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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. LOVE AND PASSION 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 struggle. '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 tradition. '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.' TO DEFY HUMAN FRAILTY AND MORTALITY 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' and '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 throb...no soul breathes... emptiness all around and an infinite emptiness within'. THE POET OF NATIONAL REVOLT... 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 upon. '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.