Vahé-Vahian – A Great Poet of Western Armenian Literature

Vahe-Vahian’s Portrait by the great Armenian Painter, Ashod Zorian was accomplished in 1949, after a sitting of an hour or two when the poet was on a lecture tour to the then vibrant Armenian community in Cairo (Egypt).

What is remarkable about this realistic work of art, is that it succeeds on both levels of delicate French impressionaism and … passionate German expressionaism, while simultaneously being Zorian’s own masterpiece, and a sheer masterpiece in world-painting; it captures magnificently and very realistically indeed Vahe-Vahian’s noble character as a poet and a civilized human being of colourful, sensual (red lips) cultured tastes Professor Hovhanness I. Pilikian.

by  Edwina Charles, BA (Phil), BSc (Psych)

*

I know about Vahé-Vahian, through the work of Professor Hovhanness I. Pilikian. At the peak of his career in the Seventies, as a legendary theater-director of classical Greek Drama in Britain – Pilikian had discovered for the first time ever in the history of world-drama, among other original features, a gold-mine of white-on-Black racism in classical Greek Drama (Euripides’ Helen), in the words of the most eminent translator into English of Ibsen and Strindberg, Michael Meyer – “Pilikian single-handedly affected a revival of classical Greek Drama in Britain”, while the egregious Principal of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Hugh Cruttwell, the Doyen of the British Theatre, had referred to young Pilikian as “a man of original genius”. Pilikian had also created unique theatre-companies, the first of their kind in Europe – Hanano, an exclusive Mask-theatre Company, and Cervantes Players, an all-black theatre-actors’ company.

Directing on both sides of the pond … a position first achieved by Pilikian, and hugely envied by London theatre-directors, in a rare and unique co-operation between Harvard and Princeton Universities (the Oxford and Cambridge of the USA), Pilikian was invited from London personally by a special envoy Professor Daniel Seltzer of Princeton University, to direct an original modern version of Agamemnon by William Alfred (a Harvard Professor) to launch the MacArtur Theatre at Princeton University as a professional venue.

Pilikian never forgot his Armenian roots and introduced the work of Vahé-Vahian, to the English speaking world. Vahian (so abbreviated by friends to his great annoyance as he preferred the full double-barreled pen-name he had meticulously selected from millennia-old Armenian Pagan culture of temple-worship) had been teenage Pilikian’s teacher of Armenian literature in the Hovagimain-Manougian Secondary School for Boys in Beirut, Lebanon.

Vahé-Vahian had survived a great tragedy of classical Greek proportions … his darling child, Vahram, second to his eldest son Tsolak, had qualified as a Mechanical Engineer in Soviet Armenia. Vahram was then employed by a foreign company in the Emirates, had climbed quickly to the top of his profession in Abu Dhabi by 1972.

Vahram was an angel”, confirms Professor Pilikian, still in tears today, when he reminisces about the family who were very close friends with his own family. The Professor’s father Israel Pilikian, a prominent Entrepreneur/Businessman, had helped financially the publication of the Literary Magazine ANI founded and edited by Vahé-Vahian for several decades as the most distinguished literary enterprise in the Armenian Diaspora. One of its leading contributors was Armén Tarian, an unsurpassed master of Armenian prose-fiction (and the Professor’s brother-in-law).

Great Poetry Saves Life

 

On a Sunday night, in 1976 (on March the 28th to be precise), on his return from an evening with his English friend, alone in his car, Vahram had swerved into a ditch and alas breathed his last. To this day, his death remains unexplained, and totally mysterious.

Vahram was devilishly handsome, like his father, and a totally decent and upright human being – He died as a saint at the age of 32”, states Pilikian, and continues with moving melancholy, “father Vahé-Vahian, who had survived as a child the genocide of the Armenians by the Young Turks, then the sudden death of his most beautiful young wife, Ashkhen, could hardly survive this time his own child’s demise. It is very difficult for non-Armenians to grasp this – in the classical Armenian tradition, one’s child is everything! Parents breathe by the breath of their children … Frankly, what saved Vahé-Vahian from a sudden death in shock, was his poetry”, states Professor Pilikian with a tearful sadness in his voice. He continues;

What is even more extraordinary is the subtle literary critical fact, that the poems Vahian produced and published as Houshartzan Vahramis (= A Memorial Stone for Vahram), in Beirut, 1977, carved for the poet Vahé-Vahian a unique pedestal in the history of world literature. Moreover, even within the context of the Western classical Armenian Poetry that counts VERY great poets like Daniel Veroujan, Missak Medsarents, Siamanto … most murdered by the Ottoman genociders, Vahé-Vahian upgraded his poetry by a notch or two – until the son’s tragedy, the poet Vahian was unable to liberate himself from the shadow of Vahan Tékéyan, a very great poet whose distinctive stamp was the simple but telling inversions in the Armenian poetic diction, e.g. haigagan yegeghetsin = the prosaic ‘the Armenian Church’, would become in his poem yegeghetsin haigagan = ‘the Church Armenian’, suddenly releasing in the exuberant Armenian language all kinds of percussive new rhythms and hidden meanings impossible to translate … Vahé-Vahian was poetically trapped in Tékéyan’s bewitching rhythmic mazes … his son’s unbearable tragedy suddenly freed him entirely from Tékéyan’s poetic prison – he found his own voice and flew with it, soared to unconquered Himalayan heights of intense poetry … the great evil of sweet Vahram’s death turned into poet Vahé-Vahian’s victory song over Death itself, securing for Vahian a unique place in the history of world literature”.

Vahian’s eldest son, Tsolak, a distinguished architect internationally, and a childhood class-mate of Professor Pilikian, surprised the latter recently by discovering in his archives the latter’s translation of his Father’s poem. Tsolak copied it to the Professor, with the Introduction Pilikian had published in the Ararat Quarterly (New York, 1982, a first-class Magazine of Armenian culture), edited by the very well-known American Armenian Literary critic, Léo Hamalian.

Mother-and-Child Society – a Sociological Paradigm

Pilikian had done something very subtle and complex with Vahé-Vahian’s memorial poems – he had edited a selection into a single whole, justifying even in Platonic Form his claim for world-uniqueness of Vahian’s poems.

Léo Hamalian himself was an expert (and author of books) on D.H Laurence’s works. Léo absolutely loved Pilikian’s introduction of Vahé-Vahian’s work, for its very original and specific content, advocating the constitution of a Child-welfare centered Society … it took British governments several decades (the Children’s Act of 1989 – a major re-write of the British Law) to catch up with Professor Pilikian’s ideas, yet still simultaneously abused horrendously by the Euro-pedophiles whose ring of rape and mutilation of children is not still fully uncovered …

We just heard the posh version of it by the Australian Prime Minister apologizing for the state-crimes committed in that country against ignorant teenage single-mothers, whose children were taken away for adoption in the name of fraudulent Christian morality, only to be abused as slave-labor (and who knows whatever else!) by Anglo foster-parents!

Professor Pilikian’s proposition to achieve the ideal Utopian Platonic Republic is to construct the social structure upon the non-feminist woman’s love of her children – men must learn from such women to love all children and not only their own, which should eliminate all wars and genocides, while teaching Men simultaneously to love their women first and foremost as the potential mothers of their children;

The British ruling classes have nursed a huge cultural tradition of child-rape; at the peak of Victorian times, child-prostitution was institutionalized by those mustachioed fat-bellied Victorian nouveau-riche capitalist Industrialists. Capitalism constructed its monetary system on the exploitation of men and women, and children most of all, sending them down the mines (as miners) and up the chimneys (as chimney-sweepers), and behind the huge textile machines in factories as cleaners, shredding them into bits …

I can see that Professor Pilikian is hardly able to contain his livid fury and polite conversation.

Léo Hamalian loved the Professor’s sociological constructs of a mother-and-child-welfare society, and used to tell how he would read Pilikian’s text to his wife frequently every week … His young wife grasped the depth of Pilikian’s sociologically innovative ideas – they visited London merely to make the personal acquaintance of Professor Pilikian, in appreciation of his rendering of Vahé-Vahian’s unique child-centered poetry published in the Ararat Quarterly.

And here it is, 36 years later, as fresh as almost four decades earlier …

A MASTERPIECE OF WORLD LITERATURE

by Hovhanness I. Pilikian

HOUSHARTZAN VAHRAMIS (= A MONUMENT TO MY DARLING VAHRAM), by Vahé-Vahian, Beirut, 1977.

 

This volume of poetry by the greatest living poet of Western Armenian literature occupies a unique place in the history of world literature. If this claim sounds extravagant, I would like to point out that there is simply nothing like it anywhere in literature; the lament of a father for his dead son (presumably in heaven now). A parallel may be sought in the New Testament, which represents a similar obsession, however in the reverse, a son’s fixation (Christ’s) on his father (in heaven).

Վահէ Վահեան ուսուցիչը դասապահի ընթացքին Պէյրութ 1955 թ.

Unlike Vahram, who died in a car-crash at the same age as Jesus Christ on the Cross, the latter knew he would die soon. And in classical Greek Drama (on the look-out for more parallels), protagonists often speak of their children in very physical terms, almost incestuously, interpreted (or rather misinterpreted) by the post-Freudian standards of the European criticism.

Vahé-Vahian’s poetry indeed shares with the classical Greek dramatists that same disturbing element, which, however, untangled from diseased Freudian notions, could represent one of the most profound Jungian Archetypes of the human predicament. Put in a question form, it begs the whole history of human civilization: can the male love the child at all as the female does? Improvement of mankind’s lot hinges upon the answer to this very question.

While a woman loves the child, and not only her own but all children, most men hate children – witness the organization of Labor in our patriarchal societies, where the Father’s work keeps him away from his children most of the time; hence, the coinage of the term, “week-end fathers”. Most men, the best of them, seem to need a lifetime to learn how to love their own children, never mind children in general.


Until mankind (the male) learns from the female to love all children and not only his own, we shall never achieve the society of peace, and happiness, which can only be based on the loving care of the children everywhere in the world. For war is the most terrifying expression of the male’s inability to love even his own child. No warmonger can pretend he loves his children if he plans the killing of thousands of others. A warmonger may even consider himself a good Christian (as most Generals in the world do) by attending mass on Sundays. No amount of prayer can cover-up the disturbing truth that most men do not know the meaning of Christian love, for, as Jesus Christ stipulated, one must enter God’s Kingdom of Heaven like a child.

The untimely death of his son leads the poet Vahé-Vahian, to achieve this overwhelming emotional understanding, that he loves and cherishes as his own all the children of this world suffering at the hands of foolish men, who rule our societies as if we were their toy-soldiers, ready to fight their silly wars.

A poet like Vahé-Vahian is not a mere poet! He is a Saint. He belongs to the future and even more, to the very ancient past when Paradise was on this earth. His mournful monument is a gospel for the improvement of the human lot.

Հ.Բ.Ը.Մ. Դարուհի Յակոբեան աղջկանց երկր. վարժ.ի ուսուցչական կազմի հետ, Վահէ Վահեան ձախէն 4-րդը, Պէյրութ 1955 թ.

And yet a man of Vahé-Vahian’s life-story could be forgiven for making a pact with the Devil; he has lived through more suffering than Job, though unlike him, Vahé-Vahian never shows any bitterness, being no less than all love all the time for the oppressed and the suffering. His passionate love of life, symbolized by the love for dead son, often pours scorn upon the heads of all evil-doers, the warmongers. And yet Vahé-Vahian never soils the purity of his own soul. Never rude in his tragic grief, he is a civilized poet, and a poet of high civilization, if that implies a utopian Society of humanism, compassion, and respect for human life – the Child itself.

As if the terrifying experiences of surviving, as a child, one of the most brutal massacres of history (the genocide of the Armenian race perpetrated by the Young Turks) were not enough, and having survived the horrors of the two world wars, Vahé-Vahian was yet destined to lose his charming wife Ashkhen whom he dearly loved, and experience at first hand the most terrifying civil war since Vietnam, which is still raging in Beirut, where the most advanced technological warfare is being fought by a thousand and one guerrilla groups.

Finally, the unbelievable blow of evil fortune; while on an entirely humanitarian mission of a fund raising trip to U.S.A. for the Armenian victims of the Lebanese Arab civil war, Vahé-Vahian, this poet of total suffering, receives the news of this time his own son’s accidental death, a young man of such gentle and kind disposition, that all those who knew him, held him in deep affection.

Only a saint could withstand so much diabolic misfortune, and could love this world enough to pray for it.  Vahé-Vahian’s poetry is that prayer.  Through his unswerving humanism and compassion, as if the divine spirit of the good, God himself signals through Vahé-Vahian’s spirit His presence to this world in turmoil, in the grip of barbarous systems of ruthless exploitation and military destruction.

 

Excerpts from A MONUMENT TO MY DARLING VAHRAM, by Vahé-Vahian, selected and translated by Hovhanness I. Pilikian in such a way that together they constitute a whole, and give the reader a sense of the whole book of 29 poems.

 

For the stanza numbers, a small typeface is chosen, as unobtrusive as possible, so that the totality of the text may be read as one long poem, even though the extracts are from different poems (numbered correctly from the original text, although never translated in their totality).

I

My heart; a volcano, my eyes; fountains of lava…
Do not approach me, friends, lest you burn.

That I may not turn to clouds and rain, O you people,
Do not touch me, not even with your glances.

He was my son, dawning upon my darkness,
How he went down so early and so soon.

My soul; a censer, his memory – noble incense –
Turns in me blue fumes and perfume.

When shall, when will, the path be clear,
That with no more interruptions,
I may reach him, never to part again, in eternal union,

 

XVI

And now already a whole year
Has gone by, slipped away,
From the sweet moment of our last meeting …

Tell me, my sweet son, how may I bear it,
When I long for everything by you,
Your shy smile, the shadow of your eyelashes,
The breadth of your shoulders, the thick hair on your chest,

I long for your words, and for those still unsaid.

From Cleveland to New York and from there to London,
I arrived then, why, my heart

O my heart, the door of your desolation,
Sometimes strong now breathless, half-dead,

My eyes frozen and my arms dangling,
I do not know how, O my bursting heart,
In the thick crowd at the airport,

I saw your elder sister standing,
In a black dress, like a black pillar,
Standing there as if turned to stone.

What happened then and how did it happen?
Only Koko your in-law knows best;
Shogher in black wrapped herself around me tightly.

“Papa, do not ask about Vahram”,
She said and sobbed silently so,
Her whole body, pressed to mine,
Was all a-shiver!

The shocks of an electrical current,
That I shall feel run through me,
Every time my thoughts go
To that black instant,
When a couple of black flames,
Invisibly but with the same heat,

Were burning in an embrace…

Your brother Tsolak,
My only one now left upon this earth,
Sparkling once in appearance like flint-stone,
Now he is soggy, like honey-bread…

And repeats the same words,
Each time he comes home and finds me immersed
In the depths of my thoughts flooded by tears,

“Papa, you cannot, by blackening your days,
By chipping away at your life bring Vahram back…
You must be reconciled, we must be reconciled,
At least we must pretend we are reconciled
When amongst other people …

“Must I tell you what you surely know, Papa,
Whether we exist or not,
One more Vahram or one Vahram less
Nobody cares in this world.

“They will not feel our grief,
An insult in itself,
They will perhaps even snigger in themselves,
Think us weak, unworthy of life,
Even the sanctity of our pain, they will desecrate”.

Your brother, without a doubt, is right,
I will not argue,

But when has the heart heard the words of the mind?

This is how we live since your departure…
Our lives have become a sky without sun.

My son, the grief of my heart, and hearth

The flames burn fiercer
Whenever the thought passes through my mind,
That you too may burn by the same flame.

 

XVII

The black accident snatched you,
Whisked you away
From my very own hands,
From the golden palace of my dreams,
My pride, the Ararat of my hope,

Orphaned once again this orphaned man,
Since that black accident,

I am transformed, Vahram,
I am transformed so much so
That in every victim I see
A rebel or a servile particle of you,

From every drop of spilt blood
I smell the sharp bitter smell of your own blood,
Son, and my heart burns!

I am so changed; I am changed so much…
And, know it, Vahram,
You are the maker of this transformation.

I burnt with you, I became ashes,
And with you again, by higher strength,
I was re-born once again from my own ashes,
With the wings of my mind stronger than ever,
And under my chest a heart so large,
That I can contain within it
The mountainous grief of all mankind …

This, my growth, son,
I owe it to you with all my being.

Blessed be you
Today and for all days,
And let the flame of your memory
Let it never die out under my breath,

Let it not pass away without a trace
From a forgetful mind of this our earth.

 

XVIII

I confess again and again,
My sweet son, my very sweet Vahram,

My re-birth this of grief’s fire
I owe it to you and you alone.

Whatever I shall give to men, noble and kind,
To the end of my life already near its end,
It shall be born of you; it will belong to you,

As if we were,
You; a symphony of light,
I; a receptacle of sound,

That gives to the world by ceaseless self-consumption
What it receives from you as waves born of light.

 

XIX

My voice, does it reach you,
Or does it sink in the desolate darkness?

Who could inform me and how?

I only know that as an answer to my calls
Since your separation till this very grim moment
Not a whisper has reached me,

And I am struck ill by your unheard voice.

Now sitting in the bosom of the yawning night,
When with the torches of my mind
I search out the path you and I have taken,

I mourn twin deaths in a single person,
One in yours, Vahram my soul,
The other, mine own…

Who ever has wept his very own death!

 

XXII

Vahram, my darling, my dream child,
I saw you frozen in the house of death,
Your height collapsed under a cover,
Like a mummy,

And on your face,
An unworldly veil of light,
Which through my eyes
Carried a cold wind down my veins…

The chill of that wind stays in me
Still, until now.

 

XXV
A rocket the other day
Knocked down fifteen people at once …
Five of them returned to life no more…

One of them was Vahé,
Our neighbor, your old playmate …

I did not follow his coffin,
It seemed to me that with Vahé
People were burying … you all over again.

 

XXVII

Not having you,
Not seeing you,
The deprivation of not hearing you,
Son, let’s say I could endure,
With my soul squeezed between my teeth,
And my eyes shut.

But how shall I look in the face
At the sweet, sweet world,
How can I henceforth
Greet a summer,

Without fearing the terror of a burning hot furnace
At every summer’s threshold,

Where the treacherous fate leads you,
To burn you alive as a wholesome sacrifice …

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