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Shushanik Kurghinian

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Why we should read...

`I Want to Live: Poems of Shushanik Kurghinian' Translated by Shushan Avagyan, AIWA Press, 2005 `Shushanik Kurghinian: Selected Works' (Yerevan, 1982)

Armenian News Network / Groong February 27, 2006

By Eddie Arnavoudian


`Soar high rather than walk, no matter that you may fall. Those that fall from heights never lie prostrate for long.' (p339)

Shushanik Kurghinian (1876-1927) was an outstanding poet. But she has received little or no recognition. Although also a socialist with some stirring poems of labour's rebellion to her name, she remained a dim star even in the Soviet era. Today she is almost unknown, ostracized from the literary canon in Armenia and the Diaspora. Yet she is decidedly a poet for our day. Those `noble thoughts' that she `hanged as lanterns' `in the darkness without limit' of her own time still shine brightly today. So a hearty thanks to Shushan Avagyan whose recent English translation of Kurghinian (S Kurghinian. I Want to Live: Poems of Shushanik Kurghinian. Trans. S. Avagyan. AIWA Press, 2005) enables us to survey an extraordinarily diverse poetic landscape that, alas, even when acknowledged, has suffered the misfortune of being flattened to a single monotone dimension.

* * * * *

Shushanik Kurghinian is indivisibly a free spirit, a free woman, a total rebel and an uncompromising revolutionary. To reduce her, or her poetry, to any one or the other is to disfigure her. Yes, she is a proud individual, `a free eagle' with `wings of storm' `reaching for the infinite' (IWL 53). Though individualist, she is simultaneously collectivist, with `a place in her heart for all', for:

`Whoever is without hope, dulled, without spirit, alone and lacking faith... bring them to me my spirit is free I will give them of my soul...' (Selected Works, 1982 Yerevan p260)

Kurghinian considers herself a loyal member of the common people' ready to `bear the same great cross,' and strive for the same `universal goal.' Indeed she was herself of humble and impoverished origin. Yet, `tempered on the anvil of (the) dark days' of childhood and youth she developed an `immense confidence' in the future. Talented, had she chosen to, she could have entered the ranks of those who `hold the power and own the gold'. They indeed tried to seduce her with promises of a life `ever so peaceful, secure' and far from `the filthy abodes of the ignorant masses'. (SA4) But the poet chose to remain alongside the `selfless and proud workers' who `struggle for existence stoically'.

Kurghinian asserts her right to be a free woman. But having resolved the `disputes of (her) gender' she remains intent on jointing men, `hand in hand' in the `fight against the agonies of life'. (SA21) She is a revolutionary opposed to inequality and injustice, but never a dogmatic party preacher. She is above all an indomitable spirit. `Nothing can conquer' her `mind's flight', or her `faith so colossal' and her love that is `incessant'. Her commitment to life is as total as is her persona:

`To live one must give one's all, strength, passion, enthusiasm, the days of one's youth; be fearless before pain, with tears restrained, unable to smile, yet still ready to love and to care.' (SW 339)

Lending enhanced resonance to her work is a universality that is unmediated by any significant reference to particular nationality, to national history, tradition or state. Armenia, Russia, Tsar, Ottoman Empire and Sultan providing a silent context for her poetry are virtually absent from her vocabulary. Neither masses nor individuals have names that would attach them to a nation or religious group. The starting point for her imaginative engagement is an overwhelming sensibility for a common human destiny irrespective of nationality, race, religion or gender.

It is this quality of universality and indivisible totality that makes Kurghinian's legacy unpalatable for many in Armenia or the Diaspora. Her poetry does not tolerate any oppression or any illicit restraint on freedom. It stands as an accusation against anyone who tries to cover over any dirty cornerstone, any rotten pillar or questionable foundation of the world they inhabit.


`For you who live enslaved to the dark I with my path have left a sign numerous rings of my shackles when they crumbled blossomed into lilacs. (SW 213)

Fuelling Kurghinian's rebel spirit is a passion for reason and enlightenment. Images of the dawn, of light and sunlight appear and reappear as metaphors for intellect and thought contesting the ignorance and prejudice that cement tyranny in place. It is when `embracing the light of the dawn' that she weaves and sings her `songs of revolt.' For her artistic endeavour serves to create light with which to subvert the darkness of unreason:

`Poet, strike, strike your pen to the paper anvil hammer and shape humankind's firm thoughts let the sparks fly from the fires of your heart in this darkness let them shine free and give light.' (SW 217)

The spark and indeed the flames from Kurghinian's poetry struck most trenchantly, consistently and ceaselessly against the establishment of the Christian Church that she witnessed as an unwavering bastion of political tyranny and social oppression. The Christian cross is rejected as a `four edged weapon of the exploiters' and the Christian preacher as an agent of state oppression working `to appease his flock' with `fake sermons given at whim'. (IWL 53) The Church reduces people to a life annihilating humbleness, dependence and passivity, teaching them only how to `bow... passionately before the invisible power of cross' and to `beg, beg and eternally beg for mercy and salvation'. (SW 255)

Living in a mixed Christian-Muslim world Shushanik Kurghinian witnessed Mosque and Church in the same role as instruments of women's oppression and social slavery. So she cast a curse on both:

`Let the flames consume the four-winged cross. born in dishonour, let it perish so let the Crescent ` spirit of vengeful passion with a single blow be felled from the sharp domed minaret' (SW 232)

And she hoped that from the ruins that remained, from `the bell and the chain, the crescent and the cross', `weapons' for revolt `would be fashioned'. (SW 271) Such unrelenting criticism of the Church was a feature of all her poetry whether of social revolution or women's emancipation.

Yet for all her unyielding hostility to organised religion, Kurghinian readily employed Christian imagery to design her vision of secular emancipation. For Yeghishe Charents, perhaps the only other Armenian poet of stature with poetry as unflinchingly anti-Christian as Kurghinian's, it would have been inconceivable to rework religious metaphor into a socialist vision. With Kurghinian in contrast images of a secularised Jesus, of the social revolutionary as a Christ-like saviour of humanity appear as central components. The symbolisms of suffering on the cross, redemption and release are deployed albeit with a secular bent. In opposition to the Christian Cross that is condemned as:

`...the tool appropriated so well for endless falsehoods, lewd hypocrisy, designed for trampling relentlessly any possible desire of an indigent race.' (IWL 53)

Kurghinian posits a secular cross in the form of the state's gallows: `here is our crucifix, this black shameful post.' In opposition to the Christian Jesus she posits the secular social revolutionary about to be executed: `he the child of this new light, paving a passage to freedom.' Such imagery certainly gives her poems an added dimension that in her time they would also have been more effective for communicating with the Armenian masses still imbued deeply with Christian faith.

Kurghinian's assault on the Church is one, though not the only, important reason the Armenian Diaspora's indifference to her legacy. In the Diaspora, after all, the Church occupied a pivotal social and cultural position. Credit therefore Mesrop Janashian, a Mekhitarist monk, but also a literary historian who in spite of Kurghinian's views on religion offered an appreciation of her poetry more authentic than the contemptuous dismissal meted out by some secular Diaspora critics.


`No, my free winged rebel spirit will not become an owl among your ruins.' (SW 208)

When Kurghinian turns her pen against illicit privilege it is against the hedonistic rich of any nationality who `in the darkness of night', even as `sorrow spreads over the earth', strive to `compete with the heavenly lights' of the skies. While the world wallows in darkness and poverty the light from the chandeliers of their mansions reveals a world dominated by `sated faces' whose `consciences are as hard as rock' and `hearts forever dark.' They `celebrate and amuse' themselves at the expense of the ordinary folk, from any nation, who down below built their palaces:

`...where each stone has its history of forlorn skulls crushed beneath, were every brick is soaked in blood and drops of bitter sweat.' (IWL 35)

Here poetry focuses no the life of the common people for whom existence is a desert that destroys all that is beautiful, that forces its victims to act against their better natures, against their life enhancing, loving instincts: mothers abandon their children (IWL 89), women turn to prostitution (IWL 99, 111), families sell their children into marriage and men degenerate to drink (IWL 33). Against this life, against such a society that `decorates every hope with thorns' Kurghinian calls the `best of all races and religions' to `honest struggle'. (SW 353)

Kurghinian's poetry of social protest evokes the powerful tension, pain and tragedy in all clashes between progress and reaction. In `Take Back Your Cross' as the site for the imminent execution of a socialist revolutionary is prepared on a vast windswept plain where the `frozen ground' `stretches beneath the solid coat of ice', as the posts are hammered into place and the gallows fixed, the past and the future stand `in silence, face to face...' The sombre menacing mood is captured in descriptions of executioners and their victim:

`Etched upon the steppe's white chest like scars from healed wounds, those black lines, silent and fierce, herald an urgency, a terrible unease.' (IWL 45)

A Christian priest with `frigid cross held in a senile hand' plays his assigned role hoping to bring the revolutionary to contrition. But the social revolutionary has nothing but contempt for a Cross that is a `tarnished key' used to `hold nations under lock', that assists the state in `gruesome massacre' and that is guilty of `the murder of (the) innocent'.

In its dreadful imagery `Take Back Your Cross!' captures something of the essence of tyranny the world over, past and present. The `rebel soldier' being strapped to the gallows even as his `tortured', `mutilated body' is `limbless, soaked in blood' and `webbed in wounds' movingly recalls the last hours of James Connolly, leader of the 1916 Irish Uprising who was executed by British forces in similar circumstances. Tyranny's unchanging determination `to uproot and strangle' `the last germs' of any `insurgent resistance' reminds also of Pinochet's rampant barbarism against the Chilean people in 1973.

Kurghinian's socialist poetry has particular quality that marks it off, even makes it unique. It is unbending in its will `to hurl aside' the foundations of the old and `install instead the new, the free and the self-determined'. But in this determination and will there is no exaltation of violence, no glorification of armed struggle, even when these are suggested as necessary. The stubbornness of revolutionary will is formidable, but it comes with no brutal edge. Steely determination is weaved together, always, with the profoundly generous and humane.

One would have expected such socialist universalism to secure Kurghinian a place in the Soviet literary canon at least. But despite some of the best poems of social revolution bearing her signature her poetry would not fit into templates produced by apparatchiks who droned meaningless and vulgar about the leading role of the party in life and revolution. In her poetry of struggle Kurghinian's protagonists are the masses not the Party or Party Cadre. In `The Workers Are Coming' that records a moment of the 1905 revolution in Tsarist Russia, it is only the masses that appear marching out of `centuries of deprivation and misery'. It is they, not the Party, who will `break the glory of the ruler' and take down `the crown of tyranny ` the chain of enslavement' so as to `open up a new path for our kind', the path of equality. (SW 268)

Within the mass movement it is the revolutionary individual not the official party leader who personifies conscious and determined intellect and will. The socialist revolutionary about to be executed, in `Take Back Your Cross,' is of no identified party, movement or nationality. He is a universal, even Christ-like, figure:

`...the child of humanity, rebel soldier against unjust dominion (who), rose to the gallows to save his own kind. (IWL 47)

This stress on the masses rather than the Party has something of Rosa Luxembourg's paean to mass spontaneity that was sufficient to displease the Soviet bureaucrat who distrusted the masses. In his biography of the more orthodox/communist poet Hakob Hakobian Soviet Armenian Marxist literary critic S A Manoukyan confirms this displeasure when he, in passing, protests that:

`For a long time the talented poet S Kurghinian was not given her rightful place among the representatives of Armenian proletarian poetry and was regarded as `a poet of the revolution' (ie the masses) but not a `proletarian poet' (ie the party).'

Perhaps also counted against Kurghinian by critics of unsubtle and motionless mind was the fact that the word socialism rarely features in her socialist poetry.


`There are no bonds to chain my soul or tame the heavenly flame within my heart my dreams are impregnable fires of strength and nobody can subdue my song.' (IWL 53)

If Shushanik Kurghinian offended the Diaspora establishment with her opposition to the Church and the Soviet authorities with her faith in the masses that they detested, she offended both simultaneously in her self-affirmation as a free woman of intellect, passion and action. Both as individual and woman she refused to be tamed by law or society that she judged unjust and to `fulfil (her) ...dissident desires' was ready to `bear the cruelties of life' (SA16). Dominant among these `dissident desires' was the emancipation of women and their right to intellectual fulfilment, ambitions foreign to both the establishment in Soviet Armenian society and the Diaspora too.

It may perhaps be significant that the poems in which Kurghinian does refer directly to Armenian identity are those about Armenian women whose `fortunes are grim' and whose `suffering is unending'. Armenian women have to endure the `slavery of being born a girl' (IWL 77). Their `only lot in life was to `eat, sleep and give birth'. `A delicate May rose' the Armenian girl comes to have have her `pretty face threaded with wrinkles'. The glint `will vanish' `from her dark eyes' and having obediently served her master she will `pass away unknown':

`Who were you, what was your essence? That - only the grave will know...' (IWL 77)

In this annihilation of women's living self and character the Church, once again, plays a nefarious role. Its venal and hypocritical priest gives his blessing to an arranged marriage that will destroy a girl's life. Though still `with a childlike smile on her lucid face' she is `sold...for a good price':

`Did she come of her own will? Asked the tipsy pastor with a cajoling smile' and as if hearing the answer, recalled the cassock, a gift from the groom...' (IWL 63)

Though she knows `not how to cry' the poet cannot but weep on witnessing how Armenian women `lose themselves' in prayer and `erode their souls' `kissing the chapel's holy-cross stone'.

Other Armenian writers have also tried to react against the oppression of women. But none were as firm in the accusation and the summoning to revolt. `Enough!' Kurghinian proclaims, `that the sparks in my eyes are dimmed by the endless flow of salty tears'. Enough, that women are `forgotten and defenceless within four walls'. `Enough, that doors are locked before us.' (IWL 73) So she calls on women `to unite' in the struggle for equality, for the right to be `powerful and headstrong', `fit against calamities, ingenious in mind, with bodies full of vigour.' Like men, she too wants:

` love, unreserved, without a mask, self-willed like you, so that when in love I can sing my feelings to the world and unchain my heart - a woman's heart ... with all my vigour unrestrained!' (IWL 67)

Preoccupied overwhelmingly with the dispossessed woman, with the abandoned and impoverished, Kurghinian in her feminist poetry offers other distinctive features that have contemporary resonance. She refuses to become be a `hostage of artificial beauty', and scorns its `rouge and beauty aids'. She pities the `captives' to the fashion industry that produces women:

`...whose Thoughts are lost in folds of velvet' (IWL 61)

Beyond this rejection of an exploitative feminisation of women that even today is passed off as liberation she insists that emancipation is possible only in a society that is free of all other oppressions. So women must also `partake' alongside men in that `great and holy fight' against any unjust order.'

`I want to fight, first as your rival, standing against you with an old vengeance, that absurdly and without mercy you turned me into a vassal through love and force.' (IWL 69)

But thereafter she is determined to continue the fight `hand in hand' for the right of all people, men and women `to be or not to be'. In this struggle women's participation is a necessary condition. Let men `not be so insolent', without women `they won't achieve any goal, they'll fall apart.'

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Shushanik Kurghinian's work had no substantial affinity with modern Armenian nationalist preoccupatons. It reflects little of the endeavour for national revival, for national liberation and for the patriotism so common among many of her Armenian contemporaries. This also perhaps contributes to her lack of popularity among an Armenian intelligentsia consumed by a sometimes flawed and questionable nationalism. Despite this, Kurghinian's art is deeply rooted in an Armenian poetic tradition. One can see on it the firm imprint of classical folklore. In its form, its language, its diction and sensibility there is an authentic Armenian core. In the music and intonation of her poetry one can hear the chords and feel the moods of Hovanness Toumanian, Vahan Derian, Avetik Issahakian and even of earlier genius troubadours such as Sayat Nova. In fact, she wrote of her influences in her autobiography:

`Our family had two devout pastimes: first was music, father played the tar and saz, and we sang from Hafiz and Sayat Nova; second was the Bible, we read the Gospels as though it were divine poetry.'

One notes also in her poetry affinities in themes with Rouben Sevak, Taniel Varoujean and Missak Medzarents.

Kurghinian's poetry is nevertheless distinguished by its own refined artistry. She is a master wordsmith, her language is studied and her chosen word or phrase glistens as if tipped in the flow of her own emotion. She writes with no affectation, no hectoring. Everything that is said is said with intent, with directness and with simplicity. Her best poems, flawless in pace, rhythm, sound and musicality, flow unforced, with no artifice. Simplicity and musicality are enjoined with a facility for metaphor and image conjured by a tender, caressing imagination. Emotion and thought are always in harmony, passion rages but intellect always retains its rightful place.

Besides the equilibrium of emotion and reason, nature, in its freedom, its power, its vibrancy, is ever present as inspiration for contemplating individual and social ambition, for meditating upon individual potential and collective capacity. `The Waves' (IWL 87) is a stunning metaphor of social revolution, as they lap against the overpowering cliffs that always seem to enjoy the first `virginal rays of dawn, so pure' while they down below `coil' like beggars' `till the sun graces (them) with a beam.' (IWL 87) Needless to say Kurghinian's poetry of nature was more than just metaphor. Her depictions of hills, seas, rivers open fields and skies assert a human unity with nature and enable us to simply delight in nature's wonder.

In some significant ways Shushanik Kurghinian's poetry with its gentle and tender compassion for ordinary people has something of the Woody Guthrie about it, displaying that deep and warm solidarity for the lives of fellow human beings. Of her legacy one can write what she wrote of herself. Even though `the years stand witness to the pain that has been lived' her `heart has not a single scar, not a single wrinkle'. Her poetry remains a freshest reservoir of `vast enthusiasm' that she is eager `to share with all.'

`I am a free eagle - soaring high, there is a place in my heart for all, However, I resent the ones who crawl, but am ready with my life for the rebel.' (IWL 53)

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