My last article was a confession of the overwhelming nostalgia that I felt while being away from home for so long. I mentioned the strong feelings one gets when listening to old songs, which brought me to the idea of starting a series of Romanian Nostalgia cures, starting with my favorite way to self-soothe: translating poems and songs to international friends! So for tonight, reader, you’ll be my friend and get front-row seats to a diversity of Romanian oeuvres, from musings on poetic language, life and death to saving contemporary poetry from sinking into the unknown, and eventually sit back and get acquainted with some of my favorite songs. Joining us tonight are four poets, two musicians and a band, some still in the flesh, others in spirit. The translations are as casual as the National Cathedral is tall, and if there is awkwardness in the English versions, it’s because preserving the original meaning was prioritized over how it sounds. And without further ado, welcome to our at times kitsch, at others sublime literary and musical world!
Ion Barbu (1895-1961)
Din ceas, dedus adâncul acestei calme creste,
Intrată prin oglindă în mântuit azur
Tăind pe înecarea cirezilor agreste,
În grupurile apei, un joc secund, mai pur.
Nadir latent! Poetul ridică însumarea
De harfe resfirate ce-n zbor invers le pierzi
Şi cântec istoveşte: ascuns, cum numai marea
Meduzele când plimbă sub clopotele verzi.
|Secondary Game |
From time*, deducted, the depth of this calm crest,
Pierced through a mirror in sanctified azure,
Slitting the drowning of primaeval herds,
In the water’s groupings, a secondary game, more pure.
Latent Nadir! The poet elevates the sum
Of scattered harps that in reverse flight you lose
And a song he toils: hidden, as only the sea is
When it sweeps meduzas under the green bells.
*The literal translation is “clock”, but the meaning of “time” is suggested by the context
Out of a common editorial practice at that time, Dan Barbilian became Dan Barbu sometime in the autumn of 1919 at the guidance of Eugen Lovinescu, a hotshot literati and director of the burgeoning belles-lettres journal Sburatorul (seriously, everybody who aspired to be somebody wanted to be published there). That does not change much about the fact that none of us quite knew what to make of Barbu in high school. Some despised his unpalatable obscurantism, others praised it out of pseudo intellectual clout. We all agreed that it was pretty cool that he was open about his Dionysian trips. Primarily a mathematician, Barbu became a poet after he had lost a bet (another reason to love him). This synergetic fusion between his scientific reason and poetic imagination engendered the most compelling of Romanian modernist lyrics.
Barbu elevated the Romanian ethos from its rudimentary paradigms, liberated from the struggle between rustic spirituality and the necessary urban decadence that was so ubiquitous (and still is, in my opinion) on the national prosodic plane. His utmost interest was to explore the human universe of knowledge acquisition. His work was concerned with imagining the best of probable worlds in writing, an aesthetics of pure being manifested in his programmatic volume entitled “Secondary Game”.
The eponymous poem below is part of a conventionally titled ‘hermetic period’ of Barbu, mainly because of the inverted topic and missing grammatical parts. In parallel with geometry’s power to not only accurately represent but shape reality, Barbu conceives of a perfect, absolute poetic language. In this way, poetic language is absolute since it represents creativity in its cognitive essence. In Heidegger’s acceptation, poetic language is always already absolute since it is subordinate to a creative process of the non Being that has lost, but now retrieves, the capacity of the Being to function as a reality regulator. In this ars poetica, Barbu uses the poetics of the mirror (water) to retrieve the traditional mimesis in which the word is refracted not as a mere medium of representation, but as locus of being itself. To mean is to will. To will is to be. As such, Barbu imagines a category of pure poetic language that has the power to reshape reality (drowning of the flocks) into a new, possible world (secondary game, more pure).
[Commentary by Ana Iordache]
Marin Sorescu (1936-1996)
Eu mut o zi albă,
El mută o zi neagră.
Eu înaintez cu un vis,
El mi-l ia la război.
El îmi atacă plămânii,
Eu mă gândesc un an la spital,
Fac o combinație strălucită
Și-i câștig o zi neagră.
El mută o nenorocire
Și mă amenință cu cancerul
(Care merge deocamdată în formă de cruce),
Dar eu îi pun în față o carte
Și-l silesc să se retragă.
Îi mai câștig câteva piese,
Dar uite, jumătate din viața mea
E scoasă pe margine.
-O să-ți dau șah și pierzi optimismul,
Îmi spune el.
-Nu-i nimic, glumesc eu,
Fac rocada sentimentelor.
În spatele meu soția, copiii,
Soarele, luna și ceilalți chibiți
Tremură pentru orice mișcare a mea.
Eu îmi aprind o țigară
Și continui partida.
I move a white day,
He moves a black day.
I move forward a dream,
He takes it to combat.
He attacks my lungs,
I think of a year in the hospital,
I make an inspired combo
And I capture a black day.
He moves a misfortune
And threatens me with cancer
(that, for now, takes the shape of a cross)
But I face him with a card
And force him to retreat.
I capture a couple of more pieces,
But, look, half of my life
Is on the sideline.
-I’ll check you and you’ll lose your optimism,
He tells me.
-No problem, I joke,
I will castle my feelings.
Behind me, my wife, the children,
The sun, the moon and the other kibitzers
Tremble for my every move.
I light up a cigarette
And continue the game.
If we move through time, skipping over Barbu’s manifestations of modernism, about two decades later we arrive at the founding of “Albatros” magazine (1941), which marks the emergence of a new literary current called Neomodernism, which has a truly unique story to tell in the way it unfolded in post-war, communist Romania. It can be seen as a continuation of interwar modernism (painting grave themes in playful tones, while the tragic remains in the background), characterized by ambiguous language, hermetic expression, subjectivity and reflexivity. What looks like the blooming of postmodernism was quickly suffocated by the rise of a severely stricter period of the communist regime (which eventually gave life to a period of social realist literature between 1949-1964 – years marked by stern censure). Marin Sorescu (1936-1996), one of the writers that started the neomodernist current, was a poet, playwright, translator, whose art engages with the mingling of gravity and childish play, the use of myth (biblical myth, “Mitul lui Manole”), and culminates in what Dan Shafran (Swedish librarian and translator, and friend of Sorescu) calls his “esthetic revolt.” Sorescu disapproved of his contemporary critics’ allowing what he called “mediocre” and “obedient” poetry, as well as “global, imponderable poetry that is devoid of any pain or emotion.” 
Sorescu shared Eugen Ionescu (Eugène Ionesco)’s attraction to the mechanism of the absurd, though, as Shafran points out, Sorescu creates a “gentler absurd”, one that uses metaphor to come to terms with the tragic. His expression of the absurd is done through laughter, but it is still a writhing laughter, and the joy always masks darkness. Just as the kids who quoted his verses in their social media statuses hid both a sea of pain inside but also an inability to fully comprehend “Iona” in High School Lit class. In “Chess”, one can fully appreciate the way Sorescu manages to remain playful while conveying intense emotion. One of the poems he dictated to his wife while on his deathbed, aligns with the one translated above to show Sorescu’s ability to remain self-composed in the face of death: “I love them [my ancestors] for having lived,/ But also for the fact that they died./ They were capable of dying./ They found extraordinary resources/ To fight with the eternal night.” 
2. Poetry made into music
Firma x Nina Cassian x Ana Blandiana
In December 2018, Firma, a Romanian alt-rock band released the album Poezii alese (vol. 1), featuring classical and contemporary poems and transforming them into songs. An interview with the lead singer uncovers his necessity for poetry (seeing it as a cure) and the ways in which they chose the songs and made the project happen: “We carefully listened to the recordings of the poets’ voices from the radio collection […]. We didn’t start from any specific name or poet, but from the emotions they transmitted while reciting their poems. […] When we felt we couldn’t add music – that is, the main melodic line – we let the poem flow by itself.” Listen to the following songs and take in the meaning from my translations:
Ana Blandiana (b. 1942)
Daca ne-am ucide unul pe altul
Dacă ne-am ucide unul pe altul
Privindu-ne în ochi,
În ochii noștri în jurul cărora
Genele stau ca o coroană de spini
Dacă ne-am ucide, după ce ne-am privit
Cu dragoste fără de țărm în ochi,
Și, cunoscându-te, ți-aș spune:
Mori, dragul meu,
Va fi atât de bine,
Vei rămâne numai cu mine,
Tu, cel născut din cuvânt,
Vei cunoaște gust de pământ,
Vei simți ce frumoase sunt rădăcinile
Împletindu-ți prin ele mâinile,
Cu nențeleasa bucurie
De-a nu mai fi pentru vecie…
Și, mângâindu-mă, mi-ai spune:
Mori, draga mea,
Iubita mea cu frunte de octombrie
Cuprinsă ca-n icoane
De nimb rotund de moarte,
Lasă-ți culorile în flori,
Pletele lungi cărărilor
Și ochii luciu mărilor,
De unde să le iei,
Când vei veni…
Dac-am muri deodată împreună
Ucigaș fiecare și victimă,
Salvator și salvat,
Privindu-ne fără-ncetare-n ochi,
Mult după ce nu vom vedea…
|If we killed one another |
If we killed one another
Looking in each other’s eyes
In our eyes, around which our eyelashes sit like a crown of thorns
Which forever crowns
If we killed each other after we had looked
With boundless love in each other’s eyes,
And knowing you, I would tell you:
Die, my love,
It will be so good,
You will stay only with me
You, born out of word,
You will know the taste of earth,
You will feel how beautiful the roots are
Braiding them with your
With the incomprehensible joy
Of not being for eternity…
And caressing me, you’d tell me
Die, my love
My lover with the October forehead
Engulfed, like in the icons,
By a round halo of death,
Leave your colours among the flowers,
Your long locks to footpaths
And eyes the lustre of seas,
So you will know
Where to take them from,
When you will come…
If we suddenly died together
Both killer and victim,
Savior and saved,
Looking endlessly into each other’s eyes,
Long after we will no longer see…
This poem, especially when transposed in song, never fails to bring me to a trance-like state where I carefully tread on different paths of meaning, never really reaching an endpoint. The pattern of the eyelashes encircling the eyes or the icon figure engulfed by a halo brings about biblical imagery and makes me think of the way our judgement is irreparably clouded by subjective perception. There is also a captivating juxtaposition between the ideal and the material here – what is born out of word (again the biblical idea that man is born out of the true word of god) becomes grounded by sensing the earth, the roots and takes pleasure in giving up on eternity. You could see this as an inversion of the original sin, in the way that the fall from heaven, dying and becoming mortal, is an elevation more than it is damnation. But this is only one interpretation, and you could also read this as a homicidal love letter, which is even better! That’s the magic of this poem, it leaves interpretation open and plays around with ideas of eternal and mortal.
What if I told you the lyrics are whispered by the actual author (Ana Blandiana), in flesh and bone, the sound of her words forever captured in her own voice in this recording. In an interview, the lead singer confesses that he “doesn’t know how the song would’ve sounded without her voice. What she transmits is completely atemporal. […] People might appreciate it even more knowing that it is a sung poem rather than a song with hypnotizing lyrics.”
Nina Cassian (1924-2014)
|In Lemn |
În lemn sunt capete de cai
Lungi picături de culoare. În lemn
Sunt ochi palizi pictați
De marele pictor solemn
Oasele slabe curg. Parcă
Rotule, clavicule, femure
Şi mimici, ale unor fantome
Dacă-mi pun palmele
Pe lemn, simt dedesubt
Lumea în două dimensiuni
Dușmana reliefului rupt
În lemn e un timp neînvins
Un calcul de fibre. Dacă
Pun gura pe lemn, încep
Să cresc ca o cracă
|In the wood |
In the wood, there are horse heads
Long drops of color. In the wood
There are pale eyes painted
By the great solemn painter
The thin bones drip. It seems as if
Rotulas, clavicules, femurs
And mimics, of some ghosts
If I put my palms
Against the wood, underneath I can feel
The world in two dimensions
The enemy of the broken topography
In the wood, there is an untouched time
A calculus of fibres. If
I place my mouth on the wood, I start
To grow like a branch
This poem seems to have been created to be sung, and in a way, it really was. Nina Cassian was a Romanian-Jewish poet and composer, so her verses have an inherent musicality through their rhythm and her use of alliteration.
I’ve got some interwar literary circle gossip for you: Ion Barbu and many other prolific authors of the time fell in love with her and her work before her political views sent her into exile in 1985. She went to the US as a visiting professor and despite being determined to return, after the arrest of her friend and the finding of some satirical anti-communist poetry of hers, she knew she would not be able to. With the help of American friends, she decided to stay. She was granted asylum and continued to live in New York City, where she continued to write in English. You can read some more of her English poetry here.
Maria Tănase (1913-1963)
Showing a deep understanding of human pain since she was a child, Maria Tanase “would sometimes hide in graveyards to hear the grieving of her elders.” She often sang about death and the struggles of life, conveying the pain of others in her craft. During her life, she reached international fame, which all started on the day where she was on national radio in 1938. Before she played with an orchestra, she humbly asked if she may sing a few songs on her own afterwards. She sang a collection of folklore songs (one of them translated below) and she left an entire country speechless. I will avoid narrating her intriguing love life, which has been the primary interest of the Romanian press, and instead save my breath to tell you about the rumours (or the legend, if you will) of her being a secret agent. Between sept 14th 1940 and 14th february 1941, Romania lived through a period when the National Legionary State governed. The totalitarian fascist regime was led by Ion Antonescu and in partnership with the Iron Guard, (a Romanian ultranationalist, antisemitic, anti-Hungarian, anti-Romanyist, anti-communist, anti-capitalist and pro-Eastern Orthodox party). During this time, Maria Tanase was denied artistic expression and entire editions of her records were destroyed using an axe, as the Legionary state had banned folklore music (due to the fact that it was led by Jewish publicists) and because of her close relationship to Henry Brauner, Jewish ethnomusicologist, composer, and professor of music. She loses the battle against breast cancer in 1963 and dies in her childhood home.
Now that you’ve read this incredible woman’s life story, listen to her actual voice, its deep timbre that brings a truly enchanting atmosphere. Along with the mystery in the sound, I find these lyrics fascinating: she uses raw imagery, likely collected from folklore, such as the wind, the snake and the insect: the personifying of an ant to invert the human-insect hierarchy and uncover the painful but humbling idea that human nature is in its essence unreliable. At first sight it is a curse against a lying lover, but perhaps it’s cursing humanity itself.
|Cine iubește și lasă|
Cine iubește și lasă
Dumnezeu să-i dea pedeapsă:
Și pasul gândacului
Că furnica de-i furnică
La trup mare, la cap mică
Și la mijloc subțirică
De umblă pe sub pământ
Tot se țâne de cuvânt
Hai, dar noi oameni botezați
De cuvânt suntem lăsați
|The one who loves and leaves |
To the one who loves and leaves
May God give a punishment:
The crawling of the snake
And the insect’s step
The roaring of the wind
The dust of the earth
Because the ant, though merely an ant,
Heavy framed, small-headed
Treads under the earth
It still holds its promise
As for us, baptized people
By the word, we are let down*.
*suggesting, we do not keep true to our word
Aura Urziceanu (b. 1946)
Aura Urziceanu is a Romanian jazz singer and composer, who became famous during the 70s and 80s. She is one of the most important figures in the Romanian jazz scene, which unfortunately is still relatively obscure. The song below was written by another artist, Nicu Alifantis, and it was “gifted” to Aura – they were supposed to record it together, but unfortunately Nicu didn’t show up. The song ultimately became famous and was commonly referred to as “a song with two destinies” (“o piesa cu doua destine”). When Nicu Alifantis heard Aura’s version, he could never go back to his own – akin to Bob Dylan’s reaction to Jimi Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower.
|Aproape Liniste |
Norii-s de-argint și zboară departe,
Cerul e înalt, tăiat în cleștar,
Noaptea-i o perdea,
Și-n fereastra mea,
Doar umbre care încet dispar…
Când nu ești aici mi-e camera goală,
E timpul leneș, mult prea lung…
Deloc nu mi-e somn,
Și-n loc să adorm,
Încerc cu gândul să te-ajung…
Se înseninează cerul departe,
Ceața dispare, ruptă în fâșii…
Străzile-s pustii dacă tu, dacă tu nu vii,
Degeaba începe, începe o nouă zi…
Nu te îndepărta,
Nu mă mai lăsa
Nu te răzgândi,
Nu mă ocoli,
Nu mai fugi…
Și e linişte iar,
aproape de mine,
Prea triste visele îmi sunt…
De ce nu ești aici să-mi poți vorbi
Să-ți pot vorbi,
S-apropii cerul de pământ ?
Și e liniște iar, aproape de mine,
De ce n-auzi chemarea mea ?
Te strig mereu, te strig în gând
E inima mea ca un ceas bătând.
Clouds of silver fly far away,
The sky is high, cut in crystal,
The night’s a curtain,
And in my window,
Only shadows that slowly disappear…
When you aren’t here, my room’s empty,
Time is lazy, too enduring…I’m not tired at all,
And instead of falling asleep,
With my thoughts, I try to reach you…
In the distance, the sky is brightening,
The fog disappears, torn apart into strips…
The streets are empty if you, if you don’t come,
In vain it starts, another day…
Don’t distance yourself,
Don’t leave me again
Here to wait alone.
Don’t change your mind,
Don’t avoid me,
Don’t run away anymore
And silence surrounds me again,
My dreams are too sad…
Why are you not here so you can talk to me
So you can talk to me,
To draw the sky closer to the earth?
And silence surrounds me again,
Why won’t you hear my calling?
I cry for you, I cry for you in my thought
My heart like a beating clock.
Ana Coman is a recently blooming Romanian singer whose music I’ve discovered accidentally and haven’t been able to stop listening to ever since. Her career started with English lyrics, but soon switched to her native language; when asked about her choice to write in Romanian in an interview, she answered that one night, after a moment awakened deep feelings within her, she had to write it down but could no longer find the right words to express it in English. After trying to find an accurate translation for this song, I can confirm that it is a painful process and it still cannot be done without losing some of the original meaning. The lyrics roll off the tongue in Romanian, while the English translation can only get so close, but it might still help in uncovering some of the interesting imagery and word games used in this song.
Nu te ştiu, oare mă ştii?
Un gol în stomac îmi zice că vii
și-ai să mă-nveţi pe dianafară
şi-ai să m-arunci ca să te prind.
Eu o să fug a nu știu câta oară din mine
până să te-aud venind
Aici nu-i locul meu, am venit pe-ascuns
și tu nu fugi, dar nici nu te lași dus
şi simt un poate, văd un parcă, simt un „haide,
ce-ar fi dacă?”,
iar tu-mi spui nu…dar îmi pictezi pe buze-un hai
şi-aș vrea, dacă poți…aş vrea să mai stai.
Iată-ne aici, dar cum?
În mine e ceaţă, la tine e fum,
în privire e secol, în noi sunt secunde.
Hai du-mă acasă, eu tot aştept.
la mine, la tine, oriunde!
Dar gata. Îmi zici să plec, să gata. Să nu te mai
aştept.Hai cheamă-ţi un taxi, eu mai beau puțin.
Mai sunt 5 minute, un pahar de vin
și uite, mai stau. Mai stau cât de-un sărut,
un pas contratimp, o țigară şi-atât.
I don’t know you, I wonder, do you know me?
A pit in my stomach tells me you’re coming
And you’ll learn me by heart
And you’ll throw me so that I can catch you
I’ll run away from myself for the millionth time
Until I hear you coming
This is not my place, I came in hiding
And you don’t run, but you also don’t let go
And I feel a “maybe”, I see an “as though”, I
feel a “come on, what if?”,
And you tell me no… but you paint a “come on”
on my lips
And I would like it, if you could, I would like
you to stay
Here we are, but how?
Within me there’s fog, in you there’s smoke,
In the look there’s century, in us there are
Take me home, I am still waiting.
My place, your place, wherever!
But that’s it. You tell me to leave, to end it. To
stop waiting for you.
Come on, call yourself a cab, I will drink a little
There’s 5 minutes left, a glass of wine
And look, I’m staying. I’m staying for a kiss,
a contretemps, a cigarette and that’s it.
The lead singer of Firma, Daniel “Rocca” Stoicea, shared his (not unpopular) views on the relationship between the public and contemporary Romanian poetry: “There are still people who don’t know there’s an entire generation of contemporary poets, which is sad. Every brick counts. […] But Romanian poetry will survive these times, and so will our music.”
This article has hopefully been such a brick in the foundation of drawing back the attraction to Romanian contemporary, modernist and neomodernist poetry. Revisiting it can act as a gate to the history of a literary scene that was stunted for too long by totalitarian regimes, but that could never really be suppressed. For me it means revisiting a place I miss, if only through literature. There’s a feeling of satisfaction in sharing it with others as well and inviting people within Romanian culture. It even sparks the old forgotten flame that is my national pride. But alas, it is late, the romantic intrigues and philosophising must come to an end, so the artists retire, but not before reassuring us their voices will continue to be heard and their stories to be told.
PS: I would like to show my gratitude to Ana Iordache, Cosmin Stanciu and Astrid Floristeanu for their help, contributions, ideas, and support! And especially for Ana: tăia-ţi-aș cirezile agreste!
 Extracted from an interview by Nicolae Baicut: https://www.poezie.ro/index.php/article/165756/Interviu_cu_Marin_Sorescu
Îi iubesc atît pentru că au trăit,
Cît și pentru faptul că au murit.
Au fost capabili să moară.
Au găsit resurse extraordinare
Ca să se lupte cu noaptea cea veșnică