Reaching for the Mogadon

Lines Poems Poetry, Mircea Ivanescu
(112pp, 20.00, University of Plymouth Press)

Mircea Ivanescu is a Romanian poet little known in Britain. His translators, Adam J. Sorkin and Lidia Vianu, are well respected, however, for their Popescu Prize winning versions of Marin Sorescu's The Bridge (Bloodaxe, 2004). Sorkin frequently works in pairs, often with the poets themselves. For Liliana Ursu's The Sky Behind the Forest (Bloodaxe, 1997) he worked together with Ursu and with Tess Gallagher. He's a prolific translator and one of Romanian poetry's chief proselytizers in English.

In his introduction, Sorkin describes Ivanescu's 'habitual posture' as one of 'restraint, withdrawal, inertia, a kind of spiritual acedia.' Most of the poems in Lines poems poetry
were written (or published) in the period 1968 to 1972 and are gathered from Ivanescu's inspiringly named lower-case titles, lines (1968), poems (1970), poetry (1970), and other lines (1972). While the rest of the hippy generation were popping LSD and decorating the insides of their heads, Ivanescu was reaching for the mogadon. His 'characteristic imagery,' according to Sorkin, 'is fraught with stasis and absence.'

If these stirring opening words from the translator don't warm the corpse, then Sorkin's neon 'Nonetheless' implores: 'the poetry raises the lyrical persona's melancholy above the gloomy or morbid to a sort of elegiac reverie, bittersweet with a tinge of belatedness and anticlimax.' Well, colour me blue and call me sunny. That's an obituary, not an endorsement.

Temptingly Sorkin writes, 'the reader's involvement is undercut yet, at the same time, given an edge, intensified, filled with silences, discontinuities, paradoxes; inconclusive events - a shared unease or disquiet, heightened, as the poet writes, but 'to / where? - there's no more''. And my own cynical response to this: 'but / why? - there's no point.' I started to wonder if I could ever truly reach the poems from here, despite Sorkin's inadvertent assurance that the poems themselves would never reach out to me.

And there are many fine poems which deserve a more favourable vocabulary to position them, or no vocabulary at all. At times Ivanescu's Berrymanesque inner dialogues for solo voice have a beautifully playful elastic charm. Sorkin and Vianu's fluid rhythms are compelling in a poem like 'the waning year' where a simple change of pace, a syntactic hiccup, suddenly sharpens our view:

     in autumn, it feels good to wander to the far end of the garden
     and spy on the lizards clinging to the wall warmed by the sun,
     and if you tilt your head back a little, you sense
     how the year slopes ever lower towards winter - and this makes you cold.

The book makes me
cold. As a physical object it's brute, unlovely; its hardback covers are boxy like a coffin. The heavy glossed paper, more typical of a book of photographs, is clinical, brilliant white, and if a book ought to smell of anything, it's trees: this one smells of a chemical bath.

In 'if death no longer existed...' we see

     the dead light in the rooms turns to snow,
     piles higher, wraps us with its mortuary white,
     its soft immobility, its orchard of fever,
     which we have heard rumours of - words that no longer
     mean anything.

It's one of the book's persisting tensions, that while the prosody flows and pulses to the nuanced anxieties of Ivanescu's confessionalism, which at times is intimate and knowable, the poems remain static and immobile. The microcosm of Ivanescu's poetry is unrelentingly bleak, frequently uneventful, even claustrophobic. His brief moments of mystery are quickly dissolved when the writer returns us again to the obsessive self. Sorkin's description of Ivanescu as 'an influential exemplar of fruitful, new poetic directions' is puzzling. He's a bone licker, a carrion crow perched above the none-event of the page waiting for something to happen. And with practiced suspense, nothing much does.

    George Messo 2011