Grandmother Troy

I adored both of my grandmothers – the one I was named after, and the one who died just as I was due to give birth. Forceful women with strong opinions, difficult lives in the countryside through multiple regime changes, a backbone of steel even as their bodies betrayed them.

The goats bring sticks to her porch.

Her hair harbours leaves.

Brother Pig snouts amiably at the damp patch

beneath the hearth

where she –  once more –  spilled the soup,

bread chunks now softened enough

for her remaining three teeth.

She warms her swollen knuckles

against the earthen pot:

all she can hear are the mild-greedy snuffles

of her four-legged companions.

Soot caresses the damp wool

of jumpers hung to dry.

She no longer cares if mulberries stain

her thumbs or clothes, grey hair in its plait.

Fingers in knots, eyes milky clouds,

she no longer mops the muck she cannot sense.

Still slashes her way

through nonsense with a crackle of joints.

Picture courtesy of rivi.ro

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Veronicelloidea

The snakes are writhing, they thrill

to the sound of you calling out ‘darling’

and ‘baby’, words you no longer mean.

They sluice the bogwater flooding

the ditch between us. They glide

on silted escape routes. By mid-morning

they made their way across

the path and slimed our wall: a slash

of colour on our grey, a purple bruise

of Botoxed lip. Our bodies oozing

slush, I step into the naked squelch

of their needs. Salt the wounds.

The quiet assassination.

The bystanders of our rot.

Veronicelloidea is a superfamily of air-breathing land slugs. Salt kills slugs by dehydrating them rapidly.

I am linking this up to my favourite poetry site dVerse Poets Pub, which is back with renewed va-va-voom after the summer break. Can you believe it’s the 200th edition of their Open Link Night?

Another Little Book Splurge

Repeat after me: summertime, and the living is easy… And, if it is not, we like to pretend it is. What better way to do so than with some new books? All recommended by online or writing friends.

  1. After rereading Persuasion, Janet Emson decided to give Mansfield Park another go, which made me want to reread all the Austen novels, as I used to do once a year in my so-called less busy 20s (when I was juggling three jobs at at a time). So the perfect excuse to acquire these pretty new Vintage Classics editions of my two least favourite Jane Austen novels, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. (I still like them a lot and these editions will make me like them more.)
  2. Rebecca Watts: The Met Office Advises Caution grabbed my attention on Kaggsy’s blog. A debut collection of poetry which combines observations of nature, wit, science and human drama.
  3. Meena Kandasamy: When I Hit You or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife caught my eye in this smart review, A List of People Who Should Read this book. I want to learn more about present-day India and anything about the struggle between marriage and art is bound to attract me…
  4. Rae Armantrout: Entanglements is a tiny volume of poetry, but it’s apparently described as making poetry of physics. I did at one point want to study physics and most of my physicist friends (other than my husband) are also very fond of poetry. There seems to be a hidden connection there (as with maths and music). Furthermore, at our poetry masterclass, Laura Kasischke said that my poetry reminded her of Rae Armantrout’s (whom I have never read).
  5. Charles Forsdick & Christian Hogsbjerg: Toussaint Louverture – A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions. This book was mentioned on the Repeating Islands website, which focuses on Caribbean art, culture, history and literature. The Haitian slave who became a military leader and governor, led the only successful slave revolt in history and founded the first free colonial society which explicitly rejected race as the basis of social ranking is a fascinating character. I had heard of him from my Haitian salsa teacher in France. After a year or two of having mainly girls as a partner, I gave up on salsa but I was impressed by the dancing skills and revolutionary spirit of my teacher (although he was less impressed with Voltaire than me).

Most Obscure on My Shelves – Poetry

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?

You might argue that poetry is fairly obscure in itself, as many people don’t seem to have much of it on their shelves beyond the anthologies they had to study at school. I have many of the obvious suspects (Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath) and many signed copies from contemporary poets. I enjoy exploring new styles and discovering new poets as well as going back constantly to the classics. I am referring here mainly to English language poetry, as those in other languages (or translations) have been shelved with their respective countries. I have reviewed many of my recent favourites on this blog, but here are a few that mean something special to me.

Rosemary Tonks: Bedouin of the London Evening

There is something odd and disquieting about the life and career of poet (and novelist) Rosemary Tonks. After publishing two poetry collections in the 1960s, she then disappeared from public view, reinvented herself, changed her name and never wrote again, somewhat like Rimbaud. There is something very boho chic about her poetry, speaking very eloquently of that particular period of time and the first cool Britannia moment. There is a seething anger and disappointment that sexual and artistic freedom is not quite what she expected. Yet she has a jaded, cynical view which transcends time and place, she is the Jean Rhys of poetry.

Brenda Shaugnessy: Our Andromeda

I had the pleasure of meeting Brenda at a Geneva Writers Conference back in 2014, but I read this volume of poetry long before that. In fact, I was reading it as I was queuing at the border control at Washington Dulles airport and encountered the border guard dissolved in helpless tears. I tried to explain to him that it was because of this amazing, heartfelt poem about the alternative world that a mother and her child create together a parallel galaxy where they can both thrive: the baby who suffers injury at childbirth and the mother who feels anguished guilt: ‘It was my job to get you into this world safely. And I failed.’ But it’s not all emotional distress, there are plenty of playful language games, as well as ferocious honesty about the body and the conflicting feelings of the mother and the artist. It is a rich, candid, uncompromisingly clear-eyed way of expressing things.

T.S. Eliot: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

T.S. Eliot is one of my favourite poets, but this is his lighter side. I adore it not only because I am a cat lover, but also because back in 1988/89, just before the fall of Communism, us students in the English Department of Bucharest University performed our own version of the musical Cats, although none of us had ever seen the show. It was a huge success (although it was censored in certain locations), and we all had huge fun inventing ways of presenting it, while making subtle political references. We were perhaps even more creative than the stage show I saw later on in London. So it reminds me of my youth, although this particular copy of it also is bittersweet. I bought it and gave it as a present to my newly-wed husband in 1998, when he left to go to Italy for a post-doc. (I could not follow him because of visa issues.) We had watched the show together and the dedication reads: ‘To remind you of your favourite show and your favourite cat while you are in Italy.’ Clearly, it did not do its job, since that was the first time he cheated on me.

Nevertheless, if anything can make me perk up and let bygones be bygones, it is Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, with his no-nonsense librarian air:

He will watch you without winking and he sees what you are thinking

And it’s certain that he doesn’t approve

Of hilarity and riot, so the folk are very quiet

When Skimble is about and on the move.

You can play no pranks with Skimbleshanks!

He’s a Cat who cannot be ignored;

So nothing goes wrong on the Northern Mail

When Skimbleshanks is aboard.

Fragments of poetry caught gauze-like at night

Vulnerability sits beside a heart of stone, chided for being late.

Freeze-burn experiments roil in extravagant chalice where poisons hang sweet.

And I suckle oh daily those words because

they declare themselves worthy

poetic

and more,

designed to plug the gaps in our stature

and teeth.

You can always tell wealth by the teeth they choose to display.

The Appeal

You have been wiggled

You’ve been sifted                                          cleaned out and weighed

Each grain examined                                      you were found wanting

Your feet too shuffling                                   your teeth too evolved

Slow rip and hide                                             under your mantle

Poked and shushed over                               tut-tut rejected.

 

Meant to be read each column separately but also across the two columns. Very much unlike those who are unable to think outside the box.