Life without solitude is a deafening din. Solitude punctuates our life, making it more musical, restores us to ourselves.
—Dumitru Tsepeneag, Pigeon Post, trans. Jane Kuntz.
“No one reads Nichita Stănescu” is a five-word poem; it is a lament, my lament, but I need not cry it in his homeland of Romania. There, he is revered by everyone, and his poems are not merely read but prayed.
[The Romanian poet] Nichita Danilov recalls Stănescu being feted with an introduction suited for a demigod: “Remember, my friends. Take a good look at this man. He is a genius. Rejoice that you were able to meet him! That you lived at the same time as he did!”(SC, 307)
He was born on March 31, 1933, in Ploieşti. During WWII, the city’s groundbreaking oil refinery was taken over by the Nazis and eventually crippled by US bombers—“people dying in flames, the smell of burning everywhere, screaming, the indecent redness of split flesh” are some of the horrors that riddled through Stănescu’s childhood. His account of failing the first grade, because “he’d found it unusually difficult to imagine that the uttered utterance and the spoken speech exist and that they can be written”, serves as a good primer for his approach to poetry (“the ritual of writing on air”), and it describes a bewilderment toward language that every writer would benefit from experiencing and cultivating.
In 1952, Stănescu moved to Bucharest, where he studied Romanian, linguistics, philosophy, and literature. After university, he worked as an editor for various Romanian literary periodicals. His writings earned him the Herder Prize in 1975, and he was nominated for the 1979 Nobel Prize in Literature, which ended in the hands of Greek poet Odysseas Elytis—that same year, Max Frisch, Léopold Senghor, and Borges were also in contention.
Stănescu preferred togetherness over solitude; he married three times, smoked, drank heavily, resided mainly in the houses of friends, and could be found extemporizing poems in bars with his audience eagerly scrambling to make transcriptions.
‘Gutenberg flattened words out,’ delcared Stănescu in a Belgrade interview, ‘but words exist in space … Words are spatialized. They are not dead, like a book. They are alive, between me and you, me and you, me and you. They live; they are spoken, spatialized, and received.’(SC, 308)
During his fiftieth year of life, the long-suffered illness of his liver worsened, prompting a trip to the hospital. The doctor, while attempting to revive him, asked Stănescu if he could breathe. “I breathe”, he said, and those were his last words, written in air, written in pneuma: “am respira”.
He left behind a prodigious body of work that includes not only his diverse poetry, but also essays, and Romanian translations of the Serbian-language poets Adam Puslojic and Vasko Popa.
Collections of Stănescu’s poetry in English translation:
- The Still Unborn About the Dead (Anvil Press, 1975), selected poems translated by Petru Popescu and Peter Jay. It is a shame that this collection is out of print, because it is the only one that contains the full Elegies (a.k.a. The Last Supper; originally Elegii, 1966), including “The Slit Man”, which Stănescu dedicated to Hegel and labelled the “anti-Elegy”, “a kind of Judas” to the eleven others.
- Ask the Circle to Forgive You — Selected Poems, 1964-1979 (The Globe Press, 1983), translated by Mark Irwin and Mariana Carpinisan. In my opinion, this might not be the strongest of the out-of-print books, but it is worth tracking down just for “Contemplating the World from the Outside”. Thankfully, a lot of the other poems can be found via the later books, albeit in different translations.
- Bas-Relief with Heroes — Selected Poems, 1960-1982 (Memphis State University Press, 1988), translated by Thomas C. Carlson and Vasile Poenaru, with illustrations by Benedict Gănescu. Its introductory essay by Dumitru Radu Popa provides an excellent overview of Stănescu and Romanian literature. The illustrations seem ill-suited, but the visual accompaniment is redeemed by a single, uncaptioned photograph (see above, last image) that is found near the end of the book, beside “Knot 19”. A handful of the poems from this collection can be found online at RomanianVoice.com.
- Sentimental Story (Editura Athena, 1995), translated by Bogdan Ștefănescu. Unfortunately, I was not able to acquire a copy of this book, so I am not certain, but the Worldcat.org listing suggests they are English translations. [Update (2012/11/15): I acquired this charming little book, and I can confirm it does have English translations; it is also a bilingual edition.]
- Occupational Sickness (BuschekBooks, 2005), selected and translated by Oana Avasilichioaei. You should get this book while it is still available; as of October 7, 2012, I still see copies for sale on Amazon.ca for ~$11. It contains a unique selection of poems, and she has beautiful translations of Stănescu’s lyrical verse. It is also the
onlysecond completely bilingual edition that I know of. (The Carlson edition does include a few Romanian versions of the harder to translate poems.)
- Wheel with a Single Spoke and Other Poems (Archipelago Books, 2012), selected and translated by Sean Cotter. Up until this glorious book, Bas-Relief with Heroes was the most extensive collection. Cotter and Archipelago have done English-language readers a great service. Feel free to start reading anywhere, but I suggest Cotter’s selections from Stănescu’s Egg and Sphere, Epica Magna, and Unwords.
Stănescu “tears with [things’] tears”, because “[e]verything on earth / at one time or another needs to cry”, so he cries for the unable, for “the still unborn about the dead”, for the everyday, for Language. As such, he belongs in the same league as Rilke, Vallejo, Celan: poets for whom “[poetry] is [often] the weeping itself”; poets who do not simply play with words but, rather, who accumulate a poetic charge until it arcs out and brilliantly sears fresh paths through language—paths that become new homes for Being.
With English translations of Stănescu’s poems back in circulation, now is the time for you to embrace his words with your ribs: by breathing them in through your eyes, ears, skin.
‘A poet is greater,’ [Stănescu] wrote, ‘when those that read him don’t discover the poet but themselves.’(OA, 10)
(Photos: please see their captions—unfortunately, I could not find credits for all of them, and there are a lot more photographs on the extremely popular Facebook page dedicated to Nichita Stănescu. Also, this article could not have been possible without the essays and translations by Popescu, Irwin, Avasilichioaei, and Cotter; where appropriate, I noted, either in superscript or in tooltips, their initials and their book’s page number.)
When we saw each other, the air
between us quickly tossed aside
the image of those trees, indifferent and bare,
it had before allowed to come inside.
Oh, we rushed, calling our names,
together,—thus did we quicken
that time was pressed between our chests
and the hour fell into minutes, stricken.
I wished to hold you in my arms
as I hold the body of childhood, in the past,
with its unrepeated dyings.
And I wished to embrace you with my ribs.
— Nichita Stănescu, “The Embrace”, trans. Thomas C. Carlson
(Images: “Embracing Couple” (via egonschiele) and The Embrace by Egon Schiele)
In the river Maeander there is said to be a stone called “wise” by contradiction; for, if one puts it into anyone’s lap, he goes mad, and murders one of his relations.
— from De Mirabilibus Auscultationibus (On Marvellous Things Heard), found in Aristotle - Minor Works, trans. W. S. Hett.
Tell me, if I caught you one day
and kissed the sole of your foot,
wouldn’t you limp a little then,
afraid to crush my kiss?…
— Nichita Stănescu, “A Poem” from Bas-Relief with Heroes, trans. Thomas Carlson
Poetry is the weeping eye
it is the weeping shoulder
the weeping eye of the shoulder
it is the weeping hand
the weeping eye of the hand
it is the weeping soul
the weeping eye of the heel.
Oh, you friends,
poetry is not a tear
it is the weeping itself
— Nichita Stănescu, from “Poetry”, Bas-Relief with Heroes, trans. Thomas Carlson
You mustn’t be afraid of people, my friend, people are only flesh.
— Jakov Lind, from Landscape in Concrete, trans. Ralph Manheim
(Paintings: Francis Bacon, Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962)
No one reads Reinhard Lettau (1929-96), a German-American writer, activist, and scholar who wrote: numerous short stories, a radio play, critical works, poetry, English translations (with Ferlinghetti) of love poems by Karl Marx; and, whenever permissible, avoided noting his middle name: Adolf.
Among the vast archipelago of short(-short) fiction—near the islands of Buzzati, Calvino, Thurber, Barthelme, and Hildesheimer—there is the seldom visited and often uncharted islet of Lettau’s short works. Chief thereof is found in his American debut Obstacles (1965), a volume that contains English translations of his first two books of stories: Schwierigkeiten beim Häuserbauen (Difficulties in Housebuilding, 1962) and Auftritt Manigs (Enter Manig, 1963).
The 21 of the three- to eight-page prose pieces that comprise Difficulties in Housebuilding are Lettau at his most charming and inventive. A favourite of mine is the epistolary “Potemkin’s Carriage Passes Through”; here is an excerpt that reveals the essence of the book (my emphasis):
April 11, 1784
[…] Of course the roofers are really painters, and so are the glaziers who insert windows with deft brushes. The bricklayers are painters and so are the masons; the only people who work at their true trade here are the stagehands who put up the scaffoldings and lent a hand with our lodgings. But since then no one’s seen them do any work. I am told that they are lying around drinking behind the wooden wall that looks like a tavern from the road. One of them supposedly had the idea of throwing a stone through one of the not-so-well-painted windows in the village, the other day, and replacing it with real glass. If this practice spreads, I almost fear for the success of my mission.
April 12, 1784
The meaning of my last sentence in yesterday’s annotations can best be illustrated by the fact that more and more fake window fronts have, since then, been replaced by real ones. […] Sometimes I can’t help feeling that we are in reality building two villages: a false one and a real one, without actually wanting to build the real one, as though it were growing by itself out of the false one, as if by necessity.
All the stories in the American (Pantheon) edition are translated by the prolific Ursule Molinaro. The British (Calder & Boyars) edition of Obstacles (1966) supplants eight of Molinaro’s translations with new ones by Ellen Sutton and adds a Sutton translation of another Lettau story (“The Road”) to the end of the first book. However, in all eight cases, I prefer Molinaro’s translations for their economy and diction, and her in-sentence sequencing of events makes for better poetic and comedic effects.
[The 57 shorts, none longer than a page, are centered on the character Manig, who] is treated like a tracing powder that is thrown into turbulent water to expose hidden currents: Lettau uses Manig to isolate and depict behavioral patterns, only to cleverly undo them. Manig is portrayed predominately through pantomime, and some of his gesticulations are clownlike. […] Lettau disrupts reality by equating the thing with the word and the absolute with the relative, and by separating image from reality through leaps in logic and optical illusions.
Lettau’s other works in English translation:
- Enemies (1973), Agnes Rook’s translation of Fiende (1963). A six story collection that is best saved for completists, because the set of three new stories ridiculing war are outdone by the two similar war stories in Obstacles: “A Campaign” and “A Pause Between Battles”. The three shorter, supplemental stories, one of which is Rook’s version of “The Road”, are also redundant.
- Breakfast in Miami (1982), Lettau’s and Julie Prandi’s translation of his radio play Frühstücksgespräche im Miami (1977). Caricatures of deposed dictators meet in Miami and say their piece. Yet another only for the completist, but, on the strength of Obstacles, I remain optimistic about his still untranslated later works, which can be found—with promising cover art—in Alle Geschichten (Complete Stories, 1998).
For more about his life and writings:
- BookRags.com has most of the DLB’s article on Lettau.
- The obituary from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where Lettau taught Writing and German Literature from 1968-90.
(Images: the cover art is by Günter Grass; here’s an online gallery of Grass’ graphic work, 1972-2007.)
How dark it is. The moon must have stolen away secretly. The stars have thrown their spears down and departed.
Imagine my horror and my stupefaction when, on my return, the first thing to meet my eye was my little fellow, the playful companion of my life, hanging from the closet door! His feet were almost touching the floor; a chair, which he must have kicked from under him, was overturned at his side; his twisted head rested on one of his shoulders; his swollen face and wide-open eyes, with their frightening stare, first gave me the illusion of life. Getting him down was not so easy as you may think. He was already quite stiff, and I felt an unexplainable repugnance at the thought of making him suddenly fall to the ground. I had to hold up his whole body with one arm while with the other hand I cut the rope. But once that was done, it was not all over; the little monster had used a very thin string, which had cut in deeply; and now, in order to set his neck free, I had to pry with a pair of small scissors between the two rings of swollen flesh.
— Charles Baudelaire, from “The Rope”, trans. Pierre Schneider.
(While I was reading O’Sullivan’s stories, his sensibility reminded me of the above excerpt.)
Self-development is the kernel of sagacity. Your main duty is towards yourself: you must be the bond-man of your own will. A whimpering baby, you come into the world as into an enemy’s camp: you are not wanted there; henceforth the universe will be against you. You are in the posture of a new poet who is smartly told that the world would have been never the poorer had his effusions remained incoherent. “Here is another pretender!” cries mankind, assembling against the latest comer. Remember you are not a volunteer, and it follows that you need not take a side. You are in nobody’s debt. Your makers considered their pleasure; the country of your birth is a political accident, and is perhaps the first to hand you the mud; you had no choice about accepting the cup of life. The best thanks you can offer for existence is to make your days by fair means or desperate a matter of self-portrait. Woe to him who stands in the way, whether as friend or open foe! You are to grasp your I firmly with both hands and use it as a bludgeon.
In this struggle things are not noble or base; they are merely expedient. Every man, however fair spoken, has in mind some secret advantage: he is for himself and therefore against you: you must cross Is with him. Your part is to have your I out of the scabbard before he can get his well in hand. Sweet words and actions are but brilliant parries; affection is a fatal snare; and you will be wise to regard all protests of sincerity with suspicion, since humanity tends to the vile. These are but tricks in the game, and the good player is he who is swift to use them for himself and to baffle them in others. Hold yourself in life as you would at a card-table where everyone cheats. And above all, be sure to chaunt in your heart your own Gloria. That which you do you must think fine; what other people think does not matter in the least. Patriotism we are told (chiefly by interested persons) is a virtue to which we ought to sacrifice, and it is thought decorous to slave for the public fortune; but have you not perceived, that the man who is held most in honour by his country is the man who has been most successful in referring all to himself?