Here some notes on a little article I am writing on
Rouben Vorperian: travels without joy
(Library of Armenian Classics, 1981, pp31-120)
On the Armenian literary landscape Rouben Vorperian (1870-1931) appears as an entirely marginal figure. While contemporaries like Varoujean, Yessayan, Siamanto, Sevak and others were as if always at the centre of debate on art, literature and national emancipation, Vorperian leaves the impression of residing quietly on the edge, unnoticed, shy and remote not just metaphorically but literally, living most of his life as he did in Djibouti and then Paris where he died. Today he rests among the company of the forgotten. We have, in the poet’s words:
‘Placed upon him the stone of oblivion
And left silence as guard to his tomb’
This is both mistake and loss. It was not for flattery that the poet received laurels from novelist Zabel Yessayan, singular critic Minas Teoleolian and others. Though Rouben Vorperian earned his living as a business man his first unchallenged passion was art and poetry. He did not aspire to be ‘an expert with statues’ or a ‘painter deserving of worship’, neither to be ‘an actor who overwhelms his audience’. ‘I was born a poet and let me remain so.’ Through determined dedication serviced by the that spark of creativity that is the gift of every human being Vorperian’s work contains flares, never mind that they do not reach as far or high as others.
In cumulative flow Vorperian’s poetry sounds a rending cry of wounded wanderers, uprooted from their homeland and unable to cast happy anchor elsewhere. He generates no bracing, insurrectionary passions or sensibilities. Often he is tiresome, even pedestrian. But at its moments, even if these are not prolific, his poetry has a tragic cast that shapes the anguished bitterness of enforced migration and that of its Armenian manifestation particularly. It is bares the soul of exiles worldwide, of uprooted, lonely wanderers, brows etched with yearning for homeland living the estrangement, pessimism and hopelessness that is companion of social and national dislocation.
Vorperian works his themes with thought provoking effect, suggesting a among other things a deeper appreciation of the essence of exile felt by men and women torn from closely knit rural communities where the collective more decidedly than today defined individual sensibility. Though not the best some poems compounding longing for homeland with the stunning of Genocide that blocked all hope of return are felt grasps of the solacing role of Soviet Armenia for a stunned Armenian intelligentsia.
I. The joyless wanderer
Rouben Vorperian is most striking when articulating the unending endurance that is enforced migration from homeland, when expressing the painful weariness of exile that failing to sink new roots is marked in addition by personal misfortune. For him it generated a melancholic, tired longing for his hearth and home as an elixir.
‘Oh for anyone to understand the sorrows of my soul
Who could feel it scorched by longing
For our homeland
Oh I smolder on and fall towards the damp soil.’ (p92)
But expressed in this grimness there is also a profound human truth. ‘My Village Road’ and ‘My Little Cottage’ are fine metaphorical renditions of the opposition between life in a rural homeland that was a social and collective unity and the rootless, isolated alienation of the life in exile. Alas that the former is memory, while the latter is a suffering present. Longer autobiographical verse draws the world map travelled by the poet who when still fuelled by youthful spirits reached to see the most distant wonders. None however filled the gap left by village home.
Though Vorperian does not tell us why, his poetry yet affirms his life marked by pervasive personal unhappiness. It has become ‘but a door before the abyss, a door before the dark road’ where smiles are ‘but froth concealing pain.’ It was then almost inevitable that his remembrance would search out the paths that led to his childhood village and to his humble cottage. Thus ‘My Village Path, a poem that Zabel Yessayan valued for its perfection of form that is also a bitter confession of the sum of emptiness that the poet’s exile life has amounted to.
Life’s boat left not a mark behind it
Forgetfulness took all from me
Old dreams vanish like clouds
Memories vanish like a song
Repeated in conclusion, this opening and a middle verse that establishes present time and space, gives the poem substances of defining oppositions. As he ambles along a stone-hewed road to an east African seaside a thousand miles from his childhood home, the ageing poet recoils against his present is devoid of his native village’s ‘youthful innocence’. Though somewhat bland and sentimental within the whole poem the term speaks clearly of disappointments, treacheries, lies, deceptions and corruptions that the poet has encountered in foreign lands despite their more ‘civilised’ ways.
Descriptions of the path to the village recreate more than the just the beautiful rural landscape of his youth that is the site of ‘My Little Cottage’. Small and insignificant as it is, it is not just:
A few pillars and black walls
Bent but holding each other up
Like the aged of ancient days
The cottage is a fact of stability, of a rooted existence, of the warmth, comfort and security of home and hearth, suggesting the solidarities of collective, loving social relations of family – that in his time would be extended family. To all who occupy it, it is as a fortress and abode against misfortune and calamity. Meagre, ramshackle, almost dilapidated as it is, this cottage is yet the birthplace of youth’s dreams, the source of that flow of happiness and ease of life growing amid the love of parents and family - all now absent.
This remembrance is a counterpoint to a present impaired by disappointment and concluded by regret. Memory underlines misery in the present. Nothing has replaced the lights of human solidarity, for family love that was relished in that smallest and most humble of rural village cottages in the homeland. Now even this cottage has gone and as:
Fortune turned both you and me to dust.
The yearning for homeland that is communicated in the sum of Vorperian poetry has of course been a pervasive feature of the Armenian national experience and of its national consciousness forming as a result also a broad beam in Armenian literature. Vorperian’s poetry inspires thought that goes some way to explain why its intensity.
In traditional rural life, an individual’s sense of being was bound by existential cords to his/her collective, community relations. In contrast to the isolated individualism that today has reached its extremity in modern city life, for the rural man and woman, boy and girl, the collective and community define individual being with greater force. To be broken, rent asunder from this community was akin to personal fragmentation, to the loss of self. Yearning and longing return is at the same time yearning for recovery of the self, of the individual and not just yearning for an idyllic past.
Alas for Vorperian who was also a patriotic poet animated by ambitions of national emancipation, any prospect of individual return and recovery was dealt an additional, almost fatal blow by the 1915 Genocide. The Genocide compounded individual, personal dislocation and alienation with a collective and national dimension. It had uprooted a whole people and blocked all possibility of its return. So now however:
Grim days follow upon each other
Like you they have no end
Dawn always distant is blocked
Like the fate of a hunted bird
With his life on the wane, ‘with body immobile’, perhaps bedridden and feeling ‘no hope emerging from the chaos of the dark clouds’ the poet spends his time ‘living in the bosom of the past.’
In his editor’s introduction to a 1981 edition of Vorperian’s poetry, Vasken Gabrielian is tritely dismissive of his poems of longing, judging them to be, at least in part, a failure of vision, ‘a retreat to tradition’ and ‘inability to see the way out of capitalism’s alienated human relations (p6). Memory of the past, of one’s youth, can of course take on diverse functions, including as metaphors for social vision, conservative or progressive. In Hovanness Hovannissian they for example construct a utopia of social emancipation. But in Vorperian’s memory acts as neither serving rather to underline an enduring deep, distraught personal unhappiness and the alienation of his rootless, lonely existence in exile.
Vorperian’s yearning for the home of his youth is a yearning for social and collective solidarity not for rural conservatism. That it did not act as a social or political vision is testified to in Vorperian’s poetic solidarity with Soviet Armenia, a fact indeed noted and applauded by Gabrielian himself! One could add also that the recollection of youth in old age is perhaps an existential inevitability pitting healthy, energetic and carefree existence in youth against the fact of later decay and decline.
II. A Phoenix arises
Experience buckled and bent the very core of Rouben Vorperian’s being. When young he experienced the 19th as full of promise, ‘with fires of science’ spreading ‘happiness across the earth.’ Science had ‘opened up the deep of the abysses’ in whose ‘stormy oceans of doubt’ God, a permanent Armenian ‘boyhood companion’, receded into the distance to be replaced faith in the idea of human progress.
But as 19th century society became 20th, the glossy:
‘Make-up fell away from its cheeks
To reveal instead of sweet smiles
A hyena gaze and wolves’ claws
Beneath its shiny gloves
The savagery and barbarism of Genocide and World War One shattered confidence in independent human potential and left the poet bereft, utterly desolate, yearning not just for a return to homeland but for a return also of faith.
Oh I am alone and endlessly pleading
Return, God, as to my boyhood days
Whether Divine inspiration did revisit Vorperian I am not sure. But a significant, deeply felt poem ‘Apples from the Motherland’, evidently not written for the occasion expresses the solace that Soviet Armenia, with the flourish of cultural and social life there, offered the tired exile in his frail closing years. Never mind that Soviet Armenia was a mere stump of the historical homeland, that it did not incorporate his own beloved family village and cottage. Still a gift of apples from Soviet Armenia
Brought to the poet’s throbbing heart
An infinite unending dawn sun
They have after all been ‘touched by a breeze incensed with Etchmiadzin’s and Sevan’s aroma’. The tree from which they have been picked have ‘resonated to the song of the river Arax while ‘its roots have been fertilised by the sweat of the Armenian peasant.’ The excitement and the emotion is tremendous.
On the wing of memory the poet still wanders through the towns and villages of his western Armenian homeland, through Kharpert, Malatya, Mush and Arapgir. But they are now beyond reach. In eastern, Soviet Armenia however things are different. Sevan and Etchmiadzin may not be in western Armenia but they are essential, component parts of the historic space that defined the Armenian nation in its history and moreover are component parts of an Armenian state and republic. Ambitions for nation building In the western Armenian homelands may have been shattered by the Genocide. But in its stead Soviet Armenia, Phoenix-like, as a nation saving lighthouse and port of call. Never mind part of the USSR, it provided the foundation for the flourish of culture and literature, language and music, architecture, history and art to produce a common consciousness and sense of national identity.
Such were the historical-cultural co-ordinates that constituted a substance of nationality for the intelligentsia more immediately significant to them than the material and social emancipation of the mass of the peasants, the common people, who lived in the Armenian homelands and constituted the foundation of the nation. Even as they were obviously moved by the plight of the masses their object was the ideal of the nation as constructed by language, literature and culture. And here, despite the uprooting, dispossession and mass slaughter that had just been visited on the Armenian people, Soviet Armenia appeared still as powerful testimony, as incontrovertible evidence of a surviving nation.
For all the tangled complications and albeit but a tiny enclave, Soviet Armenia proclaimed the fact of nationhood with such magnetism that, through the energetic efforts among others of men such as communist historian and political activist Ashot Hovannissyan, an entire battalion of Armenian intellectuals of all political persuasions were persuaded to return and participate in nation-construction. More than a fact of flourishing of nationhood, Soviet Armenia had also offered a safe territorial refuge to many western Armenian survivors of the Genocide. It also represented for them and for Armenians generally a possible bridge of hope, a stepping stone to recovery and even possibly a recovery of and return to lands lost in the wake of the Genocide.
. . . . .
Through Vorperian’s work one finds other poems and scores of scattered couplets that stand alone as strikes to inspiration. The almost impeccable ‘Wedding Ring’ for example is a harsh and telling reminder of the contradictory nature of marriage, particularly in a conservative Christian society, with all its potential for violence and oppression concealed by the ring, but also its sanction of free reign to love and lust in the marriage bed. ‘The Watch’ is another fine piece, a gentle contemplation of the passing of time and of ageing with intimations of mortality touched well in an image of the old poet looking unperturbed at his old broken watch as he ‘smiles before infinity’.
As if in an epitaph Rouben Vorperian wrote that even as ‘time withers both rose and memory’, if his ‘songs were to speed from one heart to another’ he would rest easy never mind ‘beneath a forgotten tomb’. His songs would be immortality enough. There may not be many such ones. But there are some and it is good see Lola Koundakjian’s ‘Armenian Poetry Project (http://armenian-poetry.blogspot.co.uk) hosting Rouben Vorperian.
18 June 2012
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