IALA x h-pem | The Once-Man
April 04, 2022 - October 02, 2022
What Taleen Sahakian does with imagery is astounding. In her poem, "The Once-Man," the reader is introduced to a mysterious creature with a cryptic message. What at first seems like a fantasy tale about an imaginary beast turns into a parable about an act of violence so deplorable, it burns "all the love in the world to the ground." The Once-Man is a symbol of loss in its most profound form, in the form of mass annihilation of a group of people. Sahakian alludes to our history, highlights the terrors our ancestors experienced but also reminds us of the power of storytelling. This poem comes from an imaginative mind, a curious soul and a lover of symbolism. Ms. Sahakian succeeds in creating an unforgettable character in The Once-Man.
Commentary provided by YAPA contest judge Armine Iknadossian
As I strolled through the shadows of the sands and the rock,
I stopped quite suddenly for fear of my life.
In the deep deep mist was a rough-stained creature
With eyes black yet golden with oil and sand and tears.
I crept my way around this ill and grimy thing,
But as I turned my head to flee, a hand grabbed my arm and cried,
“My love! My love! Oh, where have they taken—”
My heart fell down the stairs of my chest.
I shook my head to say I haven’t quite a clue.
But maybe she was lost in the night…
I sit with the creature now as it keeps me in view,
Slowly clenching its jaw and taking loud breaths.
“What are you?” I ask.
And the creature responds.
“I am the Once-Man, with hands of claw and soul of muck.
Which were once hands of wild flower and spirit of bees.
With eyes of dried mud that used to be flames.
With teeth of stone that were once made of strength.
With a heart that was once whole but is now broken like my people.
I am the Once-Man, for now I am nothing.”
“What happened?” I question.
“They came and broke us, of course!”
“They steal from you?”
“Tore from us.”
“Split you up?”
“And slaughtered us.”
“And your love you said—”
“Burned all the love in the world to the ground.”
“And how did you li—”
“I did not, young boy.
I am the Once-Man, aren’t I?”
ARS Armenian School
North York, ON
15 years old
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“We all need a destination in which we might envision our work living.” In these words, Alan Semerdjian, Founder and Director of Young Armenian Poets Awards once again turns to h-pem to find an “authentic audience” for IALA’s (International Armenian Literary Alliance) annual awards.
These are turbulent times! While the soul of our nation is in turmoil, IALA taps into young talent and invites them to self-reflect by posing existential questions that beg for answers:
How can poetry serve as a bridge between Armenia and the over five million persons of full or partial Armenian ancestry living outside it today? What kinds of conversations might be necessary between Armenians and the world or across the diaspora itself?
Straight insights are not easy to come by. Yet, it’s fascinating to see how the young awardees dig deep into the topic and bring their own unique perspectives laced with symbolism, fantasy, and elegy. Fraught with the conflicts we all mediate internally, they guide us with empathy, love, and the hope of renewal.
Check out Semerdjian's whirling introduction to the 2022 YAPA below.
Follow the links in the article for a hauntingly beautiful poetic conversation we would all desire, especially during this critical and somber time in our history.
What happens to our connection with a home after we have left? This question haunts the elegiac explorations of “In Memory of the Country We Once Recalled.” Bookended by a dialogic line of longing—“You haven’t returned home in years”—the poem explores the meaning of a home laced with loss and love. The idea of home is, in this case, Armenia, yet the poet’s specific rendering of that home points to universal tensions relatable to anyone who has ventured toward unknowns. Whether in a new town, state, or country, there looms the inescapable shadows of the past—the people, the places, the possibilities—that facilitated leaving and establishing a new home where traces of the old echo. If home is the lingering shadow, then we’re inspired to ask: What does home even mean? Perhaps it’s a history to preserve, or a prison of paralyzing nostalgia, or something between those polarities. In the Armenian experience of countless migratory waves, definitions of home face assimilation pressures in the new setting. “And somehow, in our youthful innocence,” the poet observes, “we / replaced culture with rapture / Baklava and lahmajoun morphing all too quickly / into cupcakes and Domino’s Pizza.” Cuisine is not the only cultural idiom distorted by the dynamics of migration. Annual visits to Armenia render the homeland a mere “tourist destination,” where the mayrenik is “Straining under the weight of a new, more developed, homeland.” As a painter layers color, here the poet layers identity with “homeland” as a term both firm yet fluid, as something that can be layered, mixed, and morphed by forces beyond one’s control. Through cuisine and tourism, the poem builds to a striking moment where the desire and need to assimilate cannot escape the internalizing of cultural erasure. Writes the poet: “We ask / mama and papa to ‘please speak in English / when my friends are here’ So that our cheeks don’t blush / pomegranate red in humiliation.” This line shows the poet’s powerful capacity to confront efforts to conform with a dominant culture that simultaneously reveal an inner “pomegranate red” essence that no amount of assimilation can erase. We do not know why the person with whom the poet converses, presumably the poet’s mother, left Armenia, or what economic hardships, political pressures, or regional conflicts she sought to escape. Her disconnect—physicalized with “lips recoiling, disgusted,”—point to a justifiable need to let go of what was in order to embrace what is and what can be. And yet for the youth, like the poet, caught in such calculations, these lines of separation are hazy. In this obscure space, the poet mines the riches of these tensions, using the pen to stake a compelling claim: “my home is no longer hers.”
Commentary provided by YAPA contest judge Raffi Joe Wartanian
“my letter to the missed armenian” is a moving elegy for a fallen Armenian soldier, maybe during the Artsakh conflict, whose slow dissolution moves the speaker toward lamentation. It is a gravepoem, a poem that describes how death unloosens the body bit by bit into disappearance. Impressively, the poem’s structure magnifies our perception of an impending absence. The large blank spaces that surround the poem and migrate into it, the gaps already floating inside some of the lines, the lack of punctuation and strict margins, all add to our sense of an emptiness taking hold. It’s as if the poem itself were dissipating, though not before startling us with its imagery and phrasing and heightening the possibilities of language. How unusual it is to describe a bloody death as “red ink” written on the grass; no one, perhaps, has described war as a “taunt ill”; and in one of the best passages of the poem, the speaker’s willingness to sacralize the soldier’s death takes an incantatory tone: “i’ll / sing your fingerprints / i’ll / publish a common book / and control the blasts of / blanched clouds.” It is a poem that locates the departures and absences that Armenians have historically endured squarely in the death of one Armenian soldier, the all residing in the one, the past merging into the present. Finally, this empathic communion between the then and the now which the speaker feels on the skin gives the poem a final hopeful tone: that the body returning to the earth seeds it for a second renewal, and all that has been left unsaid might appear again like a new flowering of words on the tongue.
Commentary provided by YAPA contest judge Gregory Djanikian.
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