Significant


My Native Land
, Ana Blandiana,
translated by Paul Scott Derrick and Viorica Patea
(111pp, 9.95, Bloodaxe)
Boom!
, Carolyn Jess-Cooke (72pp, 9.99, Seren)


Ana Blandiana's My Native Land is a significant addition to poetry translated into English. The welcome introduction by the translators makes the case for her as a vital upholder of the conscience of the Romanian nation, and no doubt over many years (she was born in 1942) and, so far as one can tell from this distance, it is a well justified point of view. Indeed properly celebratory.

The poems in this book seem to me more obviously an expression of what she writes in her postcript essay here, 'Poetry between silence and sin', meditative, personal, where she conveys an understanding that poetry is what we know in silence, hardly amenable to words at all.

No one poem can properly represent the whole. To choose at random, there is a sequence entitled 'Requiem', in twelve short sections, that begins,

   'Who is that behind you?' you asked me.
   I didn't dare turn my head.
   I only murmured, 'No one.'
   'But,' you said, 'I see him
   And I want to know who it is.'
   Without turning round
   I whispered, 'It's Nobody.'

 I quibble with the translation. I suggest lines two and three would better be,

   I dared not turn my head.
   I murmured only, 'No-one.'

And because I feel this, I wonder what else, given that any line or section or whole poem here can turn in spirit on such a difference.

Let the reader decide. Here is a whole poem titled 'Parallels':

   No hope of waking up,
   We're closed in our own dream
   Like a capsule, hermetically sealed,
   Where each one dreams a different dream
   And never thinks it might not be reality.

   Sleeping soldiers, armed to the teeth,
   Stumble ahead with helmets, mess kits, blankets, supplies,
   Tools they use - without waking up - to kill
   Other soldiers submerged in a parallel dream.
   While, from their own nightmare,
   Cataleptic historians
   Write chronicles
   Of it all,
   And poets dream that they wake up and discover
   That reality is somewhere else.

Might the first line better be 'No hope of waking'? And 'waking' rather than 'waking up' in the penultimate? And those weighty words 'hermetically' and 'cataleptic', are they true to the original? And I begin to question the whole flow. But I have no Romanian, even if it was here for comparison. I do say, this book matters and not least the postcript.


A consequence of books such as the Bloodaxe, above, and of the Arc translations, is that I pick up Boom! from Seren and expect at least an introduction, even a postscript: which is to say background information, a statement from the poet, some prose framing.

The Seren cover - is it the poet being propelled out of a chair sideways, her hair flying? - could hardly contrast more starkly with the sober landscape covering the Bloodaxe. The books' titles are commensurate. The poems that stock Carolyn Jess-Cooke's 'Boom!' add up to a book of talk:

   Let me tell you about the fourth child.
   To some the fourth child is a curiosity,
   akin to Indonesian hobbits
   a diamond exoplanet.
    
This is the first stanza of the eleven of 'The Fourth Child', and does, I think, convey the whole book, which, as the publisher's press release tells me, 'charts the rollercoaster journey of motherhood from conception, throughout pregnancy, birth and parenthood.' It's a couple of generations ago now when I was the father of young children and, naturally, was never a mother. I am not this book's immediately best reader.

But still, when telling a life or of a stage in a life, there is the particular and there is the assumed generalised; I'm not sure which this is (the opening of a poem named 'Clay'),

   Our children are so soft, we imprint them
   like a heavy sole steeping into mud
   not breaking the ground but reordering
   its elements, the way it will hitherto
   hold water, light the curious nose of wind
   and voice of earth.

But who is the 'we' here? Or one might ask how presumptuous can a metaphor reasonably be? As one might say also about the opening of the opening poem, from which the book is named,

   There was this baby who thought she was a hand grenade.
   She appeared one day in the centre of our marriage

Wait perhaps for the child's own first poem or book of poems, in fact the children's, there are several, for the balancing view. But for now I suppose such a book, affectionate and bouncy, does speak for a happy family. And perhaps it's a book just right for a mothers' - or fathers' - reading group.

    David Hart 2014