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Life Line as a Skyscraper
translated by Sean Cotter and Ioana Ieronim
The March to the Stars
translated by Adam Sorkin with the author
All published by Vinea Press
by Robert Murray Davis
American poets find it difficult enough to reach an audience; poets translated into English find it almost impossible unless their work and lives have been subject to political censorship and persecution. Since 1989, poets in Central and Eastern Europe don't even have that going for them. Fortunately, U.S. publishers such as White Pine and Northwestern University Press continue to publish some of this work in translation, and now Vinea Press (named in honor of the Romanian Dadaist-Constructivist Ion Vinea) joins the effort in trying to present Romanian poets in English.
The poets in the first four volumes released by Vinea represent as broad a spectrum as possible of recent Romanian poetry: there's Nicolae Tzone's long-line surrealist poems; Mihai Ursachi's sometimes vatic and sometimes Biblical utterances; Ioana Ieronim's allusive meditations on love and on the experience of the new world; and Saviana Stănescu's even more allusive, sometimes intensely autobiographical poems, which elude the label "confessional" as they simply note details rather than agonize over them.
Although three poets cannot be said to constitute a trend, Ursachi, Ieronim, and Stănescu have lived in the U.S., know English, and in the last two cases have even begun to write in English. Ieronim and Stănescu, the editors of Vinea and based respectively in Bucharest and New York, clearly realize the importance of American readership—and perhaps envision New York as replacing or at least rivaling Paris as the Valhalla of the Romanian émigré artist. Of course, poems are more significant than trends or schools, and these four poets constitute no school. An illusion of order can be imposed by moving from present concerns and methods backward, not in time but in terms of the authors' sources of inspiration.
The ten poems of Saviana Stănescu's "Tristia: Letters of a Barbarian Woman" contrast the classical male Ovid who carries a pen with the female voice who carries a dagger and asks him to "teach me the amateur the barbarian / the language of your thoughts"; she later contests his view that he has "authored" her,
you've claimed the copyright
of my thoughts and registered
ownership of my desires
as the writer
of my body text
Most of Google Me! depends not only on new technology but on the new world. In the concluding poem, "roMANIA," Stănescu admits that "I wear [my country] all the time / like a hat glued / to my brain" and begs to be left alone because "I want to start / Living." In the title poem, she begins "I had to move into another language / Mine was too small too poor too lazy / Too beautiful but self-destructive / In an old-fashioned romantic way"; perhaps she'll "live a full life / In English without subtitles."
Like Stănescu's poems, Ioana Ieronim's have only question marks at their ends when they have terminal punctuation at all. And New York City is also central to her new vision, in which a poet "from Ovid's city on the Black Sea" gathers disciples from all over the world to search for Eurdiyke "ALL the way back" and to "re-emerge // in this vertical territory of co-incidence, this home to voices / from whole continents... one timeless ditty / in the depths of wilderness in the heart of New York." Throughout the title sequence, New York stands for an energy that is both vital—its pulse reaching "deeper / into the planet's slow / sleepy body"—and threatening:
man's buildings rooted down into the rock
cut the life line
in the palm of the sky
in which charlatans as well as wise men
are reading—the end of the world of course
Ieronim's love poems are not grouped per se, but in the end they seem even more satisfying than her formal sequences. In "The Threshold," lovers "reenact the world's beginning"; her "Valentine," is enjoined to "look out of the window as if for the first time / and look at me as if for the first time." More passionately, in "Charm," "our bodies have burnt several lives," and the poet wonders whether they will leave "this paradise of / Oneness... / painlessly / wrapped in oblivion." Perhaps "Being Read" can be seen as addressed to any reader rather than to a lover, but in the end the distinction is not clear, for "Never have I thus felt this book to be mine / never this terror /of being read // the terror of being."
At least two of Mihai Ursachi's poems deal with migration—not to America, where he actually spent nine years as a political exile, but to the Sun, which in "Migration" is an idyllic place to build a hut and sounds rather like Yeats's "Lake Isle of Innisfree." "No new song seems possible on our planet... let's take our rucksack and shove off for the Sun," away from the sluggish Bahuli that runs, clogged with oil, through his home in Iaşi. Elsewhere, Ursachi is even more expansive, linking himself with artists, languages, media, and catastrophes in all ages because "every speck lost in the extragalactic / void, in the worlds of Anti-Being, carries within it the seeds, the glory / of my march to the stars."
While Ieronim and Stănescu refer to their pasts, they seem less aware of time than Ursachi, who died in 2004 at the age of 63. This comes most clearly in his "Poem in Memory of the Three Peach Pits," where he speaks of youth in which "We didn't set great store by poems," and in the much later series of "Meditation" poems, in which "poetry continues to exist / only when it ceases to exist," one of his former companions has "affliction upon affliction," and the woman whose vagina was like an iris has long disappeared except from memory, which translates her into a muse, so that the poet is "eternally unborn." But in "The Third Meditation, or the Morning of the Magi, with a Reply to Dan Laurenţiu," the woman is apotheosized into "She Herself, the One whom we love," weaving "sublime news," and "dawn announces itself, / its trumpet stronger than death" with "out of the abyss / the star of life is born."
Given Nicolae Tzone's habit not only of dating his poems but in some cases timing the process of composition (e.g., "August 22, 2003, 4:20-5:58 p.m."), one might be tempted to recall Truman Capote's comment on Jack Kerouac's prose: "That's not writing; that's typing." Read as a whole, however, Tzone's volume reveals not just a Whitmanesque poet in the heroic mold but an experimentalist intent, as in "nicolae tzone is writing a poem maybe even this poem," on capturing moment by moment all of his thoughts. The line "i was a great poet today from nine to ten" is probably a more honest observation than most poets would care to make of themselves. Similarly, "absolute masterpiece (1)" is "a secret poem... forever inaccessible to mortals / and gods alike it's only the unborn who can read it / learning how to smile and be reborn"; and later he calls it a "bloody settling of accounts between rival poems." Elsewhere, the "refined virile poem travels / from woman to woman," for woman is "the orchestra maxima."
The reader may not follow all of Tzone's leaps of association—and probably isn't expected to—but over the course of the volume, the author not only teaches the reader how to approach his work but in a sense creates his reader. This is also true of Ieronim, Stănescu, and Ursachi. Given the talents revealed here to American readers, one hopes that Vinea Press will publish more of these elegantly produced volumes by other poets.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007