Ana Blandiana is considered one of the most influential poets in Romania. In fact, she is a kind of legend there, often compared to Anna Akhmatova in Russian literature and Václav Havel in Czech: a formidable writer and a political figure at the same time. This reputation is proved for me by this poetic feast of a book. Blandiana is, without doubt, one of the most important poets in Europe. So far, she has published sixteen volumes of poetry and several other books. Five Books is her fourth volume in English, and, as the title suggests, consists of five collections: three political sets (mainly from the 1980s) and two sets of love poems, an early one from the 1970s and a very recent one, written after the death of her husband.
I admire the decision to put together sets of poems that are so different in character: the political ones, which – by their very nature – are more public, louder, outspoken, sitting right next to the meditative, very private, intimate even, love poetry. This creates a refreshing, contrasted image of the poet within one book. As one of the translators, Viorica Pâtea, notes in her introduction, Blandiana constantly reinvents herself. This variety is noticeable not only in the themes she covers, but also in her formal experiments, from free verse to more traditional forms, to rhyming ones, all the way to prose poetry.
The theme of the first three sets in the book – Predator Star, The Architecture of Waves and Clock without Course – is disagreement with, or, rather, protest against the reality of living in a communist regime and all the limitations that it brings; it is open criticism of Ceaușescu’s dictatorship, of totalitarianism and censorship. Here Blandiana often speaks in a direct manner, chronicling the abnormalities, zooming in on them. Her rebellion against the system is, however, always interwoven with a shimmering of hope, with faith in humanity and in moral principles. Blandiana was the subject of censorship and her poems were often published as samizdat – copied by hand and spread in secret, some even rewritten by unknown people, who added new details to Blandiana’s originals.
The book opens with ‘Children’s Crusade’, a cry against the totalitarian regime’s birth control policy, which basically forbade abortion and forced women to have at least four children (from the mid-1980s, this rose to five), creating a market for backstreet abortions.
A nation entire
As yet unborn
But condemned to birth,
(…) keeps on moving
Through the tormented bodies of women,
Through the blood of mothers
No one has asked
In her poems Blandiana is often ‘in conversation’ with Romanian folk stories, but also with writers and philosophers of the 1930s, such as Mircea Eliade, Emil Cioran, Lucian Blaga and others. After the break point of 1989, Blandiana’s poetry has an added flavour of forgiveness and reconciliation. These poems transcend the specific context they were written in and become more universal.
I’m not afraid,
but I don’t know how
My voice, or how
To reach out to strike.
And when I ball my fist
Must I also fold in
My angel’s wings?
The other two sets making up Five Books are – in stark contrast – collections of love poetry. According to one of the book’s translators, these ‘two volumes of love poems rank among the most beautiful such poems in contemporary Romanian poetry’, and they come at the beginning and end of Blandiana’s current oeuvre: October, November, December (1972) and Variations on a Given Time (2018). The poems in the first set are an exercise in finding a language for what cannot be expressed in words – focusing on spiritual love, with a mystical and visionary tone. The two lovers in the book belong to different realms, which makes their love impossible … perhaps. The whole set is written as a dialogue with the Romanian Romantic poet Mihai Eminescu. Blandiana also frequently refers to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, in its numerous retellings. The set finds its continuation in Blandiana’s most recent volume, Variations on a Given Time, which is a beautiful, lyrical elegy composed after the death of her husband.
I remember wondering once
Whether you and I had two guardian angels,
For since we were always together
Two would have been a waste.
I hear that another compilation of Blandiana’s poetry in English, The Shadow of Words, is already in the Bloodaxe pipeline. And I, for one, am very, very happy to know that there will be more of Blandiana in English, and in Paul Scott Derrick’s and Viorica Pâtea’s impeccable translations.
Reviewed by Anna Blasiak
by Ana Blandiana
Translated by Paul Scott Derrick and Viorica Pâtea
Published by Bloodaxe Books (2021)
November 2021 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.
Anna Blasiak is a poet, writer and translator. She has translated over 40 books from English into Polish and, mainly as Anna Hyde, Polish into English. She is a co-translator (with Marta Dziurosz) of Renia’s Diary by Renia Spiegel. Her bilingual poetry book, Café by Wren’s St James-in-the-Fields, Lunchtime, is out from Holland House Books, as is Lili. Lili Stern-Pohlmann in conversation with Anna Blasiak. annablasiak.com.
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