Today I wore a
warm red blood
today men love me
a woman smiled at me
a girl gave me a seashell
a boy gave me a hammer
Today I kneel on the sidewalk
and nail the naked white feet of the passers-by
to the pavement tiles
they are all in tears
but no one is frightened
all remain in the places to which I had come in time
they are all in tears
but they gaze at the celestial advertisements
and at a beggar who sells hot cross buns
in the sky
Two men whisper
what is he doing is he nailing our hearts?
yes he is nailing our hearts
well then he is a poet
—Miltos Sa(c)htouris, “The Gifts”, trans. Kimon Friar.
“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)
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
Some of the other poems in the book are printed on loose translucent papers, which are housed in pages that serve as pockets. A reader has to flip and/or rotate the poems to discover their typographical revelations. For Houédard, the tactile-kinetic experience and the transition between states, from (un)intelligible to (un)intelligible, is integral to experiencing his poetry. To compensate, I took the liberty of animating the above work.
(My thanks to Anatol Knotek, who made a more reblog-friendly adaptation of this post for his excellent tumblr: visual-poetry; I’m thrilled that dom Sylvester Houédard’s art is actively tumblurring its way around the Interwebz. Make sure to see Knotek’s visuelle poesie.)
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?
A street in Toronto, Canada, is named in his honour. bpNichol Lane is located in the Annex district behind Coach House Press. It features an eight-line poem by Nichol carved into the pavement: “A / LAKE / A / LANE / A / LINE / A / LONE”.
(An employee at Coach House regularly waters the word “LAKE”.)
There are people so wretched, they don't even have a body; their hair quantitative, their wise grief, low, in inches; their manner, high; don't look for me, the oblivion molar, they seem to come out of the air, to add up sighs mentally, to hear bright smacks on their palates! They leave their skin, scratching the sarcophagus in which they are born and climb through their death hour after hour and fall, the length of their frozen alphabet, to the ground. Pity for so much! pity for so little! pity for them! Pity in my room, hearing them with glasses on! Pity in my thorax, when they are buying suits! Pity for my white filth, in their combined scum! Beloved be the sanchez ears, beloved the people who sit down, beloved the unknown man and his wife, my fellow man with sleeves, neck and eyes! Beloved be the one with bedbugs, the one who wears a torn shoe in the rain, the one who wakes the corpse of a bread with two tapers, the one who catches a finger in a door, the one who has no birthdays, the one who lost his shadow in a fire, the animal, the one who looks like a parrot, the one who looks like a man, the rich poor man, the extremely miserable man, the poorest poor man! Beloved be the one who is hungry or thirsty, but has no hunger with which to satiate all his thirst, nor thirst with which to satiate all his hungers! Beloved be the one who works by the day, by the month, by the hour, the one who sweats out of pain or out of shame, the person who goes, at the order of his hands, to the movies, the one who pays with what he does not have, the one who sleeps on his back, the one who no longer remembers his childhood; beloved be the bald man without hat, the just man without thorns, the thief without roses, the one who wears a watch and has seen God, the one who has one honor and does not die! Beloved be the child, who falls and still cries and the man who has fallen and no longer cries! Pity for so much! Pity for so little! Pity for them!
— César Vallejo, “Stumble between two stars”, trans. Clayton Eshleman (1978; orig. 1937)