Once There Was and Never Was

For Poetry Month, Naz Arabaghian offers this poem from Forgotten Bread, an anthology of first-generation Armenian American writing (edited by David Kherdian, Heyday Press, 2007).

Diana Der-Hovanessian (photo by Karen Antashyan)

The Armenian American poet Diana Der-Hovanessian (1934-2018), who was twice a Fulbright professor of American poetry and an award-winning author of more than 20 books of poems and translations, has been a fixture on my “reread again and often” list. Along with other poets of the Armenian diaspora (the 2016 Pulitzer recipient Peter Balakian, David Kherdian, Helene Pilibosian, Harold Bond [Bondjoukian], and Gregory Djanikian immediately come to mind), Der-Hovanessian’s work permeates with longing and loss, remembrance and renewal; her poems are palimpsests on which the twentieth-century genocide of the Armenian people has left its traumatic imprint. I’m always struck by how a misleadingly whimsical poem like “Once in a Village” coalesces snippets of history (Tadem, the tale of its fate “too terrible to tell”) with fragments of folklore (the incantatory “Once there was, and never was,” the woods, a mysterious king), details from borrowed proverbial wisdom (the speaker’s grandmother’s stories) with reports of rumored atrocities (burning villages, orphaned children, a lonely boy noticing how “goats, the school, the children,/their teacher, the church,/priest and parish disappeared/in a terrible way”), narrative convention with lyrical concision.

Once in a Village

Once there was, and never was,
my grandmother’s stories began
the way all Armenian fairytales
begin: Once there was
and never was, a village,
at the end of the woods,
a small village roofed
with cranes and smoke.

Once there was, and never was,
at the foot of a mountain
a village called Tadem,
where everyday, a shepherd boy
passed the house of a woodsman
at the edge of the town.
The woodsman lived there with
his wife and little girl.
And when the boy took his goats
to graze, the girl would watch
secretly from a window, making
up names for the goats, and the boy.
She was not the daughter of the woodsman
and his wife, but had been sent
to live with them by her real father
a mysterious king, with a mysterious name.

Once there was, and never was,
a village with a shepherd boy,
and a witch’s curse. In this village
lived a woodsman, his wife
and an orphan girl who thought
she was the daughter of a nameless king.

Years passed and the king never came
to take home his little girl
and so she was sent far away
to America to marry.

And after she was gone the boy felt lonely
and unwatched. But not for long
because a strange thing happened.
His goats, the school, the children,
their teacher, the church,
priest and parish disappeared
in a terrible way. Too terrible to tell.

One morning there was an Armenian village
that turned into a Turkish fire.

Once there was or never was
a little girl who thought
she was the lost daughter
of a lost king who would go back
for her and thank everyone
in that village for taking care
of her. He would thank woodsman,
priest, teacher, baker, shoemaker,
children, tillers in the fields
for singing their songs for her.
And she would go with him
to thank them for being her friends.
But they disappeared.
Once in a village, a rooster crowed
and no one stirred.
Once there was a village
with wild hedges, a goat boy who never grew up
and a princess who never woke.