A Wonderful Collection
of Romanian Poems
On this day in 1944 King Michael of Romania signed an armistice agreement with the allied powers in an effort to drive the Nazis out of Romania. This agreement resulted in the control of Romanian by the Russians and a Communist rule of the country until the revolution of 1989. Romanian poets for forty five years operated under strict state control. Since the eviction of the communist government, there has been a tremendous sense of liberation and an outburst of creativity. Of course things are not all good or bad, with the fall of the Soviet style state went the pensions and support for approved writers and publishers. The 1989 revolution may have set Romania's poets free but it also left them on their own.
This is the third book by Calypso Editions I have had the privilege of reading and posting on. (I do not say "reviewing" as I do not really consider myself as writing book reviews, just my reactions to what I read.)
My first post was on their edition of Leo Tolstoy's How Much Land Does a Man Need Next I was thrilled to be able to read the wonderful poems in Building the Barricade and Other Poems by Anita Swir. Swir, a new to me author, wrote poems based on her experience working as a Nurse in Warsaw during WWII.
Of Gentle Wolves: An Anthology of Romanian Poetry presents us with the English translation and the Romanian original text on the same page, much in the style of a Loeb Classic edition. This would make it, I think, a marvelous tool for students of either language to increase their mastery of the other.
There are selections from fourteen different poets in the anthology. I will just focus briefly on three that I found particularly interesting. I will try a bit to bring these poets to life and to place them in the context of Romanian history, for I think without that the works in this collection will not have the meaning they should for most readers.
Gellu Naum (1915 to 2001) was a dramatist, poet, translator (primarily French to Romanian), children's book author and novelist. He studied philosophy at The University of Paris, obtaining a PhD with a focus on scholastic philosophy. While in Paris he became friends with the French surrealist Andre Breton.
He was drafted into the Romanian Army and served on the Eastern Front during WWII. He helped create a loosely knit group of writers know as the Bucharest Surrealists. After the Soviet take over he was only able to write children's books. He taught philosophy for a while and translated writers like Victor Hugo and Samuel Beckett into Romanian. He began to write seriously in 1968 when regulations were some what liberalized under Nicolae Ceausescu.
"Our people forgot buried us in the corn stalksIf you read this a bit slowly you will see the lines can be broken down into different meaning carrying segments by starting them in different places. In this fragment "around here swore the tour guide comrade Alexander the Great
on the waters a pelican passed by nearly red what a pleasure
we admired the city gates bought provisions
then entered a hall walking like hunchbacks we grew a bit bored
what else singing and music it was super cool
around here swore the tour guide comrade Alexander the Great
this canal was built by his own hand by his people
he passed one summer in his golden boat reading aloud and making
once passed" one can reread it a bit creatively and see Alexander the great as your comrade tour guide" thus achieving a meaning that way transcends the straightforward interpretation and imparts a great historical depth to the work. Of course no one schooled in the kind of literature Naum was can refer to hunchbacks without echoing Hugo. Most of the lines in the quotation above can be given multiple meanings, multiple meaning, some quite absurd and offensive to common sense, being the heart of surrealistic poetry.
Chris Tanasescu is an academic, a translator, and a poet. His poetry-rock-action painting band won the 2008 Romanian Gold Disc Award. He, like Naum, has a PhD. Tanasescu's degree is in philology. He teaches poetry and creative writing at the University of Bucharest. He has published several collections of his poetry and in 2010 was a Fulbright scholar at the University of California at San Diego.
Tanasescu's "How was Ion Iliescu not assassinated?" is bitterly political work directed at Ion Iliescu, president of Romania from 1990 to 1996 and 2000 to 2004. It is the kind of work that would have gotten one in very serious trouble twenty five years ago. I will quote all of the short work. I do not think it requires a lot of explanation. It was translated by the author.
"There once was a gifted girl, but a bit homely
a bit of a sucker, a bit of a stutterer, called
Romania, and one day she woke up to find something
growing on her forehead, and it kept growing today
and tomorrow when the pimple became
a boil, and began to move, taking on life,
becoming a little man stuck there
a beauty mark named Ilici (Iliescu), and then the old
cancer relapses, infecting
the brain. Today, tomorrow, she endured
pitiful girl—shouldn’t be pitied!
But finally she finds the courage and goes
one day to see the surgeon. There,
Ilici (Iliescu): good doctor, look what’s grown out of my ass!"
Funny and makes its point
Ana Blandiana (pen name for Otilia Valeria Coman-1942) is a well known poet and essayist. Since the 1989 Revolution she has been very active in Romanian politics working to achieve an open society. Her father spent years in prison due to his vocal opposition to the rule of the communists. She is a very widely published highly respected poet and a sought after political speaker. Her contribution to this volume is a very personal poem that could have been written 2000 years ago.
"Do you remember the beach?" will speak to many directly. It seems simple and straightforward until we come to the oceanic depths of the last line.
"Littered with bitter pieces of glassAll of the poems in this collections are very much worth the time it takes to read them. I think anyone who enjoyed good new to them poets would enjoy this work. I feel a place should be found for it in the budget of university libraries.
Where we couldn’t walk barefoot?
The way you would stare at the sea
And say you were listening to me?
Do you remember
Roiled in the ringing
Of unseen church bells
Behind us somewhere,
Churches that keep fish
As patron saints,
And how you moved quickly
Towards the surf, yelling
Back that you needed
Distance to be able to see me?
Tangled with birds
In the water,
I would look on
With a kind of joyful despair
As your feet marked the sea
And the sea,
Where I waited,
Would close like an eyelid."
The webpage of Calypso Editions has more information. I commend them for having the courage to produce high quality ground breaking books in these difficult economics times and in the face of the increasing market share of the E-book.
Of Gentle Wolves: An Anthology of Romanian Poetry is a work anyone who loves good poetry will cherish.