Sojourn at Ararat

I’ve just finished reading a collection of Armenian poetry. The book is a gift to me, and it’s my first foray into Armenian literature so it’s a special one; the more so because it’s a book that’s not available in bookshops or in online sellers. It’s printed on fancy texturized paper and it has a romantic bookish smell.

The selection of poetry is rather eclectic – the book is a spin-off publication project from a play based on poetry (edited by Gerald Papasian, who also acted in the play). It features poems by 16 poets from the tenth to the late twentieth century, covering a wide range of topics, from the mundane to the philosophical and historical. All of them have been translated by different people; some of the translations I really admire (e.g. some of them are rhymed), but the strategies employed in a few others don’t agree with me. (e.g. Why put the word “molecule” into a pastoral poem titled Prayer on the Threshold of Tomorrow? Why not “grain”, “speck”, or even “particle”?)

The book is divided into three sections (probably after the play): “Paradise”, “Paradise Lost”, and “Paradise Sought”. Many poems in the “Paradise Lost” section address the 1915 tragedy, and as such, are extremely bleak. It would, I think, suffice to say that the graphic descriptions in one poem by Siamanto (The Dance) end with the line “’How shall I dig out these eyes of mine? Tell me, how?’” (38).

I’m reproducing here one of my favourite poems from the book, by Paruir Sevak. It’s a merry one, but is also multi-layered.

A Would-Be Walk

I have decided to keep a dog.

And every night

when millions of weary shoes

like unworshipped totems

go into a deep slumber,

when the poor buttons of our shirts

released from their tight loops,

breathe freely for a few hours,

when only the ambulance may sometimes

pierce darkness with its horns of light,

I’ll take my dog out for a walk

to chat with him intimately

in the midnight silence

of the empty streets of the town.

– You faithful helpmate of my forefathers, dog

sometimes even a beast,

today my dear civilized dog,

(I’ll tell him)

you still don’t carry in your ears

telephone wires and receivers,

and your natural scent is not exploited

to decide by accurate chemical analysis

the element of my thoughts and anguish

through my musky-greasy smell

(with his tail he draws yes in the air).

– Dog brother,

everyone of us is something of a dog

with an invincible faithfulness towards god

which we now call future,

and towards the homeland

which I believe in your mother-tongue

is called bone, and towards that female

which is also love, which in your tongue

you may call marrow.

(He says with his tail a definitive yes).

– Dog brother,

everyone of us is something of a dog,

and each one barks differently.

Even the lamps bark through the mouths of their shades

and these traffic lights bark obstinately

for their little commerce of colours.

(He tilts his tail like an exclamation mark).

– I too am a dog like all the rest,

Differing perhaps in this:

I refuse the fatty portion,

a clean bone suffices me.

On this as a fullstop

my dog puts a mouthful of bark,

a thin wind passes, trying

to sweep both our shadows,

a dim lamp yawns silently

tired of the billboard

he’s serving forever.

And the squeak of my shoes

stops a while in the silence

as I stand before a couple of posters

and tell my dog:

Look brother,

The walls also have their wallish fate

Called poster in our language.

On this, my dog breaks

one of his hind legs from the ground

and impolitely wets

the well-cut stone of the wall.

Then we return home

so my shoes also a million others

may sleep at the entry like unworshipped totems,

and the poor buttons of my shirt

released from their tight loops

may breathe freely for a few hours,

and my dog…

But I still don’t have a dog

and I’m not sure

if it’s worth having one;

for what if they hide

telephone wires and receivers in his ears,

and exploit his natural scent

to decide by accurate chemical analysis

the element of my thought and anguish

through my musky-greasy smell?

I shall not keep a dog.

Paruir Sevak (1924-1971)

translated by Garig Basmadjian (57-59)

According to Wikipedia, Sevak used to be an ardent critic of the USSR and is believed to be killed by KGB. I understand the telephone wire, fatty portion, lamp, billboard and poster are political symbols. My favourite section is the one with the bone, love and marrow. (Doesn’t marrow sound like a pun – suggesting (to)morrow – when coupled with the word future?) I’d like to read some historical allegory into the homeland-bone reference. And of course I love the imagery of the dog; I can picture his waggily tail, his wide eyes, his perked up ears…

The translation of this poem is marvellous – the word choice especially: “wallish fate” (an invention of the translator), “commerce of colours”, “mouthful of bark.” It seems to me that the poet is exploring themes of civilization and morality through his relationship with the imaginary animal, and the translation conveys the contrast between opposite concepts: “beast”/”civilized”, “fatty”/”clean”, “impolitely”/”well-cut.” The syntax is also eloquent – it reads like you’re having a chat with someone. (This translator is the same person who put the word “molecule” into Vahan Tekeyan’s pastoral poem – maybe there’s something I’m missing. And by the way, I came across a short film inspired by a poem by the translator, Garig Basmadjian.)

I have to say, at the very end at least, that this book has the most unattractive cover I’ve seen. Putting black and white portraits of the poets sounds like a good idea, but it doesn’t really work here because some of them are centuries old and some don’t have high resolution. All books deserve nice covers, especially poetry collections, and this cover is simply not doing justice to this book – I mean, they could’ve at least found a nice picture of Mount Ararat, although I’m normally suspicious of landmarks in covers designed for translations, in this instance it would be justifiable.

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