Misak Medzarents

Review of Misak Medzarents: The Complete Lyric Poems by James R. Russell

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(Armenian Series no. 12. The Press at California State University, Fresno, 2020)

By Jesse S. Arlen

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

«Ի՜նչ երջանկութիւն, տերեւի մը խարշափին մէջէն տեսնել տիեզերական զօրութեան գաղտնիքը, ու այդ փոքռիկ մասնաւորէն մեկնիլ դէպի անհունը։»

“What joy, to behold in the rustle of a leaf the secret power of the cosmos, and to depart from that particular thing for the infinite (li).” *

So writes twenty-one-year-old Misak Medzarents, while describing his poetic vision in response to a critical letter received from Fr. Vartan Arslanian after the publication of Dziadzan (Ծիածան / Rainbow), the poet’s first book of verse, in 1907.

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Medzarents is the kind of poet that teaches us to stop, to look and attend to what is always around us, and to see it as if for the first time. Reading his poems, we are led to wonder anew at the miracle of day-to-day existence, as for example in one of his first poems, M 18: Arevakal (“The Sunrise Liturgy”). In this poem, a paean to the rising sun, we behold with pure wonder the giving way of darkness to light at dawn, as “nature wakens, fire-born (13),” illuminating the shapes and colors of the fields and flowers and rivers and mountains surrounding the poet’s home village of Pingyan (Բինկեան). From awe and wonder at the local and particular — the rustling of a leaf driven by the wind, the buzzing of a bee about a blossom, the silkworm’s nibbling of a mulberry leaf, the shepherd’s crook and song at the head of his bleating flock — Medzarents finds the way to the universal, to the infinite, to God who “is in every place,” as he says in the same letter quoted above.

Map of Pingyan in Sivas Province, Ottoman Empire from Robert Hewsen, Armenia: A Historical Atlas, University of Chicago Press, 2001

Thus in the young poet’s more mature poems, such as the “I would be… (Ĕllayi…)” cycle and M 131: Inchʿ arpetsʿutʿeamp… (“With what intoxication…”), which conclude his second and final book of verse published during his brief lifetime, Nor Tagher (Նոր Տաղեր / New Lyrics), Medzarents’ panentheistic nature mysticism achieves its finest expression.

(Panentheism, as differentiated from pantheism — where God and the universe are identical — describes the belief that the Being of God encompasses and permeates the whole universe, such that all things exist in God and God exists in all things, while at the same time the Divine Being remains transcendent and greater than the universe.)

In these poems, the poet transcends the limits of his bounded and circumscribed ego-self — through the mantric chanting of ĕllayi, ĕllayi…, ‘I would be, I would be…’ — to achieve union with “all shapes and forms, all colors gleaming / all essences and all elements (253).” Thereby the young poet, whose body was consumed by tuberculosis at age twenty-two, who hailed from an overlooked corner of the globe, the late singer of an ancient and now all but forgotten civilization, not only transcended personal despair over his impending individual death through identification with the life that unites all beings but also created works of beauty which endured and survived the genocidal will that in the years after his death destroyed all but scattered remnants of his culture.

Now for the first time, thanks to this complete translation of his lyric poems into English by James R. Russell, Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University (Emeritus), Medzarents’ poetry may be read alongside the great poetic works of world literature, in whose company Medzarents rightfully belongs. The volume under consideration here is the fruit of over fifteen years of attention Prof. Russell has paid to translating and commenting on the works of this great Western Armenian lyric poet, and the scholar’s many years of labor are evident in the high quality of the final product.

Fifty pages of introduction orient the reader to the context and historical setting of Misak Medzarents’ life and works. Assuming an uninitiated reader, Dr. Russell gives a brief tour of the physical and cultural geography of Western Armenia in general and Medzarents’ home village of Pingyan in particular, which formed the inspiration and setting for many of his poems. He also walks the reader through the major events, elements, and diverse religious and cultural currents that contributed to the over 2500-year history of Armenian life in the region. Due and detailed attention is also paid to the literary, epic, folk, oral, and imaginative cultural inheritance on which Medzarents drew for the writing of his lyric poems. Thus, by the time readers reach the first poems, they are well equipped with the necessary background information to approach and appreciate them in all their local flavor and specificity. Readers of Armenian may turn to the back half of the volume, where they will find a facsimile reproduction of Albert Sharurian’s critical edition from 1981 so as to be able to read the Armenian original in conjunction with Dr. Russell’s translations and commentary.

Each of the over one hundred poems is accompanied by a commentary. These range in length from a short paragraph highlighting various aspects of a poem’s theme or content, e.g. M 21: Hivanti hevkʿer tsʿaykerk (“The Groans of the Sick (Night Song)),” M 24: Teghin varter (“Yellow Roses”), to very dense and detailed commentaries spanning many pages (the longest treatment is given over to M 32: Gaydzer (“Sparks),” and is over fifteen pages long).

In the commentaries, one enters as if into the classroom with Prof. Russell. At times he is the erudite linguist and philologist, unpacking the intricate sound devices and patterns of Medzarents’ original Armenian verse (e.g. M 13: Kisherin yerazankʿĕ (“What the Night Dreams”)) or expounding the resonances of words or phrases in the classical form of the language that Medzarents knew well (e.g. M 17: Astgherĕ (“The Stars”)). At other times, he is the classical Armenologist, drawing on Medzarents’ pre-modern Armenian precursors, such as Nersēs Shnorhali, Grigor of Narek, or Pʿawstos Buzand, to illuminate the intertextuality at work in Medzarents’ poems (e.g. M 18: Arevakal (“The Sunrise Liturgy),” M 82: Arrdvan arevin mēch (“In the morning Sun”), M 127: Irigunĕs, (“This Evening”)). Elsewhere, he is the comparative literary scholar, interpreting Medzarents’ poems alongside those of more familiar poets from the British and American literary traditions, such as William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas, Hart Crane, and Allen Ginsberg. Several of these poets Medzarents himself knew and read, likely in French translation. Medzarents was also an avid reader of French poetry, although French poets receive perhaps less attention than they deserve in Dr. Russell’s commentaries. He makes up for this lacuna by providing comparisons (and original translations) of the works of poets from other literary traditions, such as Yehuda ha-Levi (Hebrew) in the commentary to M 17: Astgherĕ (“The Stars”) or Constantine Cavafy (Greek) in the commentary to M 45: Khonch irigunn arakōrēn… (“The Evening, Fatigued, Swiftly).” Indeed, one of the striking features of the book is the inclusion of whole poems or lengthy excerpts from the poetry of all the writers mentioned above, such that readers may encounter and compare how two poets from different literary and linguistic traditions treated a similar theme or topic. In so doing, this volume actually places Medzarents’ poems side-by-side with the great works of world literature.

Prof. Russell also pays attention to Medzarents’ reception in the subsequent Eastern Armenian literary tradition (no attention is paid to post-genocide Western Armenian literature), focusing in particular on Yeghishē Charentsʿ, who played a pivotal role in the publication and diffusion of Medzarents’ poetry in Soviet Armenia, as well as Russian/Soviet writers like Vladimir Mayakovsky. At times, attention to Soviet authors borders on the idiosyncratic, as for example in the brief commentary to M 59: Vayrgyanner, “Moments,” where space is given to mentioning a poem by Mayakovsky but omits discussion of Raymond Bouyer, despite that poem beginning with an epigraph containing a quote from Bouyer, or in M31: Sirerk (“Love Song”), when mention is made of how Charents mocked the poem in question. Elsewhere, the engagement with Charents is illuminating, as for example in M 56: Hovin antsʿkʿĕ (“The Wind Passes”), where that poem of Medzarents is read alongside Charents’ 1922 poem Kʿamin, “The Wind.”

Prof. Russell’s commentaries do not follow a predictable or formulaic structure. This is to be highly commended, as adherence to a rigid format would not only have been artificial but would have made for tedious reading. Instead, due to the commentaries’ variance in length, unpredictable content, and diverse topics of focus, the reader remains curious and engaged, and eagerly turns the pages to discover what fascinating new insights or connections may come next.

It is unfortunate that the book suffers from conflicting aims or raisons d’être. On the one hand, the scholar-translator hopes to present the poems of Medzarents to a global audience. However, they have been issued in a publication series that, while distinguished in Armenian circles, does not have a following outside of the Armenian or Armenological community. Furthermore, due to the lengthy commentaries and inclusion of a facsimile of the Armenian critical edition, one ends up with a hefty tome of 600+ pages. These features, which although they make the book a great contribution to Armenian studies and Armenian literature, when taken together, unfortunately all but ensure that this volume will not bring Medzarents’ lyric poems to the attention of a global (non-Armenian) readership. On the other hand, from the perspective of Armenian studies, despite the great erudition of the commentary and the almost overwhelming number of fascinating lexical and linguistic insights and broader literary connections, there is little engagement with previous scholarship on the poetry of Medzarents or references made to Armenological scholarship apart from the author’s own previous work. Finally, while the book admirably aims to bring attention to Western Armenian literature and the endangered Western Armenian language — the author specifically mentions this as one of the principal reasons he turned to Medzarents in the first place (xxxvi n. 20; as well as the poetry of Medzarents’ precursor, Bedros Tourian, which Dr. Russell previously translated and commented on) — most Western Armenian readers will be disappointed to be presented with Medzarents’ poems in Soviet orthography. Many, like the present reader, will choose rather to read from the 1986 Antelias edition (or search for online editions of the poems at digilib, Google Books, wikisource, or elsewhere).

Despite these drawbacks in terms of manifesting and negotiating the conflicting elements of the book’s vision, the volume as a whole is to be greatly applauded and is deserving of the highest accolades. Not only will readers without knowledge of Armenian now be able to read one of the greatest of Armenian poets, but they may do so with a guide to illumine for them the literary references, resonances, and poetic devices in Medzarents’ poetry. Readers of Armenian too will find that their understanding of Medzarents is greatly enriched by encountering the lyric poet in Prof. Russell’s English translations and with his commentaries, which are expansive, ever opening up onto new interpretative vistas as connections are made with poets of various literary traditions, even as they remain grounded in the poetry of the Armenian text itself and the historical context in which the poems were written.

And now, the reviewer has space for nothing more to say but tolle, lege — ‘pick up the book and read’ — and listen to Medzarents sing in English and summon us, we wandering wayfarers of the far-flung Diaspora:

 

On a road in the plain

Or at the foot of the mountain

I would be the hut and wait

For the wayfarer to come.

 

And I would call to my embrace

The unbidden traveler

On his lonely road,

On the winding road of gold;

To greet my guests I’d be

The rising cloud of the chimney’s smoke.

 

And I would call to my caress

The wayfarers in their weariness;

And instead of a word of greeting

I would give a thousand things good.

A thousand things good I’d give to them:

The warmth of a crackling hearth,

The grapes of the fertile plains,

All autumn’s fruits,

And wine, and milk and honey…

 

And in the night I’d listen

To the song of the eventide guest

Before the crackling fireplace;

And at night I would supply

A slumber replete with dream

To the guest of the evening.

At dawn I would listen to the song of praise,

Fervent and heart-stopping,

Of my guest of that evening.

And as I looked out at the sunrise

And all the next day I would think

Of my evening guest’s journey.

 

And all the winters long

With joyous invitation

I would stand by the side of the road

And to the poor man caked with snow

Like a father I would spread

Both arms wide.

The sweet incarnate

Summoning would I ever be.

 

Ah, I would be, I would be!

On a road in the plain

Or at the foot of the mountain

I would be the hut and wait

For the wayfarer to come.

– M 115: Hiwghĕ (“The Hut”)

* Page numbers/numerals in parentheses refer to the pagination of the volume under review. The “M + a number” are used to identify titles of poems in the volume under review, which also correlate to the page numbers of the critical edition of Medzarents’ poems.

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