“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 those 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