In their persuasive introduction to the English edition of Ana Blandiana’s The Sun of Hereafter and Ebb of the Senses, translators Viorica Patea and Paul Scott Derrick celebrate her courageous leadership as a poet of witness.
Blandiana, who was born in Timişoara during the Second World War and whose father was later a political prisoner, was sometimes banned and sometimes touted by the communist regime, especially in the 1980s. President of the early post-Ceauşescu, pre-corruption Civic Alliance and later the President of Romanian PEN, she has worked to make a difference during the worst of her country’s times.
The sustained intensity of her poetry reflects this. These two collections, originally published in 2000 and 2004, contain dreams and nightmares, interiors and cityscapes, from the chaotic years of Romania’s transition to unfettered capitalism. Their charged images are cathartic. ‘Buzeşti Square’ appeals:
Oh Lord, let the mongrel and the urchin
Bite into the same piece of bread […]
That still displays the teeth marks
Of the angel.
While, in a far from New Age ‘Mandala’:
Just as the snake, when it bites its tail,
Becomes a ring,
Deep within their endless roots
The peoples of the world all fall
into the same delirium.
But occupying a ringside seat for history isn’t by itself enough to generate great literature, and Blandiana is one of our most important European writers. Central to her poetic strategy is the yoking together of apparently opposing principles; and not only what the British artist Stanley Spencer called ‘angels and dirt’. Her extraordinary breathy and high-pitched reading voice, almost a chant, nevertheless dominates the largest of auditoria and articulates the darkest of material. It’s both fierce and stagily feminine. On the page, these apparent paradoxes of gender play out in poems that draw together intimate vulnerability – a wardrobe mirror reflects ‘the to and fro / Between life and death / At home’ – with the dangerous rhetoric of the public world, ‘The lowest and / Most burning level / Of humanity’.
It’s no coincidence that death speaks in both registers. These are not consolatory poems. An exceptional cohort of strong women’s voices, including Magda Cârneci, Nina Cassian, Denisa Comănescu, Ioana Nicolaie, Mariana Marin, Grete Tartler and Liliana Ursu, dominated Romanian poetry at the turn of the millennium. Blandiana is among the furthest removed of these from lyric or confessional traditions. Even though she writes mainly in the first person, the lyric ‘I’ seems almost extinguished in her verse. It’s as if she witnesses rather than experiences her own emotion, as she records the fearfulness of living in an unheimlich world:
Appearances have rotted
And drained away like dirty foam
From the face of the essence,
Ugly and eternal.
Such metaphors seem both surreal and expressionist. In fact, Blandiana is undertaking something much more collective. She invents a gallery of imaginative objects almost like archetypes – things thought and things observed – for shared public use.
This too is a form of creative leadership. The poet creates a conceptual apparatus with which society can understand itself. And not just one particular society. As today’s world reels between crises, Ana Blandiana’s poetic authority grows ever more urgently essential.
Reviewed by Fiona Sampson
THE SUN OF HEREAFTER and EBB OF THE SENSES
by Ana Blandiana
Translated by Paul Scott Derrick and Viorica Patea
Published by Bloodaxe Books (2017)
Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.
Fiona Sampson is a leading British poet and writer whose twenty-five books have been translated into thirty-six languages and won a number of national and international awards. An editor, critic, translator and broadcaster, she has a special interest in the literatures of south-east Europe.