Yes im anush Hayastani arevaham barn em sirum. I love the sun-baked taste of the Armenian word. This verse, which also serves as the title of a poem Yeghishe Charents wrote in the early 1920s, is recited by Armenians worldwide. Undoubtedly, it is the writer’s most popular poem and has served as a tolling bell to awaken national consciousness, especially during Stalin’s oppressive regime and other times of trouble. Lines from this poem grace the Arch of Charents near Garni overlooking Mount Ararat, the thousand dram note of Armenian currency and the many statues of the poet across Armenia.
Indeed, we are proud, like the character of Murad in the film A Bride from the North (Harstnatsun hiusisits, 1975) who imperiously looks around with his nose touching the heavens, arms folded behind his back, as his wife masterfully milks the Russian neighbor’s recalcitrant cow. We are Murads for Charents, readers who do not separate the poet from his poetry. And how could we, when those poets were, as Stalin himself believed, “engineers of [our] soul”? Except, it was not engineering ex nihilo, but rather unveiling, speaking and (re)membering cultural memory, whether haunting or celebratory, suppressed or amplified. In the laudatory hodgepodge directed at Charents and his work, can a few laurels be spared for his unpublished verse?
The still-resurfacing sensual poems of Charents caused some stir in 2004, when James Russell, Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard, unearthed them from Gevorg Emin’s dusty folders. Emin, Charents’ contemporary, was also a friend of Charents whom he had known since childhood. Russell’s commentary on these verses lived through another brief ruckus in 2008 when it was translated and published in Ink’nagir. We are not a people who easily forgets, and yet, when it comes to Charents’ sexuality, homoerotic verse and the staggering sadness within these concealed poems, we quickly avert our eyes lest any constructed conventions be violated.
Charents’ “Erotic Song” (Էրոտիկ երգ, 1936), for instance, about a young man in cowboy clothes, employs genderbending through the motif of disguise:
Give me the way to your dreams,
O, young man in a womanly guise.
Charents had written this poem on a piece of paper belonging to the publishing house ZAKGIZ (Zakavkazskoe Gosudarstvennoe Izdatel’stvo), where he worked in the late 1930s. This, and other equally controversial poems, are well-hidden secrets that have not infiltrated community or educational institutions whether in Armenia or the diaspora. Charents’ highly metrical verse in these unpublished poems creates a rhythm of lovemaking, and the iambic feet of the syllables (da-DUM, da-DUM) signify a heartbeat that toward the end of the poems become orgasmically rapid.
The same sense of liberation encapsulates Charents’ verses as it does Hafiz’s ghazals about the pesar (young man) and wine. Influenced and emboldened by the latter’s style, it is not coincidental Charents mentions the great Persian poet twice in “Erotic Song.” Hafiz, with his giddily profuse descriptions of same-sex love, is one of the most celebrated poets in the world:
O boy, if you want to gladden my heart
You must give me kisses after serving me wine.
For centuries readers have also looked favorably upon Rumi’s homoerotic verse and Shakespeare’s sonnets addressed to the “fair youth” or as the English bard writes in Sonnet 20, “a man in hue”:
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
Charents was more than a national poet. He was a poet of the revolution, as Marc Nichanian, a professor of Armenian literature at Columbia University, referred to him. A revolution that aside from adhering to the “official” line emanating from Moscow, also voiced the thinkable, but not utterable in an attempt to address social taboos and identity. In his 2012 compilation of Charents’ unpublished poems The Book of Remnants (Girk’ mnatsordats), literary scholar Davit Gasparyan executed his editorial license to redact some of Charents’, according to Gasparyan, “grotesque” vocabulary with the following symbol: <.>. One wonders how the Gasparyans of the world would have acted and reacted if entrusted, for instance, with curating Gustave Courbet’s controversial painting of a woman’s vagina, entitled, “The Origin of the World” (L’Origine du monde, 1866) that hangs gloriously at the Musée d’Orsay.
There is violence in omission and reformulation. Isn’t “Art,” as the American art critic Jerry Saltz says, “one of the greatest operating systems human-beings have ever invented to explore consciousness”?
One can imagine the impact Charents’ hidden poems could have had on youths struggling with their sexuality, who perhaps could have seen in the poet a kindred spirit, felt a bond through his verse or simply considered Charents a grieving friend in a socially oppressive space. But even more importantly, we cannot unimagine the possible positive influence Charents’ controversial poems would have had on the carping tongues that for ages have demonized sexuality and deemed it “profane.”
In the well-regarded poem “The Fool,” Charents writes, “I sing to move your hearts.” In our community, is such a movement of heart still yet to be?
Editor’s Note, March 18, 2021: This article was modified to correct the publication year of Charents’ poem “Yes im anush Hayastani.” In addition, The Book of Remnants was a compilation of Charents’ “unpublished” works.