Critical Biography Portrays a Wandering, Lonely Bard

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Hmayeak Shems: A Poet of Pure Spirit by Vahe Baladouni and John Gery. University Press of America, Inc. 2010. 102 pp. ISBN 978-0-7618-5054-0

By Daphne Abeel

Special to the Mirror-Spectator 

The Armenian diasporan poet, Hamayeak Shems, may be little known to the English reading public. Although Shems died in 1952, his poems began to appear in English as late as the 1990s and his study of the complete works of Sayat Nova was published in Armenia only in 2003.

This short biography by his nephew and literary executor, Vahe Baladouni, and translator, John Gery, is a respectful effort to pay to tribute to a man who lived a life of tortuous wandering and loneliness, but who valiantly continued to express his poetic voice in spite of many hardships.

Their efforts to write this biography were frustrated in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed much of the Shems archive, which had been kept at Baladouni’s home in New Orleans. The remaining documents were transferred to Falls Church, Va., the location to which Baladouni had been evacuated. The remnants of the permanent archive now reside in the Yegishe Charents Museum of Literature and Art in Yerevan.

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A brief review of Shems’ life reveals a man who, in the early part of his life, rarely remained in one place. Born in 1896 in Gumishane, Turkey, a town nestled in the Pontic mountain region, 45 miles south-southwest of Trabzon, he was the son of a barber and a homemaker.

His birth name was Hmayeak Grigor Saprichian. His father struggled to support the family, which included his wife, four children and Shems’s paternal grandmother. In spite of growing up in conditions of dire poverty, Shems was nurtured by the natural beauty of his surroundings, the love his family and particularly the attention of his grandmother, who recited to him the fairy tales and legends of Armenian literature.

Shems attended both elementary school and middle school in Trabzon where he soon became known as “the little poet” due to his enthusiasm both for writing poems and reciting them for his classmates. Following his graduation, Shems set his heart on attending the Sanasarian Academy in Ezerum. There, he became fascinated by the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose radical views on the death of God and his severe critique of Western culture made him a controversial subject for study. The authorities at the academy were disturbed by the group of students who became followers of Nietzsche and as a result of his espousing an ideology that ran counter to the values of the school administration, Shems was expelled in 1912.

The other strong influence on Shems at this time was his attraction to Buddhism and, as an ascetic, he believed that detaching himself from worldly concerns would bring him to the state of nirvana. The authors comment that “Nietzsche and Buddha represent the two opposite sides of Shems’s character — a rebellious spirit on public issues on the one hand, yet a young man of peace and dervish-like self containment on the other.”

Shems did not return home to Trabzon after his expulsion from the Sansarian Academy, but traveled instead to Echmiadzin, where he was admitted to the Diocesan Clerical College. There, he met important mentors and teachers, among them the poet and scholar, Arsen Terterian, who took Shems under his wing and encouraged him. After his graduation from the college, Shems would embark upon a peripatetic path that would not end until he settled in Alexandria in 1929, where he spent the remainder of his life.

In 1915, the year of the Armenian Genocide, Shems was living and teaching in Sukhumi, Georgia, and learned of the massacres only from afar. His entire family, with the exception of his younger sister, was annihilated. The deaths of his family and so many of his community affected him profoundly and set the course of his life for the next few years, which he spent as a wandering bard and dervish.

According to the authors, “The sheer scope of the Genocide cast a long dark shadow over the survivors. Shems himself, who had not yet turned 20, fell into a spiritual exile as a sense of homelessness permeated his days and nights, rendering his life utterly meaningless. After a brief stay in Trabzon, he departed for Russia and the Caucasus, adopting the ways of a wandering dervish. … It was during this period that Shems developed a habit of heavy drinking, which in time became excessive and, ultimately, under- mined his health.”

During this period, Shems spent time both in Romania and Bulgaria, securing various teaching positions and publishing some of his work in both countries. He wrote most of his work in Eastern Armenian although he was familiar with Western Armenian and it was also during this time of wandering that he adopted his pen name, Shems (perhaps from the word, shaims in Arabic, which means “sun”).

In 1924, Shems arrived in Alexandria, Egypt, to search out his younger sister, Haykuhi, the only family member who had escaped the Genocide. She had married Suran Baldouni, and given birth to a son, Vahe, the co-author of this work. Alexandria, except for a short stint in Cairo, and a period of study in Paris, would remain Shems’s home for the remainder of his life. The photographs of him taken during the 1920s depict a handsome and well-dressed man.

A surprising detour from his life as a poet and teacher occurred in 1927, when he left Alexandria to study psychotherapy in Paris. There he enrolled in courses at at the Fondation Henri Durville and obtained several professional diplomas. Upon the death of his brother-in-law, he decided to return to Alexandria to care for his sister and her family. He would live communally with her in the same apartment house until the end of his life.

He was able to write prolifically during his years in Alexandria, and, as always, was able to support himself through the teaching of Armenian culture and literature. In addition to his classes, he gave many public lectures cele- brating the invention of the Armenian alphabet and the brief period of Armenian independence.

Although Baladouni and Gery portray Shems as a lonely and tormented soul, they also make clear that he was a determined, inspired, stub- born creator and friend to all those who revered and supported the Armenian culture. When he died of the effects of alcoholism in 1952, his last words to those at his bedside were, “The Armenian nation shall live! Shemses come and go, but in the end, our nation shall triumph and live.”

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