Esther Heboyan, photographed at a book fair (2019) by Damien Guillaume

A Critical Exclusive: Of Days and Night: Mood Pieces by Esther Heboyan

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“I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.” – Socrates

Poet Esther Heboyan has led a peripatetic life. Born in Istanbul to Armenian parents in 1955, she attended Armenian school there before fleeing Turkey with her parents to Germany in 1960 and then on to France. Her gypsy ways continued over the years and led her to study and live throughout Europe, with a stop along the way in the state of Iowa. She also completed a Ph.D. in American Literature from Paris III-Sorbonne Nouvelle and is now a professor at the University of Artois in Arras, near Lens. Multilingual by choice and necessity, Heboyan has written five volumes of poetry, fiction and essays, as well as translated both Nadim Gürsel and Moris Farhi from Turkish into French. So it comes as little surprise that the poems in her most recent book Of Days and Nights should also take the reader on a trip around the world. “It is better to travel well than to arrive,” the great Buddha once intoned. The same may be said to be true of Heboyan’s poetry, which leaves one wanting more not necessarily due to innovation of style or beauty of language — though both are present in these lines — but simply because she is able through her words to impart her own wanderlust and longing to the reader.

The themes in Of Days and Night are several, although love, both its affirmation and repudiation and at times her exasperation with it, hold center stage. Descriptions of strangers meeting in the night — or missing each other — recur, as does for example the usually prosaic airport as a locus Heboyanicus. Take the introductory “The Waters That Bind Us,” where the poet writes:

i reached the airport without you

that crosscurrent Monday you asked

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how’s my right

on highway 401

i thought

our kiss a spoonbridge

in the cinnamon morning

Heboyan’s unrhymed verses move forward here like film stills, describing two lovers driving on the 401 and then the arrival of one of them alone, we don’t know where at — LAX perhaps? And then the lovely, odd, wholly original “our kiss a spoonbridge/in the cinnamon morning.”

Inside photo from the English volume, Of Days and Nights (2019)

Topics: poetry

In other places one senses that the cosmopolitan poet may also be a refugee, someone that uses love to bind her past and perhaps her heart as well. It’s a feeling that many people who grew up binational between two or more countries or multilingual between two or more languages may well recognize and empathize with emotionally and intellectually. It is in fact one of the defining qualities of diasporan existence:

displaced i became

woman sweeping leaves like Emily Carr’s

whereas you

across the ocean

gazed from your garden

at the expanses

of love’s finitude

that bind us

Inside photo from the English volume, Of Days and Nights (2019)

This sense of in-betweenness also leads to playful linguistic invention. In “Rangefinder” we have the lovely: “a lovers’ sine qua non/in technicolor consent.” And later on, in the last poem of the collection “An Evening in Golders Green” in a poem dedicated to Farhi, Heboyan (partially) rhymes:

Theodorakis

dances the abyss

of you dearest and

chestnut lives

through Surrey and rain

let us speak again (italics mine)

And repeated in “Love’s Labor,” the same theme of love followed by inevitable abandonment and loss:

Say S-A-C-R-E, my Love,

And we’ll drink bourbon and make love

– Till you depart anyway.

Love is also at times unjust (“in love’s (un)fairness”) or fleeting (“The painter from Latina
/Gathered his gear to rush outdoor/Said he didn’t want his head on a silvery plate/To which I replied: ‘Fair enough and farewell, Love!’)

But the poet whose “cardboard lovers have gone away” also suffers from what the joyous and the creative have perhaps always felt in the presence of lesser souls who inevitably drag them down:

The killjoy kills it all

In his speech such dire caution

And if you chance upon emotion

He will ransack it for you

At times the polyglot gets trapped in linguistic games or expressions that just barely miss in English such as “fermented mood” (an interesting idea, but moods do not ferment I fear, even under a poet’s pen) or (“My boy is a fine fine boy/With a good sense to annoy/Any attempt at fake joy” (Can one really “annoy” fake joy”? Perhaps.)

Armenian themes appear sporadically, both where they must be divined (in the Istanbul airport) or where more explicit as in “Leo Krikorian’s Implied Places”: “Rue des Blancs Manteaux/there/was/ Leo’s/art/studio and/there/poised/Leo with stories/of/Armenian Fresno/violet years into crop-picking urgency the longest ride East/in a brown jalopy the G.I. bill/under/Ilya Bolotowsky.” And before leaving off, the gypsy/wanderer/cosmopolitan/refugee/diasporan poet takes us to Berlin after the fall of the Wall which brings together East and West:

the Berlin Wall may well have

crumbled

time still rakes up

one Rocco Granata

crooning to his

Marina! Marina! Marina!

But it is the playful Heboyan, the joyful one that I am ultimately left with — the Heboyan who one 1989 summer in the Peloponnese writes:

But the boy stands in Tolo Harbor

cursed like a hatless sailor

clutching the railing

with a boy’s strife

for what is there in life

if a boy loses his cap

Here the universal and the particular, the important and the trifling, the everyday and the spectacular merge in the boy’s lost cap. And a poet who takes the time to notice that it is the small details of life, its daily losses and joys, that may ultimately make it worth living.

Purchase Of Days and Nights: https://www.amazon.com/DAYS-NIGHTS-Poems-Esther-Heboyan-ebook/dp/B07VTHRH6C

Also by Esther Heboyan:

Fiction & Poetry:

Les Passagers d’Istanbul

Les Rhododendrons

Comme un dimanche d’août à Burgaz

Beyond the Galata Bridge

Translations:

Nedim Gürsel, De Ville en Ville; Ombres et Traces

Moris Farhi, Cantates des deux continents

Essays:

San Francisco mis en scène

Les Variations Jarmusch (ed.)

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