Memory Glyphs: 3 Prose Poets from Romania
Of the three authors featured in the prose poem collection Memory Glyphs, beautifully translated from the Romanian by Adam Sorkin with Mircea Ivanescu, Bogdan Stefanescu and one of the poets (Radu Andriescu), only the latter is still alive. From the translator’s preface we find out that Cristian Popescu died when he was not even thirty-six “from a heart attack that was induced by his medication for schizophrenia and depression in potent mixture with vodka drinking.” Iustin Panta (pronounced Pantza) died at the same age as Popescu, in a car accident.
In Cristian Popescu’s prose poems, the author himself becomes a character—or so we assume, since we are dealing with someone called Cristi or Popescu. But he isn’t just any character; he is a figure in a family myth based on his own transfigured biography, in which the idyllic and the grotesque mingle in unexpected ways. I would say that, of the three authors, Popescu is the most untranslatable, not because of his language, but because of a certain Romanian sensibility, which is much harder to “translate” into English than words. For example, in “Advice from my mother,” he describes his mother who, after giving birth, felt crippled, and prepared to suckle her baby by powdering and rouging her breasts. She takes comfort, she says, “thinking that one day, someone will curse him [i.e., the baby] and tell him to stick himself back into his mother.” This is a slightly awkward translation of the most vulgar Romanian curse (“Go back into your mother’s c___!” or, in a more polite version, “Go back into your mother’s thing!”). In other words, Popescu’s image of his sentimental mother is done via the most obscene expression in the Romanian language. This union of some very contrary states—the sentimental and the utterly grotesque—which is natural for a Romanian, may not be for a native English-speaker.
Popescu’s self-mythologizing creates a sort of urban mythology grounded in self-mockery, a paradoxical world of antiheroes and sad clowns. Thus, “Anti-Portrait: A Psalm by Popescu” starts like this: “No, Lord. Neither more nor less, neither too much nor too little. And not quite Popescu.” Or, “Poetry”: “The earliest literary efforts of the poet Popescu date from the tender age of seven.” In the same poem we are told that Popescu wept so much in his youth that “they had to install a miniature urinal to collect the precious stones” that developed at the corners of his eyes.
Iustin Panta’s pieces are structurally unusual in that they combine verse poetry and prose within the space of the same poem. In the literal sense, the space of his poems is often enclosed—a room in which various objects come into focus—though several poems are about waiting for the train or the bus (one could write a treatise about Romanian poems revolving around the thorny topic of “public transportation”). Many of his poems refer to a “she” and are dialogues between “she” and the narrator. Of the three authors, Panta is probably the most cerebral, as his pieces are sometimes paradoxes or conundrums.
In “A Feminine Thought. A Feminine Thought?” pondering the difference between the breasts of a woman suckling a baby and her breasts laid bare otherwise, he concludes that the baby “continues” the breast and thus nullifies its voluptuousness. The woman is thus nullified too, proving to be “a fraud, a plagiarism,” like a fake painting one would examine under a magnifying glass. The infant is compared here to a magnifying glass revealing the breast’s “true nature,” so to speak, or rather the fact that its voluptuousness is really an illusion. But Panta goes on to challenge the true nature of this very thought by saying that this feminine thought, “seen through the magnifying glass! (itself, in turn, fake)” is also a falsehood.
Radu Andriescu’s prose poems are probably the most “poetic” in this collection in the sense that his style is more focused on its literariness and on artifice. Places and household objects are often the subject of his writings—a terrace, a stove, the wrought-iron winding stairs of his house, his neighborhood, whose depiction rivals that of a Turkish bazaar: the streets are crowded
with cardboard Poles and manic writers, with plumbers cloaked in a miasma of mercury vapors, with starched paunchy senators, with mutant garages turned into candy shops or fruit markets, their plaster hanging on spiderwebs . . . with decrepit geezers only thirty years old . . . apartment buildings nearly hidden by weeds and university dorms as dreary as a comb caked with dandruff . . . with stores soaked in cheap draft beer and artificially colored syrup masquerading as wine, both red and white, with Turkish delight and stale pretzels to bite, with nonfat yogurt, cellophane, bottles, foil, paper, with the flight of clouds, heaps of vacant days, whole wastelands of lost hours, a mixture of tar and cola, books and dust . . .
The sentence goes on for two and a half pages, a dazzling stylistic feat against what Andrei Codrescu once called “tight-ass minimalism.” Like Popescu, Andriescu too builds a mythologized universe replicating the real world in which he lives, and appears as a character in one of his poems. As I happened to read at the same time with this collection Peter Altenberg’s Telegrams of the Soul (Archipelago Books, 2005, translated from the German by Peter Wortsman), I realized that this objectification of the author is not infrequent in Eastern Europe. Altenberg too is a character in his own pieces: he is called Peter, he is a writer, and many of his scenes—often entirely in the form of dialogues—are sketches of everyday life.
Altenberg (1859-1919), a Viennese-Jewish writer whose admirers include Kafka, Musil and Mann, calls his pieces—which in this country are referred to as “prose poems”—“sketches.” His sources of inspiration are said to be the “feuilleton,” a lyrical form of journalistic prose that was popular at the turn of the twentieth century, and Baudelaire’s prose poems. “Sketch” was also a term used by Romanian writers (let’s not forget that until 1918, Transylvania, the Western part of Romania, was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire) in the early twentieth century. The master of the sketch was Ion Luca Caragiale (1852-1912) whose pieces were mostly dialogues (incidentally, Caragiale is the most famous Romanian playwright) written in a mood that would fall into the category of the absurd from a Western perspective (It is no accident that the French playwright of Romanian origin, Eugène Ionesco, was strongly influenced by Caragiale).
Paradoxically, although Romania is a very Francophile culture, and Romanian is the only Romance language in that part of the world, what we could call the “Romanian prose poem” is less influenced by the French tradition of the prose poem, its beginnings being closer to various forms of journalism (lyrical or satirical)—still practiced in Romania, where the most common profession among writers is that of journalist.