27 June 2011

Monday Book Review

Calypso Editions has put out a new book this month and I'm reviewing it!  The book is entitled Of Gentle Wolves: An Anthology of Romanian Poetry translated and edited by Martin Woodside.  I've been excitedly waiting for it since I saw it on Calypso's publishing queue and the wait was finally over.  Who said that birthdays come only one a year?  Mine come every time I get a book I'm excited about, meaning I often have a birthday.

I must begin by stating my general unfamiliarity with Romanian poetry.  I'm pretty sure this book was compiled for the new as well as the familiar.  The list of Romanian poets is rather long, but captures a great breadth of style and substance.  In the preface, Mr. Woodside writes,
The poems here present a snapshot of Romanian poetry, one that gestures to a single truth: Romanian poets have been re-inventing poetry for as long as they've been writing it.  And that spirit unifies the poets here, a group of writers from various generations working in various modes who all combine a strong grounding in tradition with the desire to innovate and the will to preserve.
It's well put and the poems have a spiritual commonality despite the vast differences between them.  Gellu Naum's poem "A Patrusprezecea (The Fourteenth)" purposefully left out punctuation in sentences, which forces the reader to break down the phrases into parts while seeing them as a whole.  There is a very visual element to the bent rules of grammar in this poem, which was not repeated in the other selected poem ("din Purtătorul de lance"/"from The Lance Bearer").  While Naum's poems were greater in length, Constantin  Acosmei's were brief.  His careful juxtaposition accomplished more in brevity than it would have in length in "Week-end cardiac (Cardiac Weekend)" and "Ars Amandi".

I cannot do justice by going through all the poets included, but I especially loved Robert Şerban's "Scrisorile lungi (Long Letters)".  Perhaps it is because I have become a rather prolific letter writer in the past few months and loved the use of surrealistic elements, but it truly spoke to me.  Radu Vancu's "Kapital" is politically charged with references to a Marxist soul ("The souses had Marx in their soul", "any socialist atheist who drinks with purpose/ becomes, after a certain threshold, a mystic anarchist") and the dual nature of political activity and true belief.  Naturally, the socialist history of Romania is a theme found in several poems, but it does not comprise the entire selection or take center stage.  

Sex is a theme found in many of the poems, which brought to mind the short story "Desires: The Erotica of Communism", written by the Bulgarian writer Ivailo Dichev [found in Descriptions of a Struggle, ed. March].  Romania's famed reproductive laws during Ceauşescu's regime certainly had an effect on the family demographic, but I have often reflected on its effect on women's sexuality.  It had the effect of relegating sex to a perfunctory role.  As Slavenka Drakulić has written about the political nature of women's bodies in Eastern Europe (and FEMEN is trying to reclaim the politicization for women), the government is asserting control over a woman's choice to reproduce.  Romanian women were told to produce more Romanians and it was no longer their choice, but the government's decree (which is why children of the 60s and 70s are referred to as "decreţei").  References to sex in the poems hint at this skewed perception and turn it on its head; since sex was politicized during socialism, it takes on a second meaning to the act of pleasure and expression of love.  A cursory understanding of Romania's history certainly helps put the references in context.

The book is an excellent collection of poems that pulls from Romania's history, but playfully pushes both the subject and style forward.  Martin Woodside has done a superb job at collecting poems that bring this home for both the curious newcomer and the loving veteran.  These poems opened my eyes to new styles of poetry and the breadth of subjects that can be artfully written about.  The surrealist elements (and I learned that surrealism has Romanian roots!) remind me of magical realism in many ways, which I loved and find a good enough reason to look more into their history of poetry.  So please visit Calypso's website and browse their selection (including this book) if my reviews have piqued your interest.