The Romanian Riveter: POEMS from A HANDFUL OF WORDS by Robert Şerban, translated by Lidia Vianu and Anne Stewart, introduced by Lidia Vianu

Robert Şerban is well-known in Romania as a writer, journalist and editor. He lives in Timişoara, designated European Capital of Culture in 2021, and he is very much present in Romanian literary life, hosting a TV show, editing a magazine, and organising festivals of literature in his city. He has published twenty books, has been granted many prizes, translated in some thirty countries and into as many languages.

I first read him when I translated into English a book for the Romanian Writers’ Union. He stood out for his direct simplicity and depth of emotion. He is a shy writer, who loves silence more than words – which might seem paradoxical for a poet. The shorter the poem, however, the more intense.

Besides their emotional impact, Robert’s poems are very much about the time and place he lives in; he is not a novelist, and yet his books tell many stories and explain Romania to those who have never seen it.

For me, the major quality of Robert’s poetry is the strength of his poetic language, which relies, as I have said, first and foremost on his concision. No word is used without good reason. Such economy makes one think of the best poets of any era, who have always been aware that naming is not the most important thing in literature. Making the reader guess what your intention is.

Below is a selection from a small group of such ‘mute’ poems, which say more than a thousand-page book.

By Lidia Vianiu


in order to write better
I place the sheet of paper
on tope of a book

the author's name surfaces
now and then
like a drowned body
and tries to catch my hand

I write very fast, in forceful handwriting
while the words fill
the thin page
the same as clods cover
a fresh grave


whenever I look at the sky
I wonder
if God does not feel nauseous
watching us from
all the way up there


the sky is always beautiful
because the sky is the mirror
in which we never see ourselves
however hard we might stare


I’ll cut off your tongue
if I hear you say damn
my mother threatened

I was a child
absolutely everybody said damn
relatives neighbours in our block neighbours in the village
nursery school and later high school
people said damn in the street at the sweetshop while standing
        in a queue or on the bus
damn damn damn
but mother, party member who would steal into a church
only when we spent a vacation in some resort
or when someone close died
would never allow me to say damn

if this were all my mother had left me
it would be more than enough


Crina heaps chestnuts in the middle of the yard
and is so happy to have found a tree
that lays brown eggs

I have half a mind
to tell her the truth
but she has already arranged them in nests 
and is now waiting for the birds
to hatch the chicks


have you ever broken a bottle?
have you picked up the broken glass?
have you cut your fingers?

friends are like broken glass
even though they make your hands bleed
you continue to pick them up


I climb down poetry
line after line
as an old
unsafe staircase
I am cautious
very wary
down to the last

I wait a few moments
I look up
I dive


all that will be left of me
will be an impression rumour gossip suspicion
a handful of words

my principled behaviour
my unforgivable faults
the energy I spent
doing what I did all my life
every little thing I ever did will be completely forgotten
they’ll say, maybe, well, he was a good bloke
a bloody bastard
a scoundrel
a shitty good for nothing

which means
nothing will matter
and nobody will take the time
to remember me as I was
part of me
spots and lines at least
drawn by a clumsy painter

I feel like howling for ever and ever
so that
in a thousand years
a million years
my howl may travel from mouth to mouth
like a scary love story
which has rescued mankind

By Robert Şerban

Translated by Lidia Vianu and Anne Stewart

Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.

Robert Șerban is writer and journalist, and is president of the International Festival of Literature at Timișoara (FILTM). His first book, Of Course I’m Exaggerating, was awarded the Romanian Writers’ Guild Prize for a debut publication. It has been followed by twelve further volumes of poetry, interviews and prose. His poems have been translated into several languages and published in numerous anthologies and literary publications in Romania and abroad.

Lidia Vianu, a poet, novelist, critic, and translator, is professor of English at the University of Bucharest, where she is Director of the Centre for the Translation and Interpretation of the Contemporary Text (CTITC), which she established. She has been Fulbright lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, and the State University of New York, Binghamton. Vianu has published literary criticism, two books of interviews; a novel; three poetry collections; English-learning manuals; edited anthologies; and four translated books.

Anne Stewart is a poet and reviewer. In 2014, she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship and her work has been widely published in poetry magazines and anthologies. She has had two bilingual collections published in Bucharest.

Category: The Romanian RiveterTranslationsSeptember 2020 – The Romanian Riveter


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