Most Obscure on my Bookshelves – the Romanian Poets

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

I’ve had to break this down into two posts, one for poetry, one for prose, for fear of it becoming a post as long as a novella. When it comes to poetry, there is a saying that ‘Romanians are born poets’ – a double-edged sword in the original Romanian, akin to the Irish kissing the Blarney stone. It means we are eloquent and make full use of our musical language and romantic/ fiery Latin disposition. But it can also mean that we have little of substance to say, but we are able to say it beautifully.

This is not the case with the three poets I mention below. They combine style with substance. They are perhaps not as famous as our ‘national’ poet, the arch-Romantic Mihai Eminescu, but they are my favourites. I’ve had to limit myself, however, to those that you can find (albeit with some difficulty) in English translation. I hope you will get a chance to discover at least one or two of them!

The Poets

Lucian Blaga – Complete Works

My favourite Romanian poet (and certainly in my Top 10 worldwide), Lucian Blaga was a philosopher, writer, diplomat and translator, best known for the poetry he published between the two world wars. When the Communists came to power after WW2, he lost his position as a university professor because he refused to pledge allegiance to the new government. His philosophy was also considered too idealistic and suspect, so he was sidelined and not allowed to publish anything other than translated works. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in the mid 1950s but the Romanian state protested against it. Luckily, by the 1980s when I went to school, he was once more studied in school, although we avoided discussing his philosophy. His poetry is best described as lyrical, highly spiritual, searching for the transcendence of self. He has a nostalgia for village life, for folklore, nature and the past, a Jungian yearning towards something greater than one’s conscious self. The language is musical and sensuous. This is an old volume of his all his poetical work, translated by Brenda Walker. And you can get a brief taster of my favourite poem as a teen, translated on my blog here.

George Bacovia – the grey poet

Bacovia is more of an acquired taste. Back in school, most of my classmates hated him, his gloomy depression, his seemingly endless rain-soaked landscapes. The one poem they could relate to was ‘Liceu’:

High school, graveyard of my youth,

Pedantic teachers,
Hardcore exams,
You still make shiver…

This might sound light-hearted, but on the whole he is the poet of melancholia, a symbolist, a modernist, even a surrealist – fitting in well with other contemporaries of his such as Eugene Ionescu or Tristan Tzara. [Blaga was also a contemporary, but very different.] Bacovia is the poet of the urban landscape, of industrialisation, of smog and dirt. Unsurprisingly, he suffered from lung disease most of his adult life, which may have coloured his perceptions. There is a lot of talk of spitting blood, of decay both of the body and of nature, in his work. Naturally, it appealed to my dark, dramatic teenage self.

There is no full translation of his works in English, but you can get a flavour of his work, plus a short critique, here.

Nichita Stanescu

Younger than the other two, Nichita Stanescu lived through the tumultuous post-war world and the ascent of Communism. He chose not to go into exile, but never became a spokesperson for socialist realism either. His poetry is relentlessly soul-searching, scathing, at times enigmatic, at times openly angry. Intense and personal, unashamedly romantic yet at the same time political in the way that any meditation about a human’s place in the world is political. His lifestyle was the stuff of legends: a rebel who refused to play the literary awards game (although he won several, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1980), he spent most of his life in a grubby little flat, with a mattress on the floor and at least two bottles of vodka a day. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he died in 1983 at the age of 50 of cirrhosis. The last great self-destructive Bohemian, one might say.  Here is a poem of his which every single Romanian person seems to know:

Tell me, if I caught you one day
and kissed the sole of your foot,
wouldn’t you limp a little after,
afraid to crush my kiss?…

You can find a selection of his poems translated by Sean Cotter reviewed on Words without Borders.

 

 

 

 

 

One of My Favourite Poems (with Translation)

I was tending the bar at dVerse Poets Pub yesterday and gave a poetry prompt which had most participants puzzled, bemused, scratching their heads… or labelling me crazy. I asked for a homophonic translation of a Romanian poem, which means a translation based on sound and random similarity of word patterns. It was really interesting to see all the different interpretations of the same poem. As one comment said, it was the Rohrschach of poetry – in that same inkblot of a poem we each saw our own obsessions, thoughts, fears, hopes and personalities.

The poem itself, however, is one of my favourite poems in any language. It is by Romanian poet (also playwright, philosopher, essayist) Lucian Blaga and it’s a lyrical love poem tinged with melancholy. I remember reciting it with my high-school sweetheart as we walked under the linden trees lining the boulevards leading from our school to the park. ‘Florarul’ (the flowering one) is the old folk name for the month of May.

www.inparc.ro
http://www.inparc.ro

 

Risipei se dedă Florarul

Ne-om aminti cândva târziu
de-aceasta întâmplare simplă,
de-aceasta bancă unde stam
tâmplă fierbinte lânga tâmplă.

De pe stamine de alun,
din plopii albi, se cerne jarul.
Orice-nceput se vrea fecund,
risipei se deda Florarul.

Polenul cade peste noi,
în preajmă galbene troiene
alcătuieste-n aur fin.
Pe umeri cade-ne şi-n gene.

Ne cade-n gură când vorbim,
şi-n ochi, când nu găsim cuvântul.
Si nu ştim ce păreri de rău
ne tulbură, pieziş, avântul.

Ne-om aminti cândva târziu
de-această întâmplare simplă,
de-aceasta bancă unde stam
tâmplă fierbinte lânga tâmplă.

Visând, întrezărim prin doruri –
latente-n pulberi aurii –
păduri ce ar putea sa fie
şi niciodată nu vor fi.

It’s been set to music several times, here is one version of it by Nicu Alifantis in concert:

And here is the translation, courtesy of Cristina at the blog Fantasy Pieces (with some of my own tweaks). She also provides a bit of commentary on this poem.

May Gives Itself with Sweet Abandon

 

We’ll remember someday later,
This simple moment, so fine,
This very bench where we are seated,
Your burning temple next to mine.

From hazel stamens, cinders fall
White as the poplars that they land on,
Beginnings yearning to be fertile,
May gives itself with sweet abandon.

The pollen falls on both of us,
Small mountains made of golden ashes
It forms around us, and it falls
On our shoulders and our lashes.

It falls into our mouths when speaking,
On eyes, when we are mute with wonder
And there’s regret, but we don’t know
Why it would tear us both asunder.

We’ ll remember someday later,
This simple moment, so fine,
This very bench where we are seated
Your burning temple next to mine.

In dreams, through longings, we can see—
All latent in the dust of gold
Those forests that perhaps could be—
But that will never, ever grow.

So that’s the literal translation… But, to be honest, I liked some of the free associations and unknowing translations even more!