Escorting Romanian Poetry to the English Speaking World—Of Gentle Wolves: An Anthology of Romanian Poetry edited by Martin Woodside

Martin Woodside’s new anthology of Romanian translations, Of Gentle Wolves, adds much to the landscape of contemporary English language poetry. Woodside, in his translator’s note, claims that “contemporary Romanian poets work largely in obscurity and are often dismissed as a marginal, even irrelevant, group;” he argues, however, that these Romanian poets are relevant, diverse, and dynamic and that “the poems [in the anthology] must offer the proof.” This anthology does offer proof of a unique and vibrant contemporary Romanian poetry community, revealing a clear snapshot through fourteen poets.


Several key elements bind these poets together. As Woodside indicates in his introduction, all these poets work in a tradition that rose out of government oppression and censorship that ended with the revolution of 1989. Echoing themes of history and memory, the work of these poets is rich with allusion, allegory, satire, surrealism, and lyric stripped of sentimentality and narcissism. Readers can trace this Romanian tradition back to the period when Romania transitioned from a dictatorship to a democracy—tellingly, many of these poets exhibit a knack for fused sentences and freedom from end stops, creating a flow and momentum that feels free from grammatical oppression and rules. A reader will quickly acclimate to this style and flow through the anthology with ease, moving with each phrase and lyric freely and finding many happy surprises along the way.


Employing many of these techniques is Gellu Naum in his poem, “The Fourteenth,” translated by Woodside and Chris Tanasescu. Naum plainly alludes to history, disregards punctuation, and emphasizes a “we” over an “I.” The title itself, “The Fourteenth,” implies some historical significance, although it is never explicitly stated. The first lines open the poem with forgetting: “Our people forgot buried us in the corn stalks[.]” Between the title and first line, we are placed in this juxtaposition of history and forgetting. Also, the central focus in this narrative is to emphasize the plurality of the speaker. Naum chooses to say “our people” and “us”—both pronouns that indicate plurality—to express that the poem’s voice is that of a group of people rather than a singular speaker. Robert Şerban echoes this plurality in his poem “I Hide.” His speaker hides within a dark cathedral bell, revealing he “tremble[s] with solitude much greater than [his] own[.]” Serban’s protagonist may speak for a number of people in collective solitude.


In “The Fourteenth,” Naum’s nonobservance of traditional punctuation gives the reader a sense of giddy freedom, creating double meanings and multiple interpretations. He writes: “around here swore the tour guide comrade Alexander the Great once passed[.]” From this sentence the reader could assume that Alexander the Great once passed through there, or the tour guide himself could indeed be Alexander the Great! Woodside refers to Naum as a “first generation surrealist,” and the absence of signifying commas enhances the surrealist effect of his poems.


Naum’s poem ends on an oxymoron, proclaiming matter-of-factly that: “[i]t was a common epoch Night fell” indicating at once that there is nothing to note of this “noteworthy” event that took place on the fourteenth, and the capitalization of “Night” casts night large—indicating, perhaps, a metaphorical night.


Excerpts translated from Naum’s “The Lance-Bearer” again reference memory:


a vast memory exiled

everything that could be named this way
amounting to a single image of indefinite shape


These lines conjure a collective memory in the word “vast”—a memory that equals history in its comprehensive scope. They also intercede and evoke something larger—perhaps an allusion to Genesis and Adam naming all living creatures. Further, Naum indicates that this “everything” amounts to something singular and of an “indefinite shape.”


In one instance, Naum shapes an image of being watched. Perhaps I cannot help but interpret this image within the context of Romania’s history. Here,


there’s no time my mother’s in agony
and next door someone watches me through the window with field glasses


she approaches zig-zagging


The emphasis is placed on the image of someone watching the speaker, as if studying another species intently. Further, it is ambiguous whether the anonymous watcher is also the woman who “approaches zigzagging” in the next line. However, it is precisely this ambiguity that Naum creates in both poems through freedom from punctuation that adds surprise and a wild openness to interpretation.


This motif of close observation also appears in Ana Blandiana’s “Do You Remember the Beach” where “the sea, / Where I waited, / Would close like an eyelid.” The sea is much like the image in Naum’s poem, a watchful eye, yet the difference here is emphasized by the eye’s closing. The speaker in Blandiana’s poem addresses a second person, seemingly a lover; she asks if the lover remembers how the beach was “[l]ittered with bitter pieces of glass / That beach / Where we couldn’t walk barefoot[.]” With this image, Blandiana underscores a lack of freedom—not being able to walk freely and enjoy the proverbially relaxing beach. This, too, can be interpreted as further allusion to Romania’s dictatorial past. Woodside, in his translator’s note mentions that Blandiana wrote during the time of communist censorship.


Angela Marinescu’s poem, “Dadaism Versus Surrealism,” reverberates through the collection as a manifesto of sorts: “I don’t know what else to do / but write slow and free / like the soft rain / of spring.” Marinescu declares, without fanfare, that the writer’s work persists, for the writer must write as surely as the rain must fall.


In addition to engaging with historical context, there’s much pleasure and surprise in the poems themselves. To once again reference Naum’s excerpt from “The Lance-Bearer,” he leaves us with an image, in his typical surrealistic, juxtapositional fashion:


while I remained behind to sleep peacefully
in a round tomb with a golden mask on my face.


Not only is this image poignant and a bit absurd in a delightful way, it is subtly wry—a characteristic that other poets in this collection demonstrate with skill.


Chris Tanasescu’s satirical wit is at play in “Envoy,” a section from “How was

Chris Tanasescu

Ion Iliescu not Assassinated?” Here Tanasescu offers a political critique in which Romania, as a girl, has an uncontrollable growth on her forehead. Tanasescu names this massive boil “Ilici (Iliescu)”—which happens to be the name of Romania’s first president after the revolution—and calls it a “beauty mark.” In a twist as subtle and deft as a fox, Tanasescu inverts the tale’s perspective from the girl to the growth itself, Iliescu. In the last lines, Romania seeks the advice of a surgeon, and rather than hearing the surgeon’s or the girl’s voice, Tanasescu sets us up for a subtle shift in perspective: “There, / Ilici (Iliescu): good doctor, look what’s grown out of my ass!” The subtle subversiveness is exhibited with playfulness and dexterity. There’s a significance in this shift in perspectives—a statement that perceptions can be skewed depending on the observer.


Such poems are lyrical and surreal—moments stripped of sentimentality that speak truthfully of the human condition. In “Ars Amandi,” Constantin Acosmei wrings out the romantic lyric with this image:


then you reached out your hand and began
to tousle my hair—so that
everything around was showered with dandruff …


It’s playful and truly human without pretension, just as when Dan Coman offers us a poem in which lovers “in silence slap against one another / like two chicken legs.” And Ioan Moldovan‘s unpunctuated lines and repetitions will sway readers into a trance-like state as they follow along with the speakers, who are “sneaking through the ditches among the nettles now always now[.]” Further, Leonid Dimov, in “Dream with the Instructor” heightens our senses:


So she could rest her lilac food upon my head.
A dizzy smell spread over the floor and
Meatballs fried in a bottomless pan …


The electricity and playfulness of these poets is not lost in translation and is perhaps enhanced by Woodside and his coterie of fellow translators. Even for readers unfamiliar with the Romanian language, the originals and translations (featured en face) make it clear that Woodside has kept forms intact, and most interestingly, the rhythmic essence of the poems. One can see that the Romanian language is rife with rhymes. “Sonnet XL,” by Leonid Dimov is a fine example. Woodside and Tanasescu create slight end rhymes and assonances such as “go” and “glow,” and further down “shadows” echoes these lines. The third tercet’s lines are unified by the assonance of “skin,” “in,” and “six.” Likewise, the integrity and joy of O. Nimigean’s end rhymes are unspoiled in “from Intermezzo” with lines such as: “then lights up a smoke / to meditate / on how the nation goes” and “MEENIE — MINIE — MO // Oh mosquitoes! Mosquitoes!” Even the subtle word choice of “field glasses” over “binoculars” shows the delicacy and integrity of Woodside’s translations.


Martin Woodside

Readers are invited on this journey from Marin Sorescu’s “Shakespeare creat[ing] the world in seven days” to Nicolae Coande’s “collective passport,” allowing us entrance into Of Gentle Wolves, where Woodside has created a brilliant source book of contemporary Romanian poetry. Readers will wander through Romania and the imagination. As Chris Tanasescu writes in his poem, “from Hermaia:” “the book is the only place here / to enter / the only place / to find a way through / maybe this is how the world started …”


Of Gentle Wolves, Calypso Editions (2011)

Reviewed by Gina Barnard.

More Martin Woodside:

Buy Of Gentle Wolves at Calypso Editions

Read a review by Kathryn Farris and Ilya Kaminsky at Web Del Sol

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