Nichita Stanescu. Wheel with a Single Spoke. Trans. Sean Cotter. Archipelago Books, 2012
A quick study of Nichita Stanescu (1933-1983) reveals that he is “generally recognized as the preeminent Romanian poet of the postWorld War II period” (Spiridon). In the afterword to this collection of Stanescu poems, the book’s translator, Sean Cotter, tells how when Stanescu was alive readers received him with something like religious zealotry. “Take a good look at this man,” cried one overexcited host introducing Stanescu before a reading, “He is a genius. Rejoice that you were able to meet him! That you lived at the same time as he did!” But despite such acclaim (Stanesuc was a finalist, along with Jorge Luis Borges, in 1979, for the Nobel Prize in Literature) Stanescu suffers a conspicuous absence in most recent English language anthologies of 20th century European poetry, and so he remains (for English readers at least) something like a discovery—testament, I suppose, of either the difficulty in translating Stanescu into English or the hesitancy of the English reader’s imagination to surrender to Stanescu’s own.
Stanescu’s shorter poems read—eerily so, at times—like charms or riddles whose proper elocution may be more akin to chant or prayer than simple declaration. A poem like “Knot 23,” for example, feels scriptural in its origins, perhaps pre-scriptural—
I stole my childhood body,
I swaddled it and put it in a basket of rushes,—
and threw it in the river
so it would go and die in the delta.
The unfortunate, tearful, tragic fisherman, full of pity,
brought me the body in his arms
—and I get the sense I have come across Stanescu’s fables before, revisions, retellings of them elsewhere. Only his versions are coarser, less refined; somehow closer to the beginning.
In the decades following World War II, Romanian poets under Communist rule were encouraged to write straightforward, accessible poems—elegies to leaders and industry. Poets who ignored this encouragement rolled the dice on censorship, imprisonment, possibly even torture. Stanescu’s language is disarmingly simple (no flowery descriptions or esoteric sentence structures), and at times the poems are anti-poem in their bluntness: “I’d better stop this talking,” writes Stanescu in “5, 4, 3, 2, 1,” (a title that itself says something of Stanescu’s style)—“But I can’t, / I want to justify myself.” Plain speak aside, however, the poems are put together in a way that may mystify those readers looking for a sort of grand a-ha: “Everything is simple,” explains Stanescu in “The Eleventh Elegy,” one of Stanescu’s most famous poems, “so simple that / it becomes incomprehensible.”
I once read it takes a person seven or eight tries before acquiring a preference for a new food, something exotic: sushi, for example. If that’s true, and the phenomenon carries over to other types of experience, then it may take a reader seven or eight poems before acquiring a taste for Stanescu’s work. Even those familiar with other Eastern European heavyweights—Milosz, Popa, Zagajewski, for example—may find themselves feeling uncertain how best to proceed through Stanescu’s halls of what I’m calling concrete-abstractions: on the surface you have an idea of what the poem’s referring to, it’s below the surface that sometimes gets murky. The best advice I can offer may be to let go of any notion of proceeding, and to instead just wander. Stanescu’s poems “draw the reader into a maze,” wrote Thomas C. Carlson, one of Stanescu’s earliest English translators, “strip him of any reasonable expectations, and then abandon him in a swirling mist . . . until the house lights go up and he is left to figure out what happened.” “Poem” is perhaps one such example:
Sometimes I talk to your face,
a high wall, made of stone
that disappears lazily into clouds.
I shout every noun
I have ever known.
I pluck seconds from the hour
and present them, still beating,
in the agreeable shape of silence
I witness the fate of every planet.
The high wall, made of stone,
opens a great blue eye
But these swirling mists shouldn’t be taken for impenetrability. On the contrary, the door to a Stanescu poem usually swings wide open: “Only grass knows how earth tastes,” begins one; just don’t expect the door to stay open for a quick and easy getaway. But perhaps entering through a door is entirely the wrong metaphor. Rather, it’s more like watching the poet cast his net into the sub-word, sub-conscious depths of the human mind and witnessing what he reels in. If the lines arrive at anything like an epiphany, it’s one that can’t be paraphrased: “President Baudelaire rested the skeleton of his hand / on my shoulder”—from the poem “President Baudelaire—“and asked / whether, come the next election, I would give thought / to voting for him.” Mysterious or just plain surprising, these half-buried revelations (like trinkets from a shipwreck, they don’t always come with their histories intact) are what, to my way of reading, make Stanescu’s poems so enjoyable. I feel a sort of subconscious pull that’s difficult to turn away from.
Translator Sean Cotter taught high school in Romania, where he was introduced to Stanescu’s work (required reading at times for high school students in Romania, according to Cotter), and I have to wonder if perhaps a love for Romanian culture and literature didn’t motivate the size and bulk of this collection—over 300 pages worth of poems, a bit more, I would think, than most readers will actually be interested in. I was able to get my hands on several slimmer, earlier editions of Stanescu’s work translated into English (Ask the Circle to Forgive You, Bas-relief with Heroes, to name a couple). These include fine poems, some of which aren’t in Cotter’s edition, but the ambitious reader will most likely need access to a University library (and a good one at that) to find them.
And this is perhaps the true value of these new translations. Cotter’s versions are often times leaner, tighter, more bare bones than his predecessors’; but more importantly, they put back into circulation one of twentieth century Europe’s leading voices—a voice that in recent years seems to have been drifting out of ear shot.