Saturday, March 10, 2018

Diana Der Hovanessian (1934 – 2018)

      I learned yesterday that my friend, my fellow Armenian, daughter of Kharpert, and a beloved poetic voice, Diana Der Hovanessian passed away on March 1. She was approaching her 84th birthday. It was sad to hear this news. I am forever thankful for her voice and for the kindness she showed me as a young aspiring poet. She was generous with her time and constructive criticism.
     We were in correspondence in the 1980s and early 90s. Then, as is prone to happen and I do mean prone to happen to me, I let the correspondence lag and gradually become nonexistent. We exchanged letters. I sent her my poetry. We spoke several times on the phone. I visited her once at her home in Cambridge. It was the afternoon tea of great memory. I cannot recall what we talked about, but talk we did.
      I wrote a poem for her about visiting her. She wrote a significantly better one right back at me. I have not read either of those for way too long.
     With each passing year and each of her poems read and re-read, I appreciate her talent more than ever. I appreciate the care and craftsmanship of her work. I appreciate the lens and reflection through which she viewed the same world I see. As an Armenian, I appreciate that I can relate to her view while simultaneously not. I am provided with a richness that is hard to describe when I read her work.
     She was a gifted poet for sure. Her body of work, books, and favorable reviews is testimony to this. She was also a gifted translator of poetry. Poetry is ridiculously hard to translate. The essence of good poetry, the imagery and nuances, are tied to the language, cadence, double meanings of words, and that je ne sais quoi of the language in which the poetry is written. Translators often go for a literal translation that results in a translation that looks like a poem visually but is not poetic, only one dimensional, and thus tedious to read. Diana took a different tack based on her unique talent. She translated the poetry into poetry. She reflected the original through her poetic lens. She would create a new poem, a high-quality poem, closely modeled on the original. But, for her to make her translation a stand-alone poem, she had to trade off some of the literal parts of the translation. Some critics dinged her for this. I thought she had basically created a new art form. I loved to read the original and her translation, perhaps a few times each. It enriched both for me. The best example of this for me her book Come Sit Beside Me and Listen to Kouchag: Medieval Poems of Nahabed Kouchag. She has the Armenian on the left-hand page and her translation on the right. I never tire of reading this gem of a book. Her translations have to be read with the original.
     I am sorry that she passed. That sorrow is magnified that I had let our correspondence lag… but I have her poems.

On Not Meeting Mark Gavoor

On the dock at Camp Hayastan
the summer I had gone to teach
the English course on Armenian
poets, I saw you sprawled
on the gray wooden pier. It was
noon and hot. I sighed at
the sight of so many water lilies
blanketing the skin of Uncus Pond.
"You can't pick them. They are
protected," you warned.
Unlike us, I thought. Anyone
who picks these lilies drowns.

But no need to worry. I am not
one who picks anything. Unfortunately
things pick me.

Suddenly you leaped up saying
"Oh, I know you. I hope
you will have a chance to look
at my poems. My name is Mark."

You moved like all the summer
boys I had known in my youth.
You spoke with the voice of all
the mountain poets I had never
heard in our own tongue.

You smiled with the eyes of the son
I would never have. "Mark?
Mark Gavoor?"

"No," you answered and faded into
the noon light. The lilies shrivelled.
Ice formed on Uncus Pond.

Men from Franklin in rough coats cut
it into blocks to pack into straw
on sleighs. Uncus Indians peered
through the trees.

You and I left to cross two continents.
I to say old poems, you to cut them
into new shapes.

Visitation: for Diana Der Hovanessian
to the poet's home
across harvard yard
anticipation meeting
with the daughter of
my grandfather's friend,
a pilgrimage to see
to learn, absorb the
aura of her way

to the poet's home
a tea august afternoon
of melon and madeleines
(bought just for me)
discussing words
and ironies of
working in our
new native tongue

to the poet's home
that ordered clutter
of books and words
in stacks and shelves
a stark and rich
canonical equilibrium
of perfect entropy
balance and awe

to the poet's home...

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