To my Father Tomo,
It was a night we read poems with Pushkin at Komesli Inn in Erzurum. We were both tired for being on the road for months. He was going to return his home in Georgia next morning. And I was without a route, without a purpose. I was lazing around for days, with manuscripts I gathered from far and near in my hand, I was numb in the damp corners of the inn. After the housekeeper took empty plates in front of us, the great poet leaned and whispered a name in my ear. I straightened up in excitement. I wanted him to tell me everything he knew about that name I never heard before. He shook his head, went on drinking wine and reading his own sonnets loudly. Somewhat later, while we were going up to sleep, he held my arm and whimpered these verses with his voice deepened by smoking: “Leaving my home behind / My creaky home near the river / Leaving the Kars town / The gardens and deep blue skies. / … / Now I pace around in other cities / My homeland before my eyes.”
He clearly wanted me to follow the poem and the poet he whispered. In the morning, he jumped on his horse, gathered the bridles in his palm and smiled. Towards Tbilisi, his aide behind him, he rode his horse at full gallop. I got on my small red car. I said the name that Pushkin whispered aloud: Yeghishe Charents! Towards Kars, I augmented the dust left from the poet.
A Road Opens to the Tale
Hasankale, Köprüköy, Khorasan, then while approaching Sarıkamış, I feel that the sky is covering the earth much more. Up to Sarıkamış, the pieces of land that cover two sides of the road with their numerous brown tones are nearly treeless. The mountains, rising far away, spread blue and purple to the sky. Going to Kars is like turning the pages of a tale slowly. Colors, the moving of the land and the mysterious curvatures of the trees that are few and far between whisper me that I’m on the borders of a dreamland. I witness Aras River’s birth and growth, flowing silently on the right, partly appearing and disappearing. As Aras grows longer, trees increase. Allahuekber Mountains, pine groves and forest burst like a miracle! I get surrounded by green’s darkest tone. While waiting at the crossroad to turn to the road going from Sarıkamış to Kars, I think that I see a silhouette in the pine grove ahead. Giant eyes disappear within the trees. I think that I’m really getting within a tale.
As I proceed on the long, plain road to Kars, the weather flowing through the windows and touching my face gets lighter, gets fragrant. I see that the colors I saw before spread on the chart, each tone diverges and evolves into another tones by uniting again. After each kilometer I pass, the sky really lands on. I can fly if I take one more step.
I go towards the upper castle from Fevzi Çakmak, with broad streets covered with trees. The ices on the small stream of Kars have melted (It will join Arpaçay towards Armenian border ahead). I find Sukapı district by following the small stream. Creaky sounds come from the whimpering girders of the bridge called as Demirköprü, which was called Vartan Bridge before. I stand on the ruins by crossing the bridge. I touch the walls of the secluded place invaded by witch grass, thorns, trash and plastic bags. This is something beyond the anguish given to human beings by old, historical buildings. This structure holds a feeling apart from the ancient gloom of the structures which are turned into a museum at best, preserved within the oldness and having polished handrails despite rotten woods. From a street whose funeral was not hold, from a street who was not mummified like the museum houses of writers. A corpse. Bullet riddled corpse. It has been in grief for years because people, who don’t know who was born and grew up in it, pass by without noticing it, and it died once more. Its walls darkened because of the fire lit in the oil cans by rovers, it has lost its resistance that way. I crouch down and pluck, gather the grasses near the wall. I hear a rattle behind me and I turn back. I walk towards the long shadow behind a wall. I tremble with the coolness of the wall I lean. I reach my head. A child, who has black eyes bigger than his weak body looks at me in curiosity and fear. He shrugs his narrow, low shoulders. The rope he enwrapped his waist to tighten the loose pants swings in front of him. I set my eyes on the eyes of the child after looking at the rope. I want to reach my hand and caress his brushy hair. He takes a step back. I hold my breath and step towards him. I lean down and align my face with his face, and I whisper his name: “Yeghishe!”
I am Yeghishe Charents
I am Yeghishe Charents; Yeghishe Soghomonyan with my real surname. On 13th March, in 1897, I was born in this house. I grew up in this neighborhood below Kars Castle. I stretched away the small stream of Kars, waited for the water to pass on my face and belly. I run after tadpoles. I caught small fish with my mother’s cheesecloth. I couldn’t stand and I casted them in the water again. I put some potatoes, some pumpkin seeds and cheese in a big cloth and I got on the road. I made camps on the hills of Kars. I lied down on the land and watched the sky. From the birds I learned laying words together, and from humans I learned making words bleed. I discovered new voices from the cracklings of greening trees and new rhymes from the animals’ howls covering the hills at nights. My mind coupled the word onto nature and the nature onto human. I recorded scenes from the lying of ploughed land in lines and the bees trying to get in the hives as if in a race. I run with other children. I led the lambs to the grassland. Then I started Kars High School. I saw pen and paper in a new light. All scenes, voices and colors in my mind lined up one after another. I published my first poem in the journal of high school. I became the lover of the trees lined up on the border of Armenia and the honeycombed caves on the mountain. I added paper and pen in the pack you burdened… I grew tall. I looked at people. I learnt languages. I listened to the different songs of the language flowing on the same tune, different songs of the same looking eyes. When I was seventeen, I piled my poems, I called the roll of paper “Three Songs to the Sad and Pale Girl” and I published it. My blood, running with poem, started to burn. At the same age, I voluntarily joined the army. Military uniform was loose for me. For Armenia, that couldn’t stand apart from entering the First World War, I went to Van to fight against Turks. I stood up on the arena. I shouted. They couldn’t believe the voice was coming from this kiddy body, and I burned the arenas with my poems. I collected the poems I wrote under the teachings of in a book called “Dantesque Legend” and published it in 1916 in Tbilisi.
War made me lose touch with Kars. War threw me away from the Land of Nairi.
My Hayastani, I Fell in Love with You
I walk away from the abandoned house, following the child Yeghishe. He strays into me, with the wand he found near the small stream. He doesn’t look back to see if I’m coming or not, he’s so sure that I will follow him. We go down the small stream. He leans towards the water, holding on the wand, as if he levitates his little body. I wonder if he’s watching the reflection of his face. He grasps the water. He turns and reaches his palms to me, I lean towards him. He splashes water on me by smiling, he gets me wet. He laughs and laughs. Then he keeps quiet. I cannot be angry at him. He sat on the humid land and I kneel down near him. Heaving a deep sigh, he whimpers with a deep voice that seems grotesque on his body: “Do you like Mayakovsky?” I nod my head. He smiles. “I liked him so much,” he says. “Like your Nazım…”
I repeat, “Like our Nazım…” Our. Without turning his eyes away from the small stream flowing in a bright grayness, he raises his index finger as if he wants me to listen:
“My Hayastani, I fell in love with you / With your sun smoking fruits / With the tone of our old instrument / I fell in love / With red-hot flowers, lily white roses / And your slender Nairian girls / I fell in love.”
“Is it Mayakovsky?”
He smiles. He scratches the land with his wand. “Me,” he says. “The famous Hayastani poem.”
I cannot tell that his poems have never been translated into Turkish. Though he already knows. Children know everything. He stands up and tells me that he’ll bring me to his hill beyond the castle. We start walking again. We pass by the fields. People in black silhouettes far away, plough the land with rakes of the horses. Hay bales are everywhere. A yellow, hot light brightens there. We watch the herd of cows calmly. He takes a chock he finds near the stream, turns it in his hand and reaches it to me. Now I get my feet on the ground and I have a wand.
They told that the beginning of Soviet Armenian literature dates back to Hagopian and Kurginyan. Now they deem me worthy of this honor, they say that the honor of Soviet Armenian literature must be given to Charents who fights for communist regime and trying to create an aesthetic value at the same time. Maybe it’s my commitment of my short life, which passed by looking away at Nairi country, to revolution and literature that allures them. While growing and evolving with poems, I committed myself to Bolshevik Armenia. I went to Moscow in 1917. While fighting for Tsaritsyn in red army in 1918, I fell in the blaze of revolution. I wrote two long poems called “Soma” and “Maddened Crowds.” Crowds really got mad because I glorified the working class. People liked the poems. Wars continued. Conflicts between Turkey and Armenia continued. I could sacrifice myself only in my poems to save people. In 1919, I was deemed worthy of praise by Nikol Aghbalian (he was a famous critic at that time) in Yerevan and I was announced as a good poet. Next year, I was a famous poet. I settled in Yerevan. In 1921, I published Charents-Name. I think I could express myself more. As soon as Armenia joined Soviet Union, we wrote a declaration that totally rejects old Armenian literature with Gevorg Abov and Azat Vshtuni. It was “Declaration of the Three.” It was June. We were seeking novelty. We chased voices and images in the shadows of war and absence. My soul was uneasy. New things must be said. I wrote a long poem. I put sexual motives, class conflicts, rhythm and speed in that poem. Its name was Romans Anser (Romance without Love). But I had to leave that romance behind. A nihilist strike that would end the death agony of romantic mindset…
I was twenty-six when the republic was proclaimed in Turkey. Married with Arpenik and started writing a novel.
Longing for Kars and the Writing of a Novel
How calm Kars seems from the hill we stand. The child squints and looks at the scenery down there, with an ecstatic smile on his face. Then, as if he is hurt, he sneers and “Nairi is a nonexistent homeland,” he says. “For me, its heart is in Kars. It’s a myth, a spiritless nostalgia… The attempt of drawing the borders of deferred dreams.”
I put my hand on his shoulder. “After Khanate of Yerevan entered into the domination of Russia in 1828, the dream of reviving the old Armenia started I suppose,” I say. He nods. “In 1890s, only that issue was on the national agenda. Then Balkan Wars started. Hopes arose, broken and there came disappointment. Then 1915… As far as I know, the Republic of Armenia could only survive 30 months. And for you, all those things were the opinions following a rotten and old world; they could not be the doctrine of a leader to be successful. As new perspectives were increasing in Armenia and outer world, all things belonging to past had to be lifted from the Armenian soul in order to proceed. And you wrote Yerkir Nairi.”
Child Yeghishe approves by saying “Yes.” “I needed to write a satirical novel. Kars was my centre. The city I was born in. I wrote everywhere we walk, the beauty of this air we breathe, the innocence of people. I tried to talk about everywhere creaky and uncared, even their ruins. For instance, the irksome atmosphere of the country and on the other hand, the refreshing small stream of Kars… Happiness and calmness… Then war. How creaky Kars became during the war. Finally, the fall. What did the fall of a city really mean. The pain of the bayonets stuck in the bellies. But I never lost my hope. I unchastely criticized all things stuck in the past.”
“War,” I say. “What a terrible thing!” I cannot find something to say when there’s nothing but pain in me.
“You live in a century of war / And nothing seemed eternal to you. / You live close and far / Nothing seemed eternal to you. / You live the fall and failure / Apart from weird, unusual formations / Nothing besides war seemed eternal to you.”
He is quiet. We are quiet. We turn our faces towards the sun, closing our eyes to taste the sunny fruits of the land he call Nairi.
I Passed by Istanbul
The oil painting portrait of me you see everywhere, it was painted by Martiros Saryan in 1923. He brought it to Venice Biennial next year. How strange! When I was bloodstained and fighting hunger, people were looking at my oil painting portrait in a different country. I went to a seven-month Europe journey in 1924. Italy, Germany, France… And Istanbul! Istanbul, that famous prostitute. To be honest, I was touched by Istanbul at most. I wrote a very long lament for Istanbul. And I dedicated it to Fellow Mustafa Suphi and his friends. What I saw was a rotten, corrupt Istanbul, trying to have fun with violoncellos and foxtrots. Prostitutes wandered in its streets and expensive glasses were raised in toasts in Tokatlıyan. One part of the lament is like that: “Do not fall for it / There is single price / (It’s the law of Istanbul) / All things have single price here; / The prostitute / The Pasha / And the metropolitan… / Are you surprised Charents?”
However, I was hopeful. The intellectuals I met in the country moving in novelties set my mind at rest. Mustafa Suphi… I saw a hope for Soviet Armenia. In fishermen, in carriers, in innocent people in streets, in young girls and in children. I ended the lament of “Stambol” like that: “The day comes but Ali the Boatman / Passes by chaotic Istanbul / Sitting on your oily throats / To form the new life / He mows your cursed products / Roots it away / So that new ones can turn green / And from the forehead of the bleeding country / He scratches the sultan’s hand / Young communists of Turkey!”
The journey was good for me. My perspective developed and changed. In 1926, I was sent to Yerevan reformatory because I was found guilty for shooting and wounding a 16 years old girl. I wrote my memories there. When I went out of the reformatory, I met with my predecessors; I left the literature group including young writers behind. My only struggle was to create a totally new literary rote. And I had plenty of competitors. I was at the centre of the anger of a group blaming me for being nationalist, bourgeois, chauvinist, individualist, obscurantist, pornographic or selfish. And I grew this anger by saying that everything national had to be international. I tried to reach Pushkin’s art. In 1933, I wrote the Book of the Way, it was published but its distribution was postponed. Not surprising, the book could reach its readers with forcible additions in 1934, which was the worst period of Soviet Union in history. I told that was because of my country’s dreary past’s flattery. I questioned myself too. I criticized Armenian writers’ views, I satirized the intellectuals. I put a new point of view for the Armenian soul; I sought a basis for a new identity.
The Distant Place beyond the Witch Grasses
I see the child’s bones as his unsteady shirt’s collar opens. So thin. Naïve. He looks at Ani Ruins as the sun sets. Despite his naïve side, he spreads tremendous power to me and to the place he stands on. I am afraid that he may feel cold. I am embarrassed with the frustration of not reading all his works that he created in his short, 43 years of life. I want to scream his poems to him, as far as I remember from the English translations. I feel dizzy. Kars made me like that actually. The sharp fatal beauty of Kars, cold as ice. When the child Charents is with me now, I want to take him away, to move him away from the death.
We go down the hills. We come to a rocky side by floundering in the mellow land with the buzzes of bees. We name the setting of the sun in different languages, we heave a sigh together and we hold our breaths together. I can see how this child became addicted to drugs and why he always smoked in the last years of his life. In the growth of the mountains with light; I watch his alone stance against thousands with the sonnets and thoughts in his head, his stance behind the things he knew right and his being taken away from his home one night. As a result of the conflicts against Stalin, the night he caressed his two daughters’ heads, the night he left his home by looking back at the beautiful woman, then the tortures and diseases…
Everything is beautiful now. The land, the bales are beautiful. The calves wandering in the wilderness are beautiful, stone houses are beautiful. The mosques erected on churches are beautiful, ruins are beautiful. The tea and the tea houses are beautiful. Wide streets, minstrels, the instruments, geese, cheese, honey are beautiful. Sweet. Georgian wine flows from the centre of Kars. Sayat Nova’s songs are beautiful; even the ruined, leaned buildings standing on the border are beautiful. Only the face of the child is dark. His face is hardened.
After being arrested again in 1937, he spent most of his captivity in prison’s hospital; no one knows exactly how Charents died. How bad it is not to know anything about the death of such a great poet, not to understand whether he was executed or died in agony because of a disease!
“Let’s turn back,” he says. Hand in hand, we turn back to the abandoned house in Sukapı district. As we walk on our way back, layers gradually pile up in me. I want him to read his poems to me in his own language. He whimpers. I like the harmony of his voice although I don’t understand. He lets go of his hand when we reach sooty walls.
“Come on,” he says. “Go now.”
“Leaving you there…”
I see the answer in his eyes. There is an eternal place where poets sleep even though we don’t know how they died, even though their graves are unknown. This is a mausoleum of a resonance hung in the emptiness, in the end of the last verse written, in the eternal hearts of the reading eyes. The distant place that can’t be wracked by eras and wars, that is hidden by witch grasses.
Blood smells again
From the food that master cooked –
Is this the ancient witch,
Or – the semen of terrible hearted?
The ancestor of a Temur or Abbas
Filled with envy
Reaches the throne of tsars today
In the endless sea of blood
The gospel of Marx in his hand,
In the fiery flames of fires
Forming his own “Cabulga”
In a street of earth…
Yeghishe Charents, 1936
Note: The information in Kevork Berdakjian’s book called Modern Armenian Literature (Aras Publishing); the writing titled as “Nairi’s Scarlet Rose” published in Uzun Yürüyüş Journal in May 1997; http://www.charents.am, http://www.agos.com.tr/tr/yazi/3401/turkcenin-carents-oksuzlugu and http://www.hyetert.com/yazi3.asp?Id=348&DilId=1 web-sites are used in this writing.
Translation: Gozde Zulal Solak