“Let Me Build Altars Out of Words…”

My father in law passed away this week at the blessed age of 91. He was a strong Armenian man devoted to his family and his heritage, and he encouraged me in many ways as a writer and family member.

So in this special week of remembrance, I thought I would share a few translated poems by one of his favorite Armenian poets, Missak Medzarents.

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Missak Medzarents (1885-1908) was considered one of the most lyrical poets to write in Armenian.  Some call him the Armenian John Keats, though he certainly was not derivative of anyone and had his own musical way with his original language: Armenian. That musicality, some say, makes his work difficult to translate into other languages.

Medzarents was born in a region of Eastern Turkey which earlier was part of Armenia — Akn, a region famous for its folk poetry. He received his early education there and further training in Istanbul. He published two volumes of poetry, ‘The Rainbow” and “New Verses,” before he died of tuberculosis at 22. Though many lament his early death, some find solace that he died before the horrific 1915 Armenian Genocide conducted by Ottoman Turkey, though he lived through the many minor attacks that preceded the first genocide of the 20th century.

When my father in law was a bit younger and healthier, he kept asking me for English translations of Medzarents (though he was fluent in Armenian). But they were difficult for me to find, for the reason I cited above. I consulted many around the country and actually could not find a single volume of his work translated into English that was currently in print, only excerpts in special collections or unavailable anthologies.

Sure enough, however, after he passed away, I found a few translations of single poems scattered across the internet, including those listed below, which are among the poet’s most famous (but still no volume).  The first three were translated by poet Diana Der Hovanessian for “The Armenian Weekly” (http://armenianweekly.com/2009/08/17/three-poems-by-misak-medzarents/) and the final two appear courtesy of http://www.littlearmenia.com (http://www.littlearmenia.com/html/poetry/poet.asp?id=8)

Some of the lyricism Medzarents was known for is perhaps lost here, but the pieces are still lovely, especially my favorite stanza, which I’ve bolded — a reminder for me personally of a life well-lived, whether across 22 years or 91.

POEMS OF MISSAK MEDZARENTS

Twilight

Like a girl in saffron walking under pine trees,
like a girl where the evening breeze blows
toward the flowering pomegranate grove
the dusk is passing and the day slowly goes.
Twilight falls, like sweet wilting iris
in varying shades of blue, it goes,
slowly dying, folding itself over
a thin stamen of hope, the light flows.
Then it is dark, like my soul left alone,
the soul that has been so long in the dark
where the light of dreams fled long ago
leaving it, my soul, in the rain, looking for home.


Love Song

Affectionate winds light up the blossoms
around me, making a festival
tiny lanterns of light.
This night is a feast of luminous roads.
With sweet balsam, with sweet hashish
the winds make me drunk tonight.
Sweet flower kisses fill the air
with perfumed petals and seeds
…a surfeit of everything except
the one and only kiss I need.


This Hour With You

If I could keep, could keep
this hour forever as a part of me,
and distill, distill this hour
as the essence of harmony;
if I could feel the way I do
this hour, all my life,
benign, bemused and blessed
as I am here with you
and then could write and share
the beauty of this hour
I could wash my life clean
and scoured of every care.

The Hut

I wish I were a hut
On a road in some field,
Or a hut below some hill-
A wayside place for travelers
Alone on their way.

I wish I could call my concern
To the harried travelers,
And on the winding golden road
Make them welcome,
Smoke billowing from my chimney.

I wish I could give comfort
To weary travelers,
And in exchange for their greeting
Do them a thousand kind turns.
Yes, do a thousand good turns,
The fire logs crackling,
The crop of the fertile fields,
All the fruits of autumn
And milk and honey and wine.

I wish I might listen till daybreak
To their praise of the fire,
The song of the traveler at evening,
And, asleep, wrapped in dreams,
I wish I could send off at daybreak
The nightfall comer.

And I wish I might hear at daybreak,
Cordial and happy,
The praise of one who comes at nightfall,
And, at daybreak, see
And wonder all through the night
About the departure of the one who comes at evening.

And patiently all through winter, too,
I wish I might stand along the roadside
With my arms outstretched wide
And in the stance of a beaming beckoner,
Offer with warmth and ready cheer
My fatherly invitation to a frostbitten traveler-
I wish I could always be taken for
The one who beckons travelers to his door.

Oh, if only I could be, could ever be
On a road in some place,
At the foot of some hill,
So that for those who travel
I could be the waiting hut.

Prayer for the New Year

Give me, my God, that kind of happiness
that has no self. Let me gather it like flowers
in other people’s eyes.

Give me, oh Lord, an impersonal joy
which like a child’s sparkler tints
the onlooker’s face.

Give me, oh Lord, an impersonal joy
to hang like ribbons braided with bells
on each door I pass.

Let me build altars out of words
of those I love and echo them
like cymbals of brass.

Give me an impersonal joy
to share like the stars dispersed
across the skies.

Let it be happiness
that does not drown laments
of those in pain

and not the kind of joy confined
within my self alone.
Let every loaf upon my plate be blessed

with a crossed pair of joys.
And like the sun going west
let me spread sunlight, Lord.

Let me lower it on waters
as one lowers nets and plant it
in earth’s furrows like a plow
and like the rain
shower it
over the thirsty crowd.

And having found it, let me stay
the hunter of the ideal. Give me the grace
to know its true worth

like the sailor on the life raft.
Let me gather it from the souls
of common and uncommon man

and give it back.

***

Onward.

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