The Romanian Riveter: A Multicultural Third Europe: Poets from Timişoara by Stephen Watts

While Timişoara may not have produced its own ‘school’ of poetry or a defined body of works, some of the energies necessary for a rethinking of Romanian culture as a whole, both before and after 1989, can be clearly and definitively identified in the poetries we are presenting in this magazine. These energies are both real and varied, the result also of the region’s multiculturalism, coming as much from the particular intellectual corridor of the Timişoara region as from the combining of surrounding cultures, exemplified as much by the range of the city’s architectures as by its open-air food and craft markets. With such a broad cultural range, there is surely something innate to Timişoara that facilitates ‘a critique of the power principle’ (cf. Václav Havel’s ‘power of the powerless’) and which allowed Timişoara to stand so vividly at the vanguard of Ceauşescu’s overthrow.

All the poetries presented here are written in Romanian, yet there is latent in them a sort of cultural convergence – away from national identity and towards anger at totalitarian uniformities. They both celebrate that space beyond politics and lament current dystopias. Language matters in these poetries, but is beyond any specific Romanian identity, rather it represents a different identity. In a very real way these poetries present examples of what has been called a multi-cultural ‘Third Europe’.

It seems no fluke that the great Danilo Kiš was born in a city in Serbian Vojvodina, far closer to Timişoara than to the capital Bucharest. Or that the eminent Vojvodina poet Vasko Popa had Romanian antecedents, or that Ivan Gadjanski was from the Banat. Or that the living practice of these ‘borderlands’ (Timişoara and the Banat both border Hungary and Serbia) has allowed hybrid openness and the richness of the ‘crack’ or the ‘crevice’ to seep both into and from these Timişoaran poetries. Borderlands are rich with possibilities and can provoke open poetries. At the same time, a borderland is also rich with the tensions between unity and diversity. The same could be said of Iaşi, or of Cluj and Sibiu, within the unmarked or internal borders of Transylvania; or of Bukovina, where two major Romanian poets, Paul Celan and Itzik Manger, were born (Celan left for Paris, not that his life can be crushed into four words; Manger spent twenty-five years in Czernowitz, Iaşi and Bucharest before leaving initially for Poland), or of Moldova (Moni Stănilă, who is in this edition of The Riveter, left Timişoara to live in Chişinău), or even of Bucharest: these poetries of Timişoara share much that is vital and energising in the wider poetry of Romania.

And the clash of openness is painful too, as the prose work by Daniel Vighi and Viorel Marineasa demonstrates (also in this issue). Or consider these lines of poetry from Ion Monoran:

‘What an evening, Lord, I am like a wooden effigy / My body is blind and my palms are riddled with worms. / And somehow I feel how the sky-nailed moon / inflicts a heavy damage within my voice.’

Or read Petru Ilieşu’s end-of-the-century ‘Rap at Novosibirsk’ and Daniela Raţiu’s ‘Pandemic Poem’ which evokes the current lockdown:

‘Empty city streets / People in white coveralls / You cannot see their eyes, you cannot see their hands / Ambulances wailing in the streets / That’s all you see on the news.’

‘Cororallyvirus’, Rodica Draghincescu’s poem – she has lived for many years in France – also addresses the quotidian and political repercussions of lockdown, the familiar and unfamiliar threats to our lives and our freedoms. These poetries offer much-needed ‘aversions’, or perhaps ‘multiple versions’ and ‘re-versions’, of our current experience, and possibly obviate the dangers of a return to stagnation.

The poetries of Timişoara are international hybrids with many-sided identities and languages and provoke a resistance to the erosion of ‘freedoms’; they offer access to the positive and negative possibilities experienced by being on the margins, whether in the Hungarian of József Méliusz, the German of the ‘Aktionsgruppe Banat’ (the literary and resistance group founded in 1972, which included Herta Müller, Richard Wagner, William Totok and Oskar Pastior) or in the 1970s poetry of Ion Monoran (included in this issue of The Riveter) whose experimental writings align him more closely with fellow Romanians Mircea Cărtărescu and Alexandru Muşina, or with Mariana Marin, in being implicitly anti-authoritarian.

It has been argued that Timişoara acts as a sort of ‘city-text’ or ‘node of confluence’. It instinctively attracts what matters to the ‘peripheries’ or margins, which inevitably subverts attempts to centralise or normalise. That is as true now as it was during any of the previous regimes. But precisely this public resistance, this poetry created of memory and imagination, also works on a personal level and feeds the current, intimate dystopias of the younger poets included here – what Mariana Gunță (1995–2020) alluded to when she wrote:

‘life’s not an equation / when you hug her / you only feel dry skin’

Or in the words of a poet from a generation earlier, Robert Şerban (b. 1970):

‘without anyone telling them / people know that / poetry is all that is left of life / after you have lived it’

By Stephen Watts

Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.

Category: September 2020 – The Romanian Riveter

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