The Vanishing Point That Whistles: An Anthology of Contemporary Romanian Poetry, edited by Doru Mugur with Adam J. Sorkin and Claudia Serea
Talisman House, 2011
A question plagued me throughout reading this anthology: how much of the poetry has to do with Romania and how much nothing at all to do with Romania? To what extent is poetry the product of a place and time and to what extent is poetry autonomous and outside history?
What I know of Romania would not fill a one ounce tin of Black Sea caviar. My mind is filled with all the usual stereotypes gleaned from years of watching late night movies. Transylvanian vampires, high sinister castles brooding like dyspeptic aristocrats over villages populated with colorfully dressed gypsies, sheepherders ancient as earth, and dazzling young women with raven-black hair and fire in their eyes. How could a place of such romance and weirdness not fail to produce a robust body of fabulous poetry? But this is the trouble with stereotypes: they diminish reality with the arithmetic of assumption.
Which isn’t to say stereotypes don’t often prove true. It’s just a really nice trick to be able to go through one’s day suspending judgment. It’s surprising what can happen. Life slops in a bucket of assumption. And a country called Romania fires my imagination in a forge of time and space. A Romania of fury and passion. A Romania of woody sounds and bones crackling, shot glasses of cognac tossed over the head, hungry mouths, blood from abortion, condors and bats, fanatical looks in a dark barouche, slender winds fluttering through the fingers, night shaking its bells.
There is also the political Romania, a country choked by totalitarianism and severe poverty until, on Christmas Day, 1989, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were given a short trial, led behind the building with their hands tied behind their backs, placed against a wall and executed by firing squad. The execution is available on YouTube, testament to the powers of the Internet. The nation-state has become something of a fiction. We are all Romanian. We are all Occupiers. We are all besieged by a global oligarchy of sociopathic bankers and a ruthless capitalism stomping around the world like Goya’s Saturn Eating His Children.
The Vanishing Point That Whistles is the second collection of modern Romanian poetry from Talisman House. Born In Utopia: An Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Romanian Poetry appeared in 2006 and included the work of many prominent authors, including Tristan Tzara, Gherasim Luca, Paul Celan and Andrei Codrescu. Codrescu, who provided the introduction for Born In Utopia, wrote that “One of the most worn native clichés is ‘Every Romanian is born a poet.’ It would be a noble declaration, if it weren’t so pathetic. Being a poet is bad enough, being born one is hopeless. The only redeeming feature of that old saw is that it isn’t true. Romanians, hopefully, were born to be many other things: computer engineers (and hackers), doctors, researchers, world-class criminals, and gymnasts. But what about the poetry? It gets tricky.”
“The Romanian language,” he continues, “is mostly a Latin language, like Russian or Bulgarian. Throw into that mix a few hundred words of Turkish with power way beyond their meager numbers, and you have a language at war with itself.” I have since listened to some Romanian poets read their work on YouTube. I know absolutely no Romanian whatever, and didn’t have a clue as to what was being said. All I heard was the sound. To my ears, Romanian sounds a little Italian. Roberta said it sounded like Italian spiked with Hungarian. She’s right: there is a definite Slavic plangency surging through the metallic ring of Latinate syllables, churning consonants and vowels like a Hungarian tug on the Danube.
There are 40 poets represented in The Vanishing Point That Whistles. If there is a common quality or style apparent running through these poems, it is what editor Paul Doru Mugur calls hyper-realism, an obsession for the real and for authenticity, “the rejection of any form of compromise and the contamination of esthetic by ethic.”
He refers to a movement called Fracturism: “In September 1998, two Romanian poets, Dumitru Crudu and Marius Ianus, wrote ‘The Fracturist Manifesto’ declaring that ‘fracturism is the first model of a radical break from postmodernism’ and that ‘fracturism is a movement developed by writers who live as they write, excluding social lies from their poetry; the writers who adhere to this movement have no career expectations and ambitions, they do not perceive art as a form of business from which one can draw any profit… The fracturist proposal was to move the accent from the object to the one who writes. Only the reactions of the one who writes are important and not the object he/she describes… Only thus can we reinvent emotion, only thus can we reinvent the primary thrill of the Real.”
Each night I’ve had this book within reach on the coffee table, I’ve looked forward to reading it. The poetry is different. It has an energy missing from a lot of the recent work I’ve seen in England and the U.S., a rawness and candor coupled with an earthy wit and humor that reminds me a little of Frank O’Hara’s work. O’Hara’s personism is echoed in the nerve and audacity of these poems, a keen, puckish emphasis on putting the poem “squarely between the poet and the person.” The poems rise on words that have the unmistakable feeling of flesh and blood about them, the aura of a woman’s skin, a man’s grip, a mouth full of water in a furnished room.
40 poets is far too many to provide commentary for individually, nor do I want to pick and choose and be left with that nagging frustration of having left out some real brilliance. I thought it would be fun and significantly easier to provide a small sampling, a line or two, for each poet. Think of each as a canapé spread with caviar.
At night, if you drop a seashell into the telephone at the corner instead of a coin, a small, white, unchipped seashell gathered from the beach in summer, instead of a dial tone you’ll hear the wondrous sound of the waves. Then you can dial any number and the liquid voice of a siren will answer, summoning you by name.
Ioan Es. Pop:
with you, even your shirt can’t stay
happy. its silk is ruined
by the mouse gnawing at your bones.
but your shoes continue to be properly black. they will
mourn your toes. they will mourn you
a toenail will be priest, the knees the band of musicians,
the shoulders godfathers, the hands wedding guests,
and the phosphorus in your fingernails the candle leading the cortege.
My lips were, oh ho, bleeding
like a cirrhotic’s,
my mouth red as a raw wound
through which the world suffered once more.
I lie in a bed piled with soft pillows
A bed piled with soft pillows
Having the air the contours the shape of Romania
Everything I touch turns to poetry
I have a hand of gold
That could bury me alive
Beauty is skin-deep, Ike and Tina would sing. Did you know a full 90% of the dust in a house is made up of human skin? Can you imagine the sheer quantity of exfoliated beauty tossed in the garbage every day?
You twisted like a pretzel
and in the rotating dark
inside the womb of your bedchamber you’re
An embryo swaddled in shadows.
(a word so commodious that if you press your ear to it, you can hear a heart beating, and round, deep inside, two pregnancies).
vultures and ravens may devour me
lest I ax to bits the burden of my lust
kiss me until my teeth fall out
scratch me down to the bare bone
pull my hair light my fire take me to make a sinner of
because my poor inside-out heart has dried up like a glove.
let your brain have a tumble let it explode
like the sun in a universe of femininities
(I grabbed a handful of bones
from under the mattress and
made a pinwheel
while the pinwheel
I wrapped my head
I - a poet -
without a philosophy
absent any aura
confronted by a wine bottle
now empty -
this could well be it
I don’t believe in ghosts.
I hate the country where I was born.
A stranger’s kiss would electrify
My dream is to wake up someday.
Suddenly I’m old
but I cannot pray ceaselessly
so I write this poem.
to your forehead
Henry Miller’s books are the most important poems
I wrote one night.
In the dark moving, I find my body
At my fingertips - the mahogany of the table.
the black days of death have passed
it was in fact a crucial year
when out of a rusty piece of tin I made myself a huge sun
the ambulances are full of the rescued
amidst the silence, someone’s howl as he recognizes himself
in a glass splinter
when days have no end
not you, loveliness,
it wasn’t your fault
you let yourself be chased by your nostril
to the dark circles under the bride’s eyes
I get up from watching TV
look through the peephole
and see my mother coming
pregnant with nobody,
munching on hair
and she laughed
at her cellophane life
at questions rotting with the rags in the attic
when you watch the rain through the window at the faculty office
and memories and raindrops make your flat soul tremble,
so your mind spreads outward in wider and wider circles.
what are you doing here with me
the leash is a torment to me I’m a small animal
now I know my gums can catch fire and glow
I’m a small animal.
No emotion exists
for what I feel right now
it’s as if we’re walking
our drunk child to school.
your finger is gently caressing the tablecloth and
that drawing is the wondrous face
of the soul
each time you alone
that stupid sidewalk crack looks ready
to be filled with your disregard
today I woke up knowing everything
although I’d have preferred anything else instead:
to breathe a deep gulp of air
to be able to bounce a good thought between the walls of my skull
my wealth: a few hundred books
a red plastic basin
an old iron
a tea set
the color of earth
a proud and ruthless soul
a damned termagant skin
a bored God
lust like a lethal guilt
my face passes through the chair and takes root in the floor
I move my cheeks like the legs of a mad horse
now I haven’t any doubt
no word can put a stop to the uproar in my head
there are kilometers of artlessness between us
memories full of slobber whirl about the room
if I cut this film with scissors
God will glue it back with his golden saliva
even if we stir our bodies like instant coffee
the point is that life gets born in sweat
your love’s only a plastic suction cup
from which firefly Joe will get out.
I’m a woman
for a long time my body’s been floating
above an expanse of water, white as moonlight,
indecent and silent.
it’s too late to call a friend
I take my clothes off and walk around in the dark
I feel my veins a little swollen
I study my genitals balancing in semidarkness -
and as always
(the same sensation must have sent some stone-age guy
right back to his cave)
I wonder why the skin on my upper arms feels thinner
the air splits in two
and slides gently into me
/I WANT to look behind/
saliva dripping out of my mouth/saliva flowing back in my mouth/saliva oozing
back into my mouth
what sort of brother is that for death
if he won’t let himself be buried in either woman or man
if he fails to produce fear walking with his hair in his mouth
and doesn’t drink coca-cola but only strong tuica
distilled out of plums brought from his grandmother’s village
It’s the time when you go to a bar to get drunk because in this bar where you come sometimes to sit by yourself the waitress already knows you she knows what to bring you and this makes you sad and self-disgusted. when you sit at the table she’s already bringing the drinks. sadness. disgust.
white fish salmon couscous coffee rye mushrooms I’ve quit smoking
oh so sad if I were to begin again I’d become half geisha half
Edith Piaf I’d be the painter of everything I’ve lost
I leave home with the thought that my blood
will gradually fill
I read on the internet:
in secret, between shadow and soul
and it bored a hole in my brain and birds like watermelons landed there
then I did a wikipedia search for my love
17 hours ago