foreign pastures  
cannot - light and brightness, rest and protection. It promises a  
nobility of existence, a freedom:
	`Take me to my bright plains
	To my mountains untouchable and noble
	To my plains rested and sunlit

Contrasted to free and fresh mountain and plain, to yielding fertile  
fields, one can readily imagine the substance of the exiled life the  
poet wishes to flee. From rural grandeur, from soaring mountain  
heights that perhaps expresses the contour and content of his spirit  
and soul the poet finds himself imprisoned in a `sunless land' -  
perhaps the stifling urban grime of dirty, airless streets and damp  
and dark abodes where life is but hardship, poverty, yearning,  
loneliness, isolation and endurance. On these foreign shores that may  
have beckoned beautifully in the past the poet has today been torn  
apart and worn away:
	If only you knew how many dreams
	And how many songs died in my soul.

Torn from one's roots, isolated from family and community one has not  
the strength to confront the blows of a hostile life, to hurl aside  
the harsh task master to whom we become slave.
	If only you knew my distant comrade
	My bitter days and sleepless nights
	If only you knew with what stubbornness
	I have faced those blows
	That poured upon me flood by flood
	And with what deceitful fire and how dark
	If only you knew. (p221)

Derian offers us this experience as a deeply personal, even a private  
and intimate one. But in its force and its emotion it echoes the  
tragedy and the desire of tens of millions who in our own day roam  
far away from their native homes `beaten and tortured in a world so  

The anguish of emigration is only one blow from the lash of life as  
slave master. Others are equally savage, capable of breaking the  
spirit so utterly that:
	`My soul like a wandering dog
	Surrounded by night, surrounded by autumn
	With lost steps and with death in its eyes
	Terrified and helpless flees faraway. (p223 No.77)

Life within a warm welcoming community bound by a common solidarity  
is now preserved only in memory, as a dream:
	How can the aching heart in today's bitter mists
	Not page memories,
	That are now but dreams...
	...What have I left - a golden net, nothing more
	A pearl-string of treasured memories, nothing more

There is here despite the wistfully moody refrain no self- 
flagellation, no self-pity, no embracing of a soulless masochistic  
despair. Derian enters the darker spheres of consciousness always  
guided by hope and the will to resist, both shaped in moments of  
remembered freedom. The longing that accompanies the sorrows of his  
poetry, the deep music of the soul that conjures up time past not as  
illusion but as a vision of hope and overcoming acquires direct and  
explicit expression in `Again my roadway is in the distance and takes  
me far away' (p223, No78):
	`Whatever the measure of pain borne in my heart, let your heart rejoice in equal measure
	However much bitterness you have caused me - let your days be much a joy
	However much you have worn away my heart with coldness and a mighty revenge
	That much celebration, that many songs of love, that many blessings.

In `Let them slip and vanish like the clouds' (p222, No.75), that is a
dedication to a beloved, there is both a desire for and an expression
of the enduring hope and possibility of life re-rooted and blazing
with energy and vigour.
	And like stars, may dream and joy
	Remain alight
	In your fiery heart...
	...And like the sun just and generous
	In this dark world
	May your throbbing heart
	Smile bright, joyful and unblemished


Among the ten poems considered there are those that suggest that  
Derian did not accept that release from `life as a slave master'  
could be attained by a retreat from the external world, by refuge in  
one's inner spiritual self even if nourished by the world of the Book  
and the movement of the intellect. Reacting against the fragmentation  
of experience `I am weary of these countless books' and `Bent upon  
and lost in these old and new books' (p229, Nos. 88 and 89) - both  
indicate a rejection of the notion that immersion into the world of  
the Book and of the idea can be substitute for active engagement with  
the society in which one lives. When not rooted in the broader  
hinterland of nature and community the Book and the idea often become  
treacherous retreats, `sharp double edged swords' and `deep wounding  
	Bent over these new and older books
	I did not see, did not see that it was spring again.

Solitary submersion into the world of book and intellect is in fact  
itself a manifestation of alienation and fragmentation in which the  
world of the Book becomes a world of the dead:
	`And amongst all these dead, my blinded heart
	Did not see the roses that had bloomed
	In my darkened room I did not see the sun.'

For Derian communism represented a passage out of this darkened room.
Communist politics is Derian's chosen form of engagement with society
to secure the triumph over the alienation, fragmentation and isolation
that he depicts in his poetry. The communism that he professed
expressed a vision and an ambition for social solidarity, generosity
and community the absence of which inspired his poetry.  This unity of
poetry and politics is indeed suggested by Vahan Derian himself in one
of his letters where he writes that:
	`Man/woman's most intolerable pain is loneliness...(and)...socialism  
	annihilates loneliness....If socialism was to promise only material  
	security I would never have become a socialist.'

Needless to say Derian's poetry and his politics were free of any one- 
sided romantic or a-historical abstractions. He lived life as a  
concrete real Armenian individual born among people enslaved and  
oppressed by foreign imperial powers. As a man of the intellect and  
the arts, in the best of traditions, he devoted himself to both the  
business of serving the Armenian people's struggle for national  
emancipation and their emancipation as individuals. He did so with  
poetry in the sphere of art and communism in that of politics. He did  
so at a level which at its best touches the universal.

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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