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 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
MIRROR the sky is always beautiful because the sky is the mirror in which we never see ourselves however hard we might stare
A GIFT FROM MY MOTHER 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 unseen 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
TREE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE YARD 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
BROKEN GLASS have you ever broken a bottle? have you picked up the broken glass? have you cut your fingers? well friends are like broken glass even though they make your hands bleed you continue to pick them up
OLD AND UNCERTAIN I climb down poetry line after line carefully as an old unsafe staircase I am cautious speechless wary very wary line after line down to the last I wait a few moments I look up careful transparent then I dive
SCARY LOVE STORY 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 hardworking obliging kind insignificant silly 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.