Secret Weapon is the final collection from Romanian poet Eugen Jebeleanu (1911-1991). I can’t say that I knew all that much about Romania or Romanian poetry before picking up this book, likely because this is the first time Jebeleanu’s work has appeared in English despite his reputation as one of Romania’s best-known poets and public figures. Jebeleanu had an impressive career, publishing over twelve collections of poetry between 1930 and 1980; he won several of Europe’s most important poetry awards and was nominated for the Nobel Prize. Secret Weapon is the poet’s final collection, published in Romania in 1980, and focuses on life under the totalitarian rule of Ceausescu.
There are about 90 poems in the collection, in which the poet either simply or elaborately—and always clearly—describes a world marked by despair. The collection begins with a little girl’s dream about dying and the speaker’s effort to sooth her by telling her “It was just a dream.” Continuing through the poems, the theme of death is as threatening as it is in the first poem, and here and there, it completely takes over. Much further into the collection, a poem called “Clara” echoes the relationship between the speaker and the girl from early on. The poem begins, “Oh, I see her hanging. / But she didn’t hang herself,” then ends with the line, “And she was guilty of nothing.”
The poems range in tone from quietly desperate to ironic to resigned, yet no poem feels like it does not belong; all seem to have been written from a certain perspective, the poet confident in his own awareness. After all, the collection is his last, written late in life, while he is preoccupied with those who have already died, and, of course, with his own death. In the poem called “Patience,” the speaker says,
No, the dead aren’t getting bored.
Far away they are waiting for me to reach them.
And waiting, they leaf through a book
with wet pages—and they smile at me.
Many of the poems involve only a few short lines, but there is something powerful about each one. The images within are often strikingly vivid, at other times vague, and there are even some poems without images at all. Under the title “My Life,” the poet gives four lines:
I am looking for my lost life.
And I cannot find it.
My life is a bankruptcy.
And? And? And?
It is as if he is still groping for the words to describe his loss, but he lets the questions mark the poem, perhaps even more than that considering the title. The poet does not offer any simple answers; there is no single take-away message. In the poem called “So Remain,” the speaker says, “Don’t ever ask anyone/ anything,” just, “remain“—a lovely bit of advice from one who has realized that often we humans “understand/ nothing at all”
Jebeleanu is sometimes considered the epic poet of Romania, an awesome claim, but one that I can’t yet speak to considering how recently I’ve been introduced to Romanian literature. However, I have become attached to this collection, perhaps because it offers a kind of intensity that is rarely so genuine, or accessible. Jebeleanu’s poems hail from a very specific historical moment, but the personal nature of the work, and his voice, gives them lasting relevance.
By Eugen Jebeleanu
Translated by Matthew Zapruder and Radu Ioanid
Coffee House Press
98 pgs, $15.00