A Heart Immaculate and True: Poet Vahe-Vahian’s Love Letters


The world of Armenian literature is all the richer for the compilation of renowned poet Vahe-Vahian’s private letters, published posthumously in 2012, under the title The Heart of the Poet. The 441 letters assembled in the hefty volume are divided into three sections: letters of literary and aesthetic interest, letters dealing with national and public issues, and more intimate exchanges.

I would like to focus here on the seventy or so love letters which can be thought of as works of art, displaying the same mastery of our kaghtsrahoonch Western Armenian, Vahe-Vahian knew so well and loved so well, as do his other writings. In these letters the poet opens his heart to expose, in his words, “all that is true and pure in there.” Indeed, with their audacity and their sincerity, the love letters reaffirm the veracity of the remaining conversations the poet has with fellow writers, which comprise the bulk of the compilation. Even when it means hurting the feelings of, and possibly losing, a good friend, Vahe-Vahian offers honest criticism of the work submitted to him, not only to help and to guide the writer, but also because his desire for the truth supersedes every other consideration. Aram Sepetjian, editor of The Heart of The Poet, rightly notes: “These letters are documentation to his literature.”

When I shared my excitement about his father’s love letters with Tsolak Abdalian, “You sound like you’re going to write about them,” said Tsolak. Nothing could have been further from the truth at the time. Yet, the idea had taken seed in my mind. I had always revered my high school Armenian language and literature teacher. I had also known the poet, and admired the critic and the translator. The fervent lover, however, was someone I did not even imagine existed. These exquisitely written letters revealed to me the passionate lover as well.

Included in the volume are the letters addressed to the women Vahe-Vahian had intimate relationships with, roughly stretching across the years 1932 to 1952. These include the earlier letters to Siran Seza, pen name for Siranoush Zarifian, best known in the Lebanese Armenian intellectual community for founding the feminist journal The Young Armenian Woman, in 1932, and later missives addressed to his wife, and mother of his three children, Ashkhen Abdalian, a fellow teacher he met at the Melkonian Educational Institute in Nicosia, Cyprus.

The letters to “Siran Janig” express the poet’s intoxication with “the girl with the sad liquid eyes.” These letters are full of images of “the sun caressing the blue Mediterranean,” his tiny room at Broummana High School, where he taught in the early 1930’s, overlooked. The bold lover invites “my sweet Siran” to his village, to “the peace of nature.” Besides his burning desire for “the fairy-tale girl,” however, the letters reveal the hurt of his betrayal. Indeed, the letters expressing his wrath at “my impossible lover” are some of the fiercest addressed to Siran. “I hear the obscene wind torturing the trees and giggling. I hear the sound of waves shattering into pieces,” he writes, as he waits for “a miracle to happen for Siran to show up.”

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

Vahe-Vahian describes himself as “melancholic and sad,” always yearning, always dissatisfied. Which may very well be why he carries on a steady correspondence (platonic?) with the “good and virtuous” Lucy Potoukian, a “loving friend” he calls “a sister,” in the early thirties. The poet writes to Lucy when his “mind is weary,” and he needs to “come out of the claws of gloom.” It may also be true that the poet is half in love with “sweet pain.” “I long for the sweetness of pain,” he confides to Lucy.” In fact, the “suffering man” expresses contempt for “all peaceful states.” “A struggling soul is dearer to me,” he writes.

Nonetheless, I see in the poet’s letters to “Ashkhen hokees,” the answer to his, “Where am I going and where shall I end?” The “endless search” of a grieving soul has finally found “a resting place.” There are, to be sure, some hurt feelings between the two, yet what one leaves the letters with is the poet’s deep affection for the “sweet girl” he wishes to ”be happy together.” “When I think that we two are subject to the same laws of collapse and decay, my heart shivers,” he writes. In Ashkhen, the “palpable reality I can see with my eyes and caress with my fingers” meets the “spiritual companion” the poet has always longed for.

Vahe-Vahian portrait by Ashot Joryani

The letters to “my sweet Ashkhen” are also the boldest expressions of the poet’s hunger for physical intimacy, affirming his belief that, for a complete and solid relationship, “Imagining is not enough: reality is needed.” Vahe-Vahian’s letters to his wife do indeed have the immediacy of lived experience. When his “sweet lover” travels to Istanbul, the two-month intermission in their sixteen-year-old relationship becomes a matter of life and death to him. The poet’s earlier struggles to “get Siran out of my mind” fade against his fear of losing his wife. “There is one reality in my life, that of my children and their mother,” he writes to her. When Ashkhen’s health becomes worrisome, the poet begs her to be strong, so she can give him the strength and the certainty he needs. “Valiant mother, don’t deny me that strength,” he pleads.

Interestingly, what adds even more intensity to the poet’s letters to his wife are his “dear girl’s” equally passionate responses to them. Ashkhen Abdalian’s letters to Sarkis djan reveal a woman whose self-confidence takes her beyond her role of wife and mother. “I am the woman for you,” she writes. “Just change your glasses and you’ll see her.” The poet’s letters may be “calculated and weighed before being committed to paper,” while hers “want to explode without any calculation,” yet, her “To be happy, we need to think, to feel and to live life on this earth . . . a truth, sweet and simple, for which we live you and I,” sums up everything the poet has yearned for and tried to express.

Vahe-Vahian’s letters, while addressed to specific individuals, are also meditations on life, full of wisdom, yet never preachy. “Happiness is a big word, impossible to measure, but it is made up of small things,” he writes to Ashkhen. “Wise are those who appreciate those small things and build their big life with them.” Elsewhere the poet notes, ”Before anything else, a healthy man notices the good and the beautiful things in life and rejoices in them. . . . Life is full of crooked and faulty things too . . . We need to notice and try to correct them, but to grow bitter and to turn against life because of them – never, at no time.“

We all like to be privy to the intimate lives of our great poets. It is, in fact, not uncommon for writers to publish their letters, and the disclosure of personal information in them will surely disturb some. Once the writing is made public, however—and I cannot think of an activity that is more “public” than writing—people can react any way they please. More important, there is something about good literature that takes it beyond the particularities of the lives of the characters involved, and makes the work of art something for everyone to savor. Vahe-Vahian’s letters are such works of art. The poet’s impeccable prose (oxymoron?) seduces the reader. We can only be thankful that the letters have been made available to us. Being invited into his inner world has brought me infinitely closer to the teacher I revered.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Vahe-Vahian. What better way to honor the poet’s memory, and to celebrate, than to delve into the love letters of one who “wanted to love the whole universe, love everything and everyone in it . . . with a deep, expansive love.”

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: