The Meadow in Armenia

(This is my introduction to Whispers and Breath of the Meadows, by Razmik Davoyan, translated by Armine Tamrazian, which has just come out in Arc’s admirable Visible Poets series. Hope you’ll run to their online store and purchase a copy.)


The roofs are not standing
But sitting on the walls.
The walls are not standing
But sitting on the soil
And the soil on the bodies of the dead.

We understand, from Orhan Pamuk’s threatened imprisonment in Turkey merely for alluding to what happened to the Armenian people during the final period of the Ottoman Empire, how difficult it is to broach publicly the subject of genocide. We remember Adorno’s stricture about writing poetry in its wake, impossible to obey as that has proved to be. But the last hundred years have become a period marked above all by genocide and forced migration; by the inability of the powerful to share their social freedoms with the weak; by the exploitation by powerful states of all the paranoias of racial, religious and tribal difference in order to maintain power — or, in the brute terms of realpolitik, to procure the same slave labour which built the ancient empires. (Or, more crudely still, to gain access to the same units of energy, whether their source is human or natural.) The efficiency and speed with which the voices of minorities have been suppressed, even in an age of supposedly mass communication, means that Adorno’s agonised injunction requires breaking with greater frequency.

Thankfully, globally, a poetry which can speak for both self and people, nation and species, continues to be written. Ironically, it is exactly such oppressive, tragic circumstances which maintain poetry’s historic role as a private yet public voice, which has been arrogated in most western societies to the broadcast media, or transferred to film and the novel. Inevitably, then, we read such figures as the Chinese Menglong (or ‘Misty’) poets, African poets like Gaarriye, Mapanje and Okigbo, Palestinian poets like Darwish and Barghouti, and the Armenian poet Razmik Davoyan, with a combination of eagerness for news, and a certain nostalgia for that representative voice.

Davoyan is the child of a generation which had experienced the stagnation and collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and came to prominence as a writer during the stagnation and collapse of the Soviet Union. No state can conceive of its own end in less than apocalyptic terms, and just as one decline led to massacre, so the other led to the Cold War’s threat of nuclear annihilation, what he calls ‘the final roar’. His writing is therefore born of the tension between traumatic remembrance, and the anticipation of still worse.

One result of such pressures is urban cunning, such as we see in the unpublished and samizdat writings of late-period Soviet society, from Slutsky to Aizenberg; another is a return to the epical and the apophatic, which is what we find in Davoyan. He has continued to write as another great culture also enters its decline — and proves itself similarly dangerous in defence of its assumed privileges. (There is a strange prefigurement in his poem about Manhattan, dated 1979, where ‘the guarding red light hasn’t yet/been thrust’ to ward off a plane seen as ‘That blind, giant bird flying in the dark’.)

The most astonishing element of his work, however, is that it is saturated with joy: a constantly-renewed delight in the interaction between a creation experienced with rare spiritual intensity, and the smaller act of creation which poetry represents for him, the human capacity for a further life of the imagination beyond a simple response to the delightful or the dreadful. As he says, echoing Marianne Moore’s famous line about ‘real toads in imaginary gardens’:

…there are forests
In the sounds escaped from forests,
There are birds in their shadows,
There are dreams
In the hands robbed of dreams

The unique, tense melancholy which flavours his poetry is always offset by an understanding of the miracle that transforms it from an emotion into a created thing. So we find, between sparing references to the ‘bright shine of missiles’ and ‘The tombs resting in Turkey’, a keen understanding of the insubstantiality of the poetic self, a writer’s ability to create what Adrienne Rich called ‘impersonae’:

I am a cave
And my own echo
In the cave
Have lived for ages as a monastery, a church
Burning in my own chill for ages as a monastery, a church
And in the defected minds of so many
I am one with everything
Except for myself

This capacity to enter energetically into communion with things, particularly voiced but inarticulate things like water, birds, trees in wind, the wind itself, becomes, metaphorically, Davoyan’s statement of intent to speak for the voiceless (‘The yellow rustle of the trees…Fragmented and stretched/As human thoughts…’). Many of his poems are as paradoxically full of absence as the typical title, ‘I Am Not Here Now’, challenging us to read the shimmering immanence with which natural phenomena are represented as having allegorical meaning.

In this Davoyan recalls the trope of displacement deployed by many poets from traumatised cultures, by which that utterance which cannot be made for one reason or another, whether pronounced societal decorum or actual repression, is deferred onto an ‘innocent’ speaker (sometimes an inanimate object or an historical figure), or contained by metaphor, metonym or allegory, and thus concealed from the dangerously-literal reader. Of course, this method is simply a development of poetry’s primary method of moving from the individual to the universal by the transition between image and symbol, between reading something in terms of similitude (what else it resembles), then reading it in terms of amplitude (what else those resemblances can be taken to mean). Thus there is little attempt and no real need to indicate what is being heard by a child in the following stanza:

The pitchers are whispering
Words of clay to each other, at night,
And the clay lips turn pale
From those living whispers.

In poetry, two things in particular are always, if not lost in translation, then displaced or dispossessed: obviously, the music of the original language; less obviously, its particular context of engagement with its own audience. Where there is the barrier of a little-known script, even the enthusiastic reader cannot be expected to sound out the original; and, without an intimate knowledge of the context in which poetry is distributed, read and, as importantly, recited in its own country, it is hard to gauge whether directness (or indirectness) of utterance is an expectation or an achievement. The reader, always aware that the music of the translation is a substitute, also has to resist identifying its angle of delivery with the reading and performance habits of their own nation.

The primary compensation one has for a loss of music is an intensified engagement with image and rhetoric, and, as befits a poet whose main device is metamorphosis, Davoyan’s work is shot through moments of startling visual clarity (‘…the fork scratches the plate/With its cold fingers’), and phrases which seem effortlessly poised between enigma and epigram (‘For corpses do weep dust’). As for its approach to audience, his poetry strikes this reader as simultaneously more public and more personal than its current equivalents in English language poetry. It addresses from afar and whispers in the ear at one and the same time, is easier both with apparent generalities and, apparently, secrets.

There is a dangerous fallacy sometimes cited to the despair of writers, translators and curious readers that, however the intended audience of a poet might be defined, or might define itself, only it can fully understand their poetry. Those who write, translate or read with that deep curiosity would debate whether it is useful to think of anything being ‘fully understood’ in this sense. Nevertheless, there is always a danger that the poetry of a culture subjected to great hardship might become opaque to those who have not shared its history, resulting in a music which can only be appreciated within that culture. Razmik Davoyan’s poetry seems to avoid that fate by achieving an accessibility which cancels out distance, substituting instead an equal empathy for the suffering and the exultant, finding for both a voice that implies such oppositions are finally resolved in the poem.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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