BORN IN UTOPIA:...ROMANIAN POETRY, Edited by CARMEN FIRAN & PAUL DORU MUGUR, with EDWARD FOSTERJAMES OWENS Reviews
Born in Utopia: An Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Romanian Poetry Edited by Carmen Firan and Paul Doru Mugur with Edward Foster
(Talisman House, 2006)
Romanian poetry slips across borders in disguise. It is easy for American readers to forget, or never to have noticed, that Tristan Tzara, whom we might think of as a French poet, and Paul Celan, an indispensible figure of modern poetry in German, were both in reality Romanian poets. Tzara and Celan both shaped significant bodies of work in their native language before the winds of the World Wars blew them west to stake out holdings in their more internationally familiar, adopted idioms, and it seems symptomatic that Celan’s Romanian poems have been dribbling slowly into translation only during the past few years or so, while Tzara’s have never been widely available. Other Romanian poets have drifted into Russian, or, especially after 1989, English.
The countries of Eastern Europe seem to breed good poets thicker on the ground than anywhere else on the planet except, maybe, Ireland. The Poles have clearly won out in finding the right translators during the past three or four decades, with Czechs, Slovenians, and Hungarians putting in a fair showing, as well. Now Born in Utopia: An Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Romanian Poetry, edited by Carmen Firan and Paul Doru Mugur with Edward Foster, makes it clear that the relative obscurity of Romanian poetry has been a historical accident, never a matter of lesser quality. This rich and readable book, as ably edited and translated as it is, is only the first lines of an account of Romanian poetry still to come, one hopes, from future translators out there somewhere muttering conjugations in their sleep.
Andrei Codrescu, who has been writing in English since the 1960s, addresses some of the difficulties of bringing this poetry over to another language in his introduction. On the one hand, “Romanians, whether in the depths of the Transylvanian provinces or in the better parts of Manhattan, respond to the word ‘poetry’ with a straightening of the shoulders, a chin-forward movement, and a far-away gaze. ‘We may not be sure of many things,’ they say with that rearrangement of the body, ‘but we are sure of our poetry.’” On the other hand, Codrescu writes, “Great (or even good) translators into English are harder to find than tzuica in Mississippi, and that’s not because the language is difficult but because Romanian poetry created complexities within the language that lose their meta-shivers when transferred to another bottle.”
History lies heavy on Romanian tongues. Much of the complexity that Codrescu mentions comes from the paradox that Romania has been both geographically remote and a cultural crossroads, at once, ever since the Romans founded an outpost on the shore of the Black Sea (and exiled the poet Ovid to languish and die there). The language is Romance, a legacy of the empire, but ballasted with the influence of Slavic neighbors and salted with important reminders of the Ottoman Turks who ruled there for centuries. Add the first and second world wars, the isolationism and repression of the Communist decades, the stark horrors of the Ceausescu regime, and even a foreigner can get a glimmer of the problems facing a translator.
The translators of Born in Utopia, especially Adam Sorkin, who did the most, have acquited themselves well. Their versions of the poems are clear and affecting and usually make respectable poems in English, even if a Romanian reader might lament lost subtleties.
The first poem of the book seems carefully chosen to evoke the delicate and audacious balancing act that any work of translation inevitably turns into. Tudor Arghezi’s “Come On” begins, in Sean Cotter’s translation,
If your eyes would like to see
The unseen and unknown, you could
Come into my house, possibly, you could
Abandon yourself to the danger of my raft.
It becomes clear before long that Arghezi’s speaker is weighing religious questions -- “The healing clap of mystery / Churns inside me” -- but the lines could apply as well to the erotic strangeness of a reader’s encounter with poetry from another language and historical context, everywhere unfamiliar, yet shot through with off-kilter recognition:
In the language of barbarians
I would tell you stories,
I would let the wisdom of that country,
Like sand from the fields,
Sift into your hand.
One of the recurrent themes of the poems in Born in Utopia is the nature and purpose pf poetry itself. Romanian poets, more so than American ones, are disposed toward the sort of unselfconscious reflection on their own craft that takes seriously both its limitations and its possibilities. For example, Ion Pop’s lyrical ars poetica, “Moment,” translated by Adam Sorkin and Liviu Bleoca:
In the upper corner of the window
I see walnut leaves quivering
in the noon wisp of wind,
and a starling feather floating down.
All I can do for it
is put it down here, to catch in coal black,
on the point of my pencil,
maybe to make its fall slower, slower.
As might be expected, there are plenty of poems here that seem drenched in the violent history of the 20th century, such as Marta Petreu’s “In Memory of Cruelty” (translated by Sorkin and Christina Illias-Zarifopol). The opening lines:
Touch me. Slowly walk your fingers over my body
feel my skin on the inside
softly completely compassionately. I used to be in it
Yes. I. Just me. Identical to myself
Caress my skin on the inside. Wet your hands
with the sticky smell of blood
gather blood in your palm as in a clay saucer
taste it with the tip of your tongue: it used to be my blood
Or Stephan Augustin Doinas’s “The Great Crippled” (translated by Sorkin and Liliana Ursu):
how could you
cripple me more?
is a hole
my heart -- a clot of gore
But one impressive fact about this book is that the dark side of history does not dominate. Perhaps the shape of Romanian poets’ resistance to the forces of destruction and chaos is that they also write about -- Who would have expected it to be otherwise, really? -- love and beauty and nature and childhood and art and boredom and television and travel and sex, to name a few things.
Some of the last poets in Born in Utopia are those young enough to have come into their own after the dissolution of Romanian Communism. Adina Dabija expresses something of their historical moment, detached from the past, uncertain about the puzzling future, closing the book with another ars poetica, “On Love, with Time” (translated by Mona Momescu).
We don’t even imagine that we exist
Together we are somebody’s cake on the moon
that eats us slowly
with your mouth, with my fingers,
with my scar caressing your scar,
with my pain kissing your pain
until nothing of us is left
Born in Utopia is such an abundant book that it seems unfair to single out particular poets for mention, leaving dozens just as deserving to await discovery quietly. And there are important discoveries to be made here. Any reader new to Romanian poetry but willing, in Arghezi’s words, to abandon herself to “the danger of [this] raft” will be setting out on a voyage that may take a lifetime to complete but will be worth every stop along the way.
James Owens's book, An Hour is the Doorway, is scheduled for publication in 2007 by Black Lawrence Press. His work has recently appeared, or is forthcoming, in Blue Fifth Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, and Boxcar Poetry Review. He is a staff reviewer for The Pedestal.