I knew a friend who went on vacation
Without a map to guide himself around.
He did not set out a destination,
And that, suffice to say, he never found.
He wandered carelessly from place to place,
Very casually checking things out.
He took things as they came, at his own pace,
Very casually roaming about.
As time passed, he found he was truly lost.
In panic, he dropped the baggage he brought,
Ran off, and left those he knew with the cost
To pay for remains, and what remained not.
The baggage he left was put in the sod,
Whilst he, my friend, fled to the home of God.
01.18.95 – 02.09.95
Copyright by Minh Tan on listed dated of completion
and published in Perspectives, ISBN 0-9686250-0-2.
Notes to this poem…
Some time in Jan 1995, just after returning to university in the middle of winter in a less than happy time in my life, I heard about the suicide of someone with whom I had gone to school with in junior high and high school, Zaven Malatjalian, whose Grade 7 picture I have in front of me from the year book in 1986 as I write this to make sure I got the spelling of his name correct.
Zaven was a bright kid who got accepted into the Extended Achievement Program at Clayton Park Junior High School, but in the other class to the one I was in. With “brightness” coming in many flavours, from geeky to outright unpredictable, Zaven was closer to the wild side of bright with funky coats and clothes, brightly coloured hair, underage smoking and drinking and such, rather than nerdy geeks like me. Between society’s stereotypes of madness, he’d have been the mad artist rather than the mad genius like some people were in those classes, though I don’t mean to be judgmental in any negative way. I’m just trying to paint a quick character sketch of what little I knew of the guy, and the impressions I had of him upon which I wrote the poem rather than having done research on him. He was an acquaintance to me rather than a friend in the true sense of the word because our worlds didn’t overlap, not because he didn’t care or such. That was how little I knew of him from which to write a poem on such a heavy matter as his death.
Unfortunately, nonconformity was what Zaven seemed to like to conform to and he later fell out of the more traditional academically challenging classes in high school, though was still bright for his artistic abilities like in English and arts classes. He was still cool in the eyes of many of the students, but maybe not in their worlds because his world seemed to have a little more alcohol, and probably drugs, than theirs. It was just a different world than most of the people I knew lived in, and definitely miles away from the world I lived in for lifestyle as I didn’t even drink by choice.
Regardless, death is death to me and when I heard of Zaven’s suicide after almost 4 years of not having heard from him since we left high school. It would have been easily to jump to stereotypical conclusions and not be surprised it ended that way for Zaven, almost as if too brilliant for his own good, or as if some addict who couldn’t take it any more, but I didn’t, and I am glad I didn’t. I recall stopping myself to appreciate the fact I didn’t and happy I wasn’t that type of person who did such things. Instead, the news hit me hard and the emotional response it triggered in me was as strong as any I had for writing poetry to that point, also being of the sad variety I seem to thrive on in writing poetry, and out of that came this sonnet, for which I determined the form before writing a word for the beauty of the form being most appropriate for my tribute to Zaven.
While the sonnet was about Zaven, I chose not to compose the sonnet with his name in it. I wanted to write partly about suicide and the state I had perceived Zaven to have been in over the years that I did not think was unique, but somewhat typical of some of those quick character sketches I had alluded to previously. However, there was a real possibility I had not understood Zaven correctly, not having known him well in the first place, that to pin the error of my perceptions on him by having his name within the poem would have been utmost inappropriate… not that I had any intentions to rhyme Malatjalian, either, with Zaven being difficult enough as it were whether you read it ZAven or ZaVEN. So resulted the sonnet tribute to a person but without inclusion of a name.
As for what I was trying to convey, I relied on some language I learned from Emily Dickinson with the sod and God rhyming in the last two lines. I thought of the real and responsible life as being baggage for Zaven, in a way, and the metaphor opened itself up to his life being a vacation with the way he just went about life checking out everything. It was a free spirit I admired, actually, whereas my traditional upbringing and my Parents would have condemned it. Still, despite my admiration for Zaven’s free spirit, I didn’t lead a similar lifestyle because I did not believe one could be so carefree, almost to the point of being reckless for which I could have easily condemned Zaven and his lifestyle, and succeed. I’m not saying I’m right here, just what I was believing to be the odds of how things would turn out most of the time under such circumstances.
So I looked at the way Zaven lived as being someone being on vacation, full-time vacation, just checking out whatever he wanted and doing whatever he wanted, didn’t know where he was going and never finding that destination in terms of stability in his life, some place and lifestyle to settle into. As for the suicide, that was like the panic reaction when he realized he was lost in life, which, I know, is all my projection and we could debate endlessly, or those who knew Zaven might say otherwise, but now you understand why I had left his name out of it.
And in the panic? Well, I drew the metaphor to Zaven dropping the baggage that was his body, the material form of his life while his spirit “ran off”, as so many people believe about the afterlife that one’s life spirit escapes the body. In doing so, Zaven left those he knew with the “cost”, which was meant to be physical as in funeral arrangements by his Parents, and emotional costs with the rest of those who knew him. There was also the metaphor for what did not remain that was part of the cost we all had to pay, which was Zaven the person himself.
The final two lines was then just talking about the burial to put the body in the ground and Zaven’s soul finding its way home to God as a lot of religious texts like to say. I just borrowed something akin to Emily Dickinson’s language for that phrase as she was and still is my favourite poet and she wrote enough things in that style on the same sorts of topics for death, burial, heaven, spirit, and so on. I am not religious, and definitely not Christian, but God is a “convenient” way to write about the afterlife in a religious context most of the people living around me in Canada would appreciate. Of course, I’m not after “convenience” as much as leaving the issue about whatever it is I tie to religion in my poetic writings, rather than bringing up my issues with religion unless the poem were explicitly about that, which you will see some later.
Despite of hearing about Zaven’s death prior to his funeral, I did not attend it. I just grieved in my own way in writing this sonnet, which I have never shared with his family, nor anyone who has ever known him, I don’t think. I only remember a mutual schoolmate from the junior high days, Susan Brown, mentioning the news of Zaven’s death to me in the Dalhousie Chemistry Department student help centre in early 1995, and then also informing me after attending his funeral when our paths crossed again some time later. I still have a snap shot of each of those moments in my head. But because she was the only connection I had to the event, I am quite certain I had never shown this sonnet to anyone who knew Zaven. I reacquainted myself with a much closer friend of Zaven, Paula Brown (no relation to Susan), many years later, but we never really talked about it. Paula was about as close to Zaven as anyone I knew was, and for many years, too.
The final obvious question is that without having shared this poem with anybody to whom it might have mattered, what would I do with it now. Well, nothing, although it does have low probability of being noticed. I have this blog linked up to my Facebook profile where at least a dozen people who knew Zaven might see it on the news feed to let it be known yet another poem had been imported into my profile. Whether any of them would care to read these poems, and then these notes which are hidden so as not to spoil potential meanings for the poem readers, I will let Fate take its course there. I’ve helped the poem stay obscure, though, by making notes late on a Friday night, with intention to note more poems early Saturday morning so it all slips by inconspicuously. If some of these people who knew Zaven do notice it and want to share it with others, I will let them, but I won’t bring it up myself and just let the matter stay rested. It only came up again in my life as I went to do this personal project to annotate my poems. Otherwise, it would have remained at rest like it most probably is for everyone else Zaven and I would have known from our past.
As a side note, before I end with some words in tribute to Zaven, if you wanted to get an idea of what my life was like in Jan 1995, just look at what I said about having favourite poems in 006, Sonnet IV and Sonnet V, all about idealized love without real life subject in a loveless life and all completed in Jan 1995, interspersed with composition of this sonnet that was my first poem dealing with death. Even in my “escape” that was poetry writing, I was riding an emotional roller coaster.
So all that said, in closing, I’d just like to say that Zaven, that poem was for you. May you and your soul rest in peace that you never seemed to have found during your time here on Earth. I know I can speak for others when I say that you made a favourable impression upon many of us despite what some might have said of you, and for your life, we will never forget you.
Please click here to see the only ten sonnets I have ever written.