Gene Tanta on Mircea Ivănescu

by on Sep.26, 2011

a poet’s poet’s poet: a review of lines, poems, poetry by Mircea Ivănescu translated by Adam J. Sorkin and Lidia Vianu

by Gene Tanta

By translating and culling Mircea Ivănescu’s lines, poems, poetry (University of Plymouth Press, 2009), Adam J. Sorkin and Lidia Vianu produce for English readers a major contemporary Romanian poet’s reflections and symbology. Ivănescu (b. 1931) is the Romanian John Berryman; his Mopete is Berryman’s Henry. Of course this is a grotesque comparison between two writers; the way translation itself can make two beautiful but different monsters of experience. His lower-case writing signals the linguistic resistance of e.e. cummings and bell hooks. His social justice concerns run more inward toward a Sartrean nausea, but for all that, run no less political than the concerns of contemporaneous American writers. Berryman did not cause Ivănescu to write as he does just as the US’s service oriented society did not cause Romania’s largely agrarian society to remain agrarian. Differences between Ivănescu and Berryman’s poems remain evident even though translator Adam J. Sorkin informs us in the helpful introduction that Ivănescu read ten anthologized poems from Berryman’s Dream Songs.


If indeed Ivănescu’s Mopete is informed by Berryman’s Henry, such parallel persona-work is bound to differ, if for no other reason, because 1970s Romania differed so drastically from 1970s United States. For example, Romanian is a mostly Romance language while English is mostly West Germanic; Romanians lived with a sense of relative independence under Ceausescu before he visited North Korea, China, and North Vietnam in 1971 while in America the 1960s saw spectacular public assassinations and social protests; the persecutions of minority groups like the Roma were and are still difficult to document in Romania for a variety of reasons while in America African-Americans gained the right to vote in 1966 which led to the Black Power Movement and its aesthetic sister movement, the Black Arts Movement (1965-1975). Though beyond the scope of this essay, we should consider the history of the minstrel in pre-Renaissance Europe as court poet (and how this tradition morphed into the minstrel show in nineteenth century America using blackface to stereotype blacks in service of racist ideals) because it renders even more difficult our ability to compare Romanian and American cultural spaces.

Adam Sorkin, translator

Despite such linguistic, political, and social differences, a few questions worth reiterating unite Ivănescu’s Mopete and Berryman’s Henry. For instance, one writes oneself – but which self does one write? These experimental writers wrote a self as multiple and unknowable and not a self who has transformative epiphanies and is redeemed. How can one be sincere if one is not stable or knowable or has begun to chafe under the humanist paradox of being unique (like everyone else)? After the pre-Modern anthropocentric dream that the earth is flat and man is the center of the universe fades into more critical self-consciousness, how does one write about and through one self? For example, see Ivănescu’s “mopete and the hypostases” which ends “mopete has tripped and fallen, / but which mopete? he himself – or the other one? or the other one?” (55) or Berryman’s dream song 30 which asks “Is there anyone in the audience who has lived in vain?” (34). Why does it even matter if these speakers address their readers through persona or through the most earnest confessional intentions? How could one ever tell the difference between fictional persona and biographical intention? If Berryman’s dense musics and conceptual nuances make him a poet’s poet, Ivănescu is a poet’s poet’s poet.

As troubled bard, Berryman was also a Shakespearean scholar (though not much of one according to critics like William Logan). Whether through Berryman or not, Ivănescu’s reference to “…dark rowena …” (71) beats a clear apropos to Shakespeare’s dark lady sonnets. And again when he writes “… out of the residue of what was / true there continues only inward conversation – and that means nothing” (85) one hears the bounding echo of Macbeth’s soliloquy “it is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” Of course other writers also influenced Ivănescu’s poems. As Sorkin writes, Ivănescu himself has translated English, German, and French literature of writers such as Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Kafka, Musil, Broch, Rilke, T.S. Eliot, Pound, Frank O’Hara, Dylan Thomas, Yeats, and Auden (24). For example, a poem like “discontinuity” (81) resounds with the voices of Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. The poem “tangled up in lies” (90) also rings an Ashberian note with its ambivalent and self-conscious gestures of hesitation.

Ivănescu resembles Berryman most in tenor and vehicle in lines like these: “… [mopete] burned the time he had been allotted” (64) which I liken to Berryman’s “All the bells say: too late” (33) or “… a terrified mopete watched transfixed” (64) which finds reverberation in the first line of Berryman’s Dream Songs “Huffy Henry hid the day, / unappeasable Henry sulked.” (3) Additionally, they both write about music, generally, and Scarletti, specifically, reflecting through persona on irreversible loss. Both Berryman and Ivănescu work from form to speak their longing for the lost object: Berryman created 18 line poems in three stanzas and Ivănescu writes mostly in single stanza 14 lines (the traditional length of a sonnet).

One of Ivănescu’s beefiest poems “is poetry different?” starts “you mustn’t tell stories in poetry” (40) which strikes an uncanny parallel with Berryman’s famous dream song 14 which starts “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.” (16) Ivănescu’s mock protest of storytelling in poetry seems analogue to Berryman’s nausea at the prospect of marshalling inner resources. Ivănescu then goes on to tell a story in his poem and Berryman goes on to show immense psychological nuance in his poem. One gets gooseflesh in realizing that, no matter what one does or where one lives, one cannot escape narrative: narrative is one’s second skin. For how can one know content without form? How can one know oneself and others without a narrative? The historical avant-garde’s crisis of conscience as well as the French poststructuralist crisis of agency both inspired Language Poetry (late 1960s to early 1970s) in the US to miss-justify their poems. Because experimental writers courageously questioned the ideal that technological progress equals moral progress, such movements seem relevant in considering possible affiliations between the work of Berryman and Ivănescu. Positivism has always been the elephant in the twentieth-century stanza.

The poems Sorkin and Vianu selected from lines (1968) are the strongest in this anthology, which gathers Ivănescu’s early and best poems from 1968 to 1972 (with only three additional middle to late poems from 1983-1997). The early poems range in tone and theme. The best poems, like “about a chair”, illustrate Ivănescu’s offhand intensity and studied looseness.
about a chair
to write poems about objects – to start, for example,
with a chair, and to tell about it, circling
it, even sitting on it, or, on the contrary,
what it is, what it means, the intrinsic reason
for these pieces of wood to be arranged as furniture,
and gradually to drift (but then what could it mean that you’re actually
sitting on the chair in question? or you’ve only braced
its back with your hand? – or cross-legged you’re on the floor
beside it?) toward more important matters,
more personal, more human than the chair.
from the poetry of objects, so to speak, at least by understatement
to reach everything really of interest to you – that is, yourself –
(believing this is how to proceed. it’s in fact an affectation
to luxuriate in the lukewarm water of your own indolence and verbal
cliché, where you feel you’ve earned a grand poetic responsibility. thinking
this is how you create the poetry of reality).
it means, you see, that those who put their hand to poems – or, if you would,
those who have, in their own person, suffered in poetry’s employ,
first dirtied, then purified (they’d not know
whether they’d been saved) – who never sat
on those chairs, who walked – says dante –
holding their head in their hand, like a lantern, always
walked ahead – had they come upon a chair, they
wouldn’t even have kicked it over.
they would have gone around it. (41)

In a poem such as “about a chair,” the poem’s speaker considers the possibilities for a democracy of phenomena. The speaker considers more than the chair’s analytical breakdown and synthetic adumbration: he paws at its functional, social, physical constitution. The poem ends musing on the prospect, not only of a democracy of phenomena, but of moral progress: “those who put their hand to poems … / those who suffered in poetry’s employ… had they come upon a chair, they / wouldn’t even have kicked it over. / they would have gone around it.” (41) In other words, those that use the lantern of language do not kick the chair; they try to understand it better by going around it with words. This poem is a polemic suggesting that those who do not write poems are not fully human because they refuse to take up the task of thinking about objects (including the self) in language.

Sorkin and Vianu’s translations give English readers no dearth of beautiful, if contrite, phrases: “…that provisional shadow cast by conscience” (62) and “… he merely plays at words with an evil air.” (66) However, Ivănescu’s dialectical contrition seems less offered to a Christian God than to the human condition in general of always-already being at a loss.

Sorkin is right, Mircea Ivănescu’s poetry is “anti-lyrical” (23) and “a precursor to Romania’s delayed postmodern movement in the 1980s” (23) and “anti-metaphorical” (24) and “without literariness” (25) and it “foregrounds textuality … with no decisive beginning … no pronounced closure” (26). However, Ivănescu is also a master of dream logic similes: “autumn can be like a brightly coloured image / in a glossy magazine” (32) “ahead there’s always something like a bend” (34) “pointy like an extinguished flame” (37) “like a stately palm” (43) “snow, like antique silver” (46) “like an accompaniment / by the left hand” (49) “like penelope’s cloth” (57) “sinister like an odd number” (63) “smouldering / like all others” (79) “blank, like everything here, in this house” (80) “so we create / a composition in dark tones – like the waters of the rhine” (98) “could it have been so easy, / like a snake that sheds its skin” (103). I hope listing these gorgeous gestures of similitude complicates Ivănescu’s poetry as a body of work that is neither anti-figurative nor traditionally figurative, neither anti-mimetic nor wholly plot-driven illusion.

Like Berryman, Ivănescu swamps with possibility. Such technique makes his poems seem difficult and complex. Entering poems like these requires both intellectual and emotional exertion. In the poem “but there are true memories as well” the first person speaker considers the differences between remembering and imagining. The metaphor (a memory is a rubber ball) however, keeps us at a more or less traditional readerly remove. The speaker says:
(and i thought, with a wicked
grin, that in a well-known book i forget who it was
walked in hell carrying his own head to light
the way). and isn’t this more or less the same thing? (30)
The reader must not overlook the sly put-upon forgetfulness of the speaker in a poem attempting to divine memory from imagining. That said, to walk through hell lit by one’s own head is to prefer to imagine rather than to remember, more or less. The coy “more or less” in the poem’s final line suggests paradox: remembering and imagining can’t be parsed to component parts by logic or words.
In “words, words, words …” readers are told “words must be chosen with care, / words leave traces”. (31) What the words one chooses do not say allows a trust-scape to develop between writer and reader. The words chosen to skirt meaning are the ones that open up the elliptical field to potential meaning-making. Poetry cannot be written by fiat: art, if it is art, leaves its signification vulnerable “like traces in snow”. (31)

If the force of memory on our present results in melancholia, a poem like “brief take” (48) narrates the confessed guilt both for childhood sickness and for the luck of relative mental health made apparent by not having killed oneself. Poetry has always run loose (or else gotten itself snagged) between the remembrances of things past and the imagination.

What is the meaning of our meaninglessness (or the meaning of our unknowing)? How does one respond to the awareness of being cast in the void “bereft of that universal answer” (61)? Ivănescu’s speaker says: “vasilescu’s father’s friend is like a fable / about first meanings not at first understood. / the sun turns whiter and takes his measure, / leaves him lonely and bereft of that universal answer / he is seeking.” (61) Out of the “fear of nonentity” (62) the void-deniers claim there is a center and that the center holds. Ivănescu’s speaker(s) propose an ambivalent equanimity to those “… who still / would like to believe that the hazy swaths of whiteness on the wall mean something.” (80) Death is when “…words that no longer / mean anything” (82) can mean anything. Ivănescu’s poems cast an understanding over these inward – “wind-driven” – (90) ruminations that muse on the possibilities of meaninglessness: “… possibly death / starts the instant you play with being …” (86).

Sorkin and Vianu are such able and thoroughgoing translators that their “choices, approximations, and variations” (27) invite the reader to swim in the illusion of cohesive locution. The reader’s peril in accepting such an invitation to clear and beautiful meaning is that one might fail to take up what Walter Benjamin calls the task of the translator: to transform English through Romanian and vice versa. Certainly, the responsibility for taking up this task (like subjectivity itself) lies somewhere between the translator and the reader.

Throughout this pleasurable and stimulating sampling of Ivănescu’s oeuvre several themes crop up: dirty light or snow standing for death; noir elements like rainy mornings, rain coat, hands in pockets, head in hands (see “pale stars”(50)); nostalgia for an entire “lifetime”, plot summaries of unwritten novels, scenes, transcriptions (see “scene from a french novel” (38)); ekphrasis of objects like chairs, dreams, stars, and poetry itself (see “about a chair” (41)). These accumulated objects offer the English reader an important European poet’s lifetime in words.

The middle to late poems (1983-97) seem more overtly concerned with whether it’s possible to “think ahead” (101) or to “reach / a different understanding, much better, more luminous, of a being, a possible gesture …” (103). In trying to think ahead, Ivănescu iterates the most critical questions of our time: is there a center, is meaning possible, and is progress possible? As texts of experimental writers such as Urmuz, Tristan Tzara, and Paul Celan do before him, Ivănescu’s poems help readers think through the implications of what it means to be Human, our tendency to relate our sense of the expanding universe (space and time) with moral progress. Ivănescu’s poems prompt English readers to question the good of feeling free to feel free.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    Really interesting, Gene!

    When do we get your anthology of contemporary Romanian poetry?


  2. Gene Tanta

    Hi, Kent,

    Thank you for reading and for the kind words. Well, if I am selected for the Fulbright grant to Romania, it should be out before October 2014. Otherwise, I simply do not have the time to devote to such a lovely project, and this saddens me.

    Here’s hoping,