Remembering Vahé Oshagan (1922- June 30, 2000)

Photo credit: Ara Oshagan

Photo credit: Ara Oshagan

~~Today marks the thirteenth anniversary of the death of the Western Armenian poet and literary critic Vahé Oshagan, perhaps the most radical, innovative poet of his generation. A native of Plovdiv, Bulgaria, an exile who turned the condition into the source of a prolific body of work, Oshagan died in Philadelphia, from complications following heart surgery.  He was 78.  He was also my beloved maternal uncle.

On this occasion, I’m re-posting  my translation of his Tebi Gyank (Toward life). The translation is followed by the obituaries in the New York Times and the Guardian.~~

TOWARD LIFE

This midday too
god sits in death’s shade wipes the sweat off his forehead
takes out the round gold watch
looks
thousands cross-legged in circles listen to fairy tales
that swing from the tongues of tiny, suspended bells—
this is our life
dragging a torn fishing-net on our shoulder we walk the streets
the shrieking mob chases a decrepit whore ten months pregnant
liquid-eyed vagrant seven times over
for twenty-four hours we celebrate a single instant’s birthday
arms thrust in the wind fingers of nakedness opened
the longings throb incurably bit by bit—
oh this life
from the cradle they anointed us married us off in the stealth of darkness
we have now left home gone to the villages whoring with every passer-by
day and night hungry sleepless I’m out on the street I search
who is it? what is it? no one knows no one has seen
innumerable fetid wounds pave the world
I will bend down kiss
life is a street where the urchins have seized me chasing me, laughing at me
miniature holy desert I rent out to predators of human beings
and I flee stumbling through photocopy corridors:
How to live?
the invisible steel webs of wisdom cover the universe
caught in it I soar on the surface of consciousness
brand new useless furniture and housewares parade all day
isolated from the desolate living room we will stand face to face
look at each other to say what is already at the bottom of wind and water
fossils glitter in the pearly halls of the heart
seated on the ground I wait I’ve been jobless six months all the way back until there from where we did not yet start on the road all of us huddle nose to nose
no place left on the universe’s weathered sofa except to stand on one leg
cast a shadow in the morning and gather it at night.

And I live
in the pandemonium I have opened my palm begging from all four corners
whatever falls whoever steals in broad daylight
spreads it out carefully in the suburbs of loneliness without streets without sidewalks
but I sprout from the slits of desire bringing the light with me
to find the road before I’m lost traceless formless
caught in the sweet glue we wander how can we not love and hate each other?
the world and I are twins attached to each other on all sides
two bastards we lurk in the vicinity of the whorehouse
looking for our bashful mother
but everywhere the rustle of curtains the veil and patina of brides
thick dust of Vesuvius buried in it inside the horizon’s eyelid
leaning against each other we keep steadfast vigil for a miracle’s birth:

My life is the light
plastered wastefully on the eye of the world
poured freely for the famine-crazed wild multitudes
gigantic bribe for the hiding atoms to come out and look at me
perhaps we will recognize each other have something to say
at the exit of the same womb we too have crouched seated for centuries
our eyes on the empty white walls we smile like idiots
what business do we have in these parts?
for whose soul do these lamps burn?
what waste of luck this is which we barely managed to acquire
and arrived here spread the carpet on the grass took out the sandwiches and lay back
and already the guise of light covers us with the armors of dinosaurs
with insect feet we slide across the invisible hide of light
we have fun toast life strut around wearing shadows.

My life is darkness
I fall in it at each step there are pot holes one inside the other they have no end
and no beginning on this hot pain they have poured thick asphalt
armies of ants carrying the world dance on my skin
who cares that people run barefoot crazed toward destruction
and then they are not there they have escaped and gone to the cellars of exile
and they keep me hostage or bury me or throw me in a corner
all by myself they have locked the photographer’s darkroom from inside and outside
all day all night nothing better to do than sitting around washing and drying film, hanging it on the wall without ever knowing who looks at you from whose voice is it from the depths of mouths the cassettes spin for twenty four hours a day
understand if you can, anyone knocking on the door at midnight? Does the world know                                                                                                                      you are alive?
holding on like this to the limitless sail of consciousness
taut and ready waiting, where oh where is the wind’s feather to come and take me
beyond this darkness this light there’s no address or identity—

only love
from the grids and cages of bones from the gutters of the sky’s roof from the neumes of                                                                                                                             my palms
in the downward sleep of time tumbling all the way to the pail of suffering
never ever use the word for happiness it will die
and with it will disappear love back to the table’s crumbs the crowd has left
everything begins after the feast no one tells you the news
by the time you find out it is too late you will stand under the wall and watch
no need anymore to crack jokes at dinner with your mouth full
to talk seriously about the Pope to hurry to the airport your heart full of fear
to stand in line at the unemployment office for hours and lifetimes
to shovel the snow toward the street toward the city toward the world which is not there
our eyes are cheap beads gathered from streams and sidewalks
the crickets the cars Baron Setrak and Vivaldi
all operate on the same loom of virgin silence mysterious and coded

what message?
whose tongues have Gengis Khan’s executioners cut
and thrown me back to the gardens of childhood filled with mines
now they explode one by one you must walk run play
sing scream this is my body poured like this to edge of the horizon
the ring where shall we take it? we are orphaned atoms all of us
bride and bridegroom father-in-law mother-in-law brother-in-law
sister-in-law cousin niece nephew, godfather, godmother
bridegroom come outside
see, everything and all of us are relatives and in-laws
from the old sorrowful whore seated at the door knees wide open saliva flowing from                                                                                                             her mouth
from the debauched indolent hashish addict the shameless lewd procurer
the virtuous lovesick inconsolable and abandoned nun
from the darkened and virgin thickets the beasts devouring each other
from the volcano’s exploding heart from the seas of misfortune from the houses stacked
one on top of another
from inside the contaminated filth until the altar the chrism the ointment
love a gigantic magnet thousands and thousands of crumbs which shine glitter quiver
stone water air tree light man and insect
we have gathered under the huge empty copula
hey bridegroom of ours look here
how will you recognize us you neither see nor hear nor touch
we sleep in hideouts made of syllables we have built sanctuaries of alphabets
clothes of words cover us, disguise us for eternity
now we are standing in groups our cocktail drinks in our hands we talk about this and                                                                                                                                              that
a little while later faceless employees will ask for our tickets
break the thread of conversation open the door push us all to the tarmac
outside in the dark no one will remember us greet us with a hello
suddenly voices will call us please come this way this way hurry up
and hundreds of hands will hold pull push into the line
it is the old couch of the whorehouse but the anxiety of waiting is not there anymore
the intermission has ended other people are standing in the corridors.

What did we understand from all that has transpired?
the heels always wore out on the outside
against closed doors we cursed we sobbed we yearned
we dyed our hair black secretly we swallowed many pills
we did not eat onions and garlic we used deodorant under our arms
we learned to read and write we had visiting cards printed
taking on the airs of people in the know reliable serious
our heads down with slow steps we walked back and forth back and forth on carpets
talking about immortality the black market the Secret Army
we had our pictures taken we made the sign of the cross we received greetings
on the phone we talked about life death love giving our advice
without a smile wearing glasses holding candles in our hands we walked around each
other
but no one was fooled
and we remained human-like scarecrows scattered here and there in the silent desolate                                                                                                                                          fields
not a single bird flying back and forth noticed us
while the solitary tiller from the distant mist waved his arm to us
but not a single seed reached the path of consciousness
and I am still here holding a child’s tiny silver spoon
confused useless words hang from my mouth
the colorful threads of the clowns have become a tangled mess

whom to tell the story how to tell it no one believes it anymore
that what happened was not an accident and the fairy tale has no end
a thrust cork floats on eternity’s surface and bottom
there was no escape when they lay the trap.

I will go toward life
to the stairs of the future there a duplicate standing naked
to the impossible appointment when is it where is it oh my god before they lock up the
coffee shop
to the sidewalks of midnight to wander a famished shadow
I am and I am not we will live in the multitude of the covered market
I sell memories . . .   I sell memories . . .  who will buy them . . . come take them . . .
I offer them for free
I am made of crumbs fallen to the ground around the potter’s chair
given shape in a hurry in the dark incomplete
placed at the center breathless to endure until I reach some place
the world poured all over the place  sand heap of an adventure-stricken truck
I sell memories . . . what do you care who I am what I am
I buy your torn underwear the smell of your mouth your shit
I am the only customer of your life you have locked the door inside what are you doing?
I am the sole heir of your treasures where have you buried them?
don’t you know that the desert begins beyond this point
the tortoise has fallen on its back the cripple has curled on himself
people each one a letter-bomb they explode in my hands as soon as I open them
the crumbs the echo fill the exotic bubble
which is carried across rooftops tumbles through the streets

that’s me that’s me
I have come before myself to herald my coming
the guest list in my hand to prepare the big feast
the last hope of the universe’s blind deacon of a firefly
may be this time for a second the narrow path will be visible
toward life.

~~

 The Guardian Obituary: Vahe Oshagan

Laurence Joffe

Vahe Oshagan, who has died aged 78, was a critic, political activist, renegade poet and prolific novelist, professor of literature and iconoclast. Known as the voice of the Armenian diaspora, he also infuriated clerics, politicians and intellectuals by challenging the foundation myths of his ancient and far-flung people; he even queried whether there was one Armenian culture.

Yet Oshagan ended his days cherished as a cultural icon in his own right, both in his adopted homeland of America, and in the newly independent Caucasian republic of Armenia. Above all, he inspired future generations of diaspora Armenians. His message for young Armenian writers, was “Move! Do not remain paralysed in one place, change your environment!” His own journeying showed that he practised what he preached.

Oshagan was born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, to the literary critic, Hagop Oshagan, and his wife, Araxie Astardjian Oshagan. He grew up first in Egypt, and then in Cyprus; the family later settled in Jerusalem, whose Armenian Quarter remains a valued religious outpost of the global Armenian community.

He gained a doctorate in comparative literature from the Paris Sorbonne in 1951. It was in Beirut, however, where he established his reputation as a firebrand. From 1952 he taught philosophy, psychology and literature at numerous institutions, including the American University of Beirut.

As a poet, he alarmed literary circles by spurning the traditional metre of Armenian verse, and by using the vernacular instead of formal Armenian. Three of his eight volumes of poetry were published there: Baduhan (Window), 1956; Kaghak (City), 1963; and Karughi (Intersection), 1971. He also joined Dashnaktsutiun, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, and later published weekly columns for their American paper, Asbarez.

In 1975, uprooted once again as civil war swept Lebanon. he spent the next quarter century in Philadelphia. From 1976 to 1982 he taught Armenian literature, history and culture at the University of Pennsylvania. The American cityscape became the focus of his work, as exemplified by his 1980 epic, Ahazank (Alert). By contrast, most Armenian writers remained wedded to the rural settings of an idyllic past.

Yet Oshagan still felt compelled to move. He spent two years from 1992 lecturing at the University of Macquarie in Sydney, Australia; then held classes at the University of California at Berkeley, California; and taught in Canada, Europe and the Middle East.

In his last years, he renewed his bond with “eastern Armenians”. Braving the war of the 90s, he lectured at the state university of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia’s beleagured enclave within the rival state of Azerbaijan. His last book, as yet unpublished, is The Spirit of Karabakh.

True to form, Oshagan lambasted the shortcomings of the republic’s new rulers. At the first major conference to reunite the two wings of the Armenian world, held last September in Yerevan, he criticised easterners for unwarranted disdain towards, and ignorance of, their diaspora cousins. “The diaspora is [also] a front”, he said. “We are all soldiers of the Armenian people.”

Oshagan analysed the impact of the region’s bloody history on Armenian prose and poetry and argued that its people should not close themselves off from the outside world. Nor should they jettison their identity by totally assimilating into western society.

One of his greatest feats was to introduce the richness of Armenian culture to the English-speaking world, as editor of the yearly periodical, Raft, first published in 1987.

Oshagan reserved his fiercest attack for the church. In his 1988 short story Odzum (Consecration), published in a volume entitled Around the Trap, he describes how three masked revolutionaries enter a tired old Armenian church in downtown Philadelphia, shout, kiss, smoke, and ultimately strip the parish priest to his underpants. Not surprisingly, many Armenian clerics called Oshagan a blaspheming pornographer, even “an Armenian Rushdie”. Yet Oshagan hints at the true message in Odzum. The priest continues administering the sacrament despite his literal defrocking. To Oshagan, his personal integrity represents true Armenian heroism – not the trappings of faith and custom, nor the self-pitying ranting of the hotheads.

Clearly others saw the true worth of his writing. In 1994, diaspora Armenians celebrated a 50-year retrospective of his achievements; two years later he received the St Mesrob Mashtots Medal from the Catholics of the Armenian church; and in 1998 Armenia’s president awarded him a prize for contribution to Armenian letters.

Oshagan was a living paradox: a rebel, a champion of individual liberty, and a one-man repository of his nation’s rich heritage. He saw in the survival and creativity of his people reason to dispel their fears and confusions, and offer real hope for the future.

He is survived by his wife, Arsine, and two sons.

~~

New York Times Obituary

Vahe Oshagan, 78, Pioneer Of a New Armenian Poetry

By CHRIS HEDGES

Vahe Oshagan, whom leading critics call the most important Armenian-language poet in exile, died on June 30 in Philadelphia. He was 78.

He died of complications after heart surgery, said his son Ara.

Mr. Oshagan, who also taught and wrote short stories and literary criticism, revolutionized Armenian poetry by rejecting its imposed formality, which shunned the concerns of daily life and themes of alienation and loss. He often wrote in colloquial language and was for many the voice of the Armenian diaspora.

He was heavily influenced by French existentialists and had little time for those who dismissed modernity as a corruption of traditional values.

Marc Nichanian, a professor of Armenian studies at Columbia University, called Mr. Oshagan ”the most important poet of this generation.”

”For a long time his work was not even accepted as poetry,” Dr. Nichanian said. ”He had a hard time imposing himself as poet.”

Dr. Nichanian described a 1963 book by Mr. Oshagan, ”The City,” as ”the most radical book of Armenian poetry in the 20th century.”

None of Mr. Oshagan’s work has been published in English. The British poet Peter Reading recently translated one of his best-known works, a book of poems written in 1980 called ”Ahazank” or ”Alarm,” but it still awaits publication.

In his stark and desperate poem ”Alert,” published in 1980, Mr. Oshagan wrote:

Each passing minute is my first and last

I must grab the last human

And wrench some utterance from his mouth.

Like many Armenians, whose villages and homes were destroyed by the Turks in 1915, Mr. Oshagan drifted throughout the Middle East, Europe and the United States, never finding a permanent home.

He was born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, in 1922. His father, Hagop Oshagan, was a prominent writer and critic. He was raised in Jerusalem and Cyprus. He studied in France, where he received a doctorate in comparative literature from the Sorbonne.

In 1952, he moved to Beirut and taught philosophy, psychology and Armenian, French and English literature.

At the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, he moved to Philadelphia, where he taught at the University of Pennsylvania. It was there that he published ”Ahazank,” which incorporates many streets and landmarks of Philadelphia.

He was also the editor in chief of the literary journal RAFT: an Annual of Poetry and Criticism, for 11 years. The journal publishes English translations of Armenian poetry.

In addition to his son Ara, Mr. Oshagan is survived by his wife, Arsine; another son, Haig; and a sister, Anahid Voskeritchian.

~~

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About Taline Voskeritchian

Writing teacher at Boston University; translator (from Arabic and Armenian); prose writer; occasional editor; incurable wanderer.
This entry was posted in Armenians, Cities and towns and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Remembering Vahé Oshagan (1922- June 30, 2000)

  1. Taline, thanks for refreshing memories.

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