‘I slit the sky with a razor:’ 6 contemporary Armenian poems on passion and politics

‘I slit the sky with a razor:’ 6 contemporary Armenian poems on passion and politics
Yerevan at sunset. Image: Levon Vardanyan via Unsplash

6 August 2021
Selection and intro: Vahe Arsen

Armenian poetry has a millenary tradition. The oldest known Armenian poem is an ancient ode to thunder-god Vahagn that echoes Hellenist verse. But the Golden Age of Armenian literature — with its religious and spiritual texts — was recorded after the country adopted Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD, and Mesrop Mashtots created the unique, Armenian alphabet in 405 AD, which is still used today. One of the representatives of this Golden Age was the 10th century St. Gregory Narekatzi, who is considered the country’s first great poet for his mystical poems and hymns, biblical commentaries, and sacred elegies. Between the 13th and 18th century, a succession of popular troubadours developed the country’s literary tradition, the most famous of these being the 16th-century Nahapet Kuchak, one of the rare Armenian poets to ever sing of physical love.

Today, poetry still plays an important role in Armenian culture. The selection below includes poets from the 1960s generation, the Generation of Independence of the 90s, and poetry written today, all usually characterised by free verse and a strong engagement with socio-political themes, whether explicit or through metaphors.

You

Written by Lusine Yeghyan and translated by Anouche Agnerian


Lines that I wrote to please you, as to a master, whom I didn’t find, though I slit the sky with a razor and kissed my neighbour above, who was making breakfast for his little boy

the pain that’s foreign to my carotid artery, just as the photograph, where we’re both smiling voraciously, has bristled out like a weed, tearing the virginity of the asphalt,

tears are flourishing in my eyes, the grass’s mutilated spine blossoms on an unknown planet, and I become aware of the earth’s smell like a juvenile accepts the limpness of his flesh, one day

to be a short step away from the plunge, toward the sea-weed that’s growing under my eyes wiping out the memory of the cinnamon-coloured forest, where the women’s forsaken hands are being burned; I promised myself that by then I would cut off my fingers,

a few days ago, I was looking for Buddha instead of you and was not regretting at all that in the congested city I was losing the sound of your breathing, I was losing the stories about the Egyptians, some of which you were inventing while I was surrendering to every word you said

oh god, my longing is ripping my throat, I’m like a stone that dwells on the ocean floor, which has been thrown onto the shore; now I’m looking for bandages to cover my eyes, so that the cries do not become apparent

the complexes that have grown on me, as the water lily spreads itself along the lake, are forcing me to get tough and forget all the people whom I have loved perhaps, as the dying loves the bed in which she lies

this earth seems like a speck of dust sitting on a flower, where there’s nothing except the atmosphere, except the tiny seeds of love that were falling like manna from the sky

I feel myself more useless than the antenna standing on the roof of the building, which the woman uses to watch her silly Russian soap operas, because I remember nothing about the happiness resting across the street

Lusine Yeghyan (born in 1995, Yerevan) represents one of the youngest generations of contemporary poets. Deeply influenced by Walt Whitman’s verse, she has recently received two literature awards at the Yerevan Book Festival.

Spring

Written by Hasmik Simonian and translated by Anouche Agnerian

dear, dear, dear,

dear, dear, dear,

dear, dear, dear,

dear, dear, dear,

dear, dear, dear,

dear, dear, dear,

dear vahe armenakyan,

you blossomed one march night,

when we were speeding insanely fast

and I think it was Lily who was still shy to admit

that she loved the boy so much younger than her

and your wife reminding you quietly that your shivers are of the summer kind,

while the road, oh the road…

you were speeding through winters,

within me the butterflies were opening and shutting with a bang

their dreadful, transparent, huge wings,

and I too; I remember, I had turned into a dreadfully huge and transparent

machine

banging away under my breast-bone,

speeding through abundant wine, Nariné’s laughter,

Lily’s wonderful name and your wife’s doubt,

which was becoming absolutely clear to her, flowing between us;

I loved you so madly at each moment

and did not comprehend anything,

and your wife, your wife, your wife, poor Anna;

you understood from the beginning,

when you were crossing the street and rushing to the garden

to take your child home,

when I was wishing you Happy Birthday,

when I was loving you in that green summer house, biting your tiny breast

and caressing your pubic hair;

you knew everything,

when there was nothing yet, when nothing was anticipated,

and my love could have stayed imaginary – fresh snow beneath my bare feet,

a glorious bouquet of roses, whisky that I sipped, walking

in this rented room full of dead people;

oh, woman, your imagination gave birth to everything,

I, a word soldier, sat in the tank of your imagination and crushed everything.

And now the days that begin do not end anymore, they are repeated,

Christ is dying in the old people’s home;

Christ is in the maternity ward now, and the nurse rushing toward Mary

is dropping the infant in front of Joseph’s eyes, settling all the accounts of

the coming revelation;

Christ is playing in the backyard, he is screaming, running and jumping,

I’m calling him home; I’m terribly pregnant and can’t endure the pain anymore,

“Come home, my son,” I’m calling him from the window,

I’ve decided to give birth to you right now; our family is ready for a revolution.

sequence 1

a Bach suite is being played, probably the one for the cello,

I am so famished and so pregnant and so round-bellied,

I’ve awakened and my heart aches in a peculiar way and is beating, beating anxiously,

it’s nothing, it’s normal, I’m thinking, it’s night, I’m so hungry and so pregnant,

but like an empty gun my heart is discharging endlessly at my temple,

I quietly enter the room

in the room you are cheating on me

with the sister of my best friend and you’re caressing her breast,

and your face is normal, bright, you’ve gotten away with it again and again,

and my blood, thickened, a narrow snake, is caging my scattered head,

but how beautiful you are and how cursed, how the more beastly, the more lovely you are,

double, triple, quadruple and quintuple,

lovely all the time,

you were lovely, my love, when I birthed your girl,

and you were lovely with our firstborn, when crazed with joy

you saw me to my brother’s home and on my side of our bed you loved our neighbour till dawn,

ah, you were so happy, such a scatter brained mare

sequence 2

let a prelude be played; when the words end and become a meaningless repetition,

the lips start to whistle

and could it be that revolution is underway?

in the end it’s just a life; to and fro, fast like a curtain,

and where are the happy ones; two pieces of wood in a bonfire placed on top of each other,

that smell of moss and the wild forest and; what’s important, are real,

happy?

Your life, a picture on the wall, where your father has cancer,

he will die, your brother will sell the house.

Will I manage to see the house where I lived with scorpions?

and needed a red picture, and because I didn’t have a picture

I had fixed a red bag?

memories filled to the rim with reds, as the mouth of one with tuberculosis,

who’s spitting blood and life.

I’m spitting you out.

I’m living.

Am I happy, wild, and is it possible to paint me

and hang it on the wall without disturbing the peace of the occupants?

For instance, that flower drawn in chalk on the garden wall

is bothering me. I’m scratching my pupils to forget it.

let a prelude be played, you’re still here, I can feel it.

do you hear the whistle of the words? what about the rustle of bullets in March on Arpi’s balcony…?

and is there a big difference with what you put to a stop?

one under your nose,

and the other at the end of a sentence.

sequence 3

dear, dear, dear,

dear…

and is your name important, the only sure thing that you have?

I’m pulling down the snow with frozen fingers, as if to recover my memory

we’re speeding, everything is so new, exciting,

and stubbornly the snow is not melting, it’s growing gradually

in parallel with the desire to urinate, providing a backdrop for sadness,

we urinate on the snow, then we take a few steps, lie down and giggle in amazement.

I am big,

I am transparent and a butterfly,

I’m too much, countless, squeezed with everything in this small belly,

we open and shut our wings, how wonderful it is to be in love,

it’s so wonderful that on my birthday I did not throw myself off the bridge,

instead I sat in the park and waited till Nariné arrived,

now I don’t remember a thing we talked about, but it was good that she came.

sequence 4

oh my god, I’m pregnant, I’m pregnant, I’m pregnant

with revolution,

let’s go, my dear, let’s pluck the rose off the bush,

let’s pluck the head off shaking shoulders

let’s use chalk or oil to wipe off bravery,

humour,

the frozen hearts,

because that which remains is only

solitude,

the cold,

the silence.

dear, dear, my dear,

how close we are to each other, how orphaned and helpless,

and how heroic is the heart,

and how much love is found there, uninhabited islands decaying in the ocean,

your heart an uninhabited island, your body floating on the ocean in formidable beauty,

and who needs what you have, when you don’t have yourself,

when you are so incomplete and so womanly,

dear, dear, dear,

dear, dear, dear,

dear, dear, dear,

dear, dear, dear,

dear, dear, dear,

dear, dear, dear,

dear you know who.

Born in 1987, in Yerevan, Hasmik Simonian is a multi-award-winning poet and writer. Find out more about her here.

I’m Still Returning

Written by Artem Haroutiunyan and translated by Tatul Sonentz

I

Shushi City, ash-stones.

Today the bird flies

over the ruins,

it forgets the start of the holocaust,

it recalls nothing but the wormwood:

alone, shredded in the wind,

I was free to die.

A lone night drew a new sun and life.

A child watched from the window

melding into the mother’s gaze.

I beseech you

my deep friends,

roots of plants and dying trees,

turn at last into my dwelling place.

II

Now that years have passed,

I can say –

Blessed be the one, in hospital, in stadium,

in the orgies of private fantasy,

Blessed be the one living in shadows,

and the core of the blinding light,

The one with sunken hips and mighty loins,

whose grave has the measurements

of the universe,

Blessed, with and without tears in the eyes;

the divine loudspeaker turns our laughs

to sobs.

III

I have yet to return to my land;

If I return

I will not find me.

I shall see the silence over the country spread,

the heavy granite padlock of the door,

the green silk of the mulberry trees,

with which the land weaves its

ceremonial garb,

without the cares of those who live.

I’m still returning to my land;

Wandering with open arteries

I see the burning of the ancient soil,

the sharp cry of cities awakening,

and the dense beginnings of abandoned ivy,

turning to shadow from day to day,

covering the beginning as well as the end.

Tasting the crumbs of immorality,

I wipe away tears of hope.

Today the bird flies

over the ruins of Shushi,

no longer alone in the shredding wind.

I was free to die.

Born in 1945 in Stepanakert, the capital city of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, Artem Haroutiunyan is a poet, translator, literary critic, professor of foreign literature, who has won many international poetry prizes, including the Istambul International Festival Prize (2010), Stockholm International Festival Prize (2008), Rene Sharie Prize (1989), Maxim Gorki Prize (1983), and Dylan Thomas Prize (1983).

To my other self

Written by Armen Shekoyan and translated by Diana Der-Hovanessian

I’m wondering

my other heart

just how the two

of us will part?

Sometimes I look

at you and stare

wondering who of us

will get the air.

Between us I don’t

differentiate.

But I’m the one

with hope and faith.

The Last

The last flowers of autumn fade

and winter is near.

Fall passes without my knowing

summer was here.

Born in Yerevan in 1974, Armen Shekoyan passed away on 29 July 2021 at the age of 68. His most famous book is the socio-historic modern novel Haykakan Zhamanak (or Armenian Time). The use of urban slang is typical of Shekoyan’s poetry and prose. His works have been translated into English, Ukrainian, Estonian, Russian, and Czech.

Oblivion

Written by Vahe Arsen and translated by Aram Arsenyan and Ofelya Suqiasyan

How much does a snowflake weigh?

- As much as

the whole or half

Sun…

How much does the Sun weigh?
How much does the heart weigh?

- As much as the human heart,

when you take it from the Altar and

put it into your pocket…

beneath my raincoat

is rain…

the same water-veil and

oblivion and

the return of the day you live in…

Born in 1978 in Yerevan, Vahe Arsen is a multi-award poet, writer, and translator. He also currently works as an assistant professor of world literature at Yerevan State University, and as the editor-in-chief of the literary journal Foreign Literature. Arsen’s poems have been published and translated into more than a dozen languages.

African Kiss

Written by Violet Grigoryan

Batter and Filling
150 g. butter, 6 eggs, 2 cups sugar, ½ cup milk, 2 tablespoons cocoa powder, 1/5 cup flour, baking
soda, vinegar, vanilla extract.

Frosting

70‐75 g. butter, 3 tablespoons cocoa powder, ½ cup sugar, 5 tablespoons milk.

Baking Instructions
Combine the yokes of 6 eggs with one cup of sugar, add slightly melted butter, mix well. Separately,
mix one teaspoon of soda with one tablespoon of vinegar and add it to the mixture. Add 2
tablespoons of cocoa powder, vanilla extract, ½ cup lukewarm milk and 1/5 cup of flour. Mix
thoroughly, then transfer the batter into a pan and cook it for about 30 minutes on very low heat.

While cooking, read the following:

What lovely body, crimson heart, amazing esse (it must be said), perhaps we’ll never meet again under the sun, nor by the sea, nor on this earth
(my little “esse,” welcome here, into my text, a foreign girl, my newcome bride, nomadic sister, may you be lucky for my lines)
I know, we’ll never meet again under the sun, nor by the sea, nor on this earth
But I would like to spend ten years just kissing you to get enough,
I’ve got no choice, I must be brief, I must condense, and zip the files to fit them in,
I’ll turn ten years into ten months, I’ll turn ten months into ten days, I’ll turn ten days into ten hours, ten
hours — a single day of love

That day of love is all I’ve got, a winning ticket, large and small,
Today we’ll have ten years of love, tomorrow‐bye, tomorrow‐gone

Violet Grigoryan was born in 1962 in Tehran, Iran and she repatriated to Armenia in 1975. She is one of the founders of the literary journal Inqnagir, where she currently serves as its editor. The author of four books of poems, she has won the Writers’ Union of Armenia poetry award for True, I’m Telling the Truth (1991), and the Golden Cane prize for literature for The City (1998). Her poems have been anthologised in France, and in the English-language collections The Other Voice: Armenian Women’s Poetry through the Ages (2006) and Deviation: Anthology of Contemporary Armenian Literature (2008). She is a member of the Writers’ International PEN fellowship.


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