MEMORY GLYPHS: 3 Prose Poets from Romania

Radu Andriescu, Iustin Panta and Cristian Popescu
translated by Adam J. Sorkin, with Radu Andriescu, Mircea Ivănescu, and Bogdan Ștefănescu
Twisted Spoon Press ($15)

by Stephan Delbos

Essentially a three-part volume of selected poems, Memory Glyphsfeatures three contemporary Romanian prose poets, Radu Andriescu, Iustin Panta, and Cristian Popescu, translated and edited by Adam J. Sorkin, the leading American translator of modern Romanian writing. A wildly roving narrative sensibility and the ability to render surreal images with poignancy and humor is a shared distinction in the work of these three poets, whose singular achievements and stylistic idiosyncrasies make Memory Glyphsa strange compound of elements, at once playful, confounding, inspiring and ultimately serious.

Cristian Popescu writes most comfortably within the realm of imaginative possibilities, where anything is permissible; it is strange, then, that Popescu’s favorite poetic mode is autobiography. By mingling surreal and quotidian details with a cold eye—essentially a magic realist technique—Popescu lifts prosaic events to outlandish heights. Like all of the poets in Memory Glyphs, Popescu is at once logical and strange, as in the opening lines of “Cornelia Street”:

The first time I saw Cornelia was at a dance, at the Cultural Center at No. 3, where folk music was playing and night moths gathered on trumpets as if around a streetlamp in the dark.

By prefacing surreal imagery with prosaic details, Popescu plays images off each other, enhancing both the strangeness and comforting normality of each respective image. But Popescu is more than an image magician. There is a haunting sense of loss in his poems, the naïve tragedy of leaving childhood, and the realization that we are but playthings for God. One of the most poignant passages in Memory Glyphscomes in Popescu’s “About Father and Us,” an elegy for the poet’s father which serves as a testament to his entire family’s existence:

I wish I had a balloon blown up with your last breath. Every year on my own birthday, I could take a tiny gulp of it.

Even when Popescu addresses a single subject like his father, his poems are meant to be overheard by all of creation, present and future. Iustin Panta’s poems seem more sharply addressed than Popescu’s, in part because they are more precisely crafted. Panta often combines bouncing free verse with prose, creating sleek poems that advance through a series of logical statements to create a brilliant mosaic. “Magda,” the story of the poet’s first love, ends:

She adored the summer, one thing she told me is that
when autumn comes
she suffers cruelly and she’ll keep wearing shoes with
paper-thin soles through which she
can feel the asphalt,
wearing very light clothing,
she defies the season and in this way she hopes she
can delude it—
that’s about all I can remember of what we said to
one another.

Panta’s attention to radiant detail contrasts Popescu’s ranging yawp. His poems often resemble conceptual cut-ups; each image or statement has its own logic, which combines to form the polysemic metalogic of the entire poem. A tercet from the poem “Private Nelu” provides an example of how Panta uses techniques of surrealism, or “the stupefying use of the image,” as Louis Aragon called it, coining similes so forcefully the reader has no choice but to accept:

Just as you close a drawer and the toe of a sock gets
caught sticking out,
Private Nelu is thinking.

The sock image is perfectly logical, even familiar, as is the fact that Private Nelu is thinking. But Panta’s phrasing indicates a relationship of forced logic, creating a moment of strange clarity, much like a Zen koan.

Where Panta is concerned with the mind’s relationship to the world, Radu Andriescu has incorporated aspects of that world—specifically modern technology and American culture—more fully than either Popescu or Panta, which lends a fresh familiarity to his poems. Andriescu’s major themes are more clearly annunciated as well, as in “The Three Signs:”

He wants to furnish them with simple things, like thoughts about life and thoughts about death, but most of all thoughts about limits.

Limits, for Andriescu, means the individual’s smallness in the world. But Andriescu’s poems manage to retain a sense of humor against this vast and often terrifying horizon. “Rhymes for a Boundary and a Stove” presents a man stubbornly clinging to the hope of order in a brutish and uncaring—that is, realistic—world. Like Panta and Popescu, Andriescu’s poems create their own logic, perhaps as a defense against a lack of logic in the world:

His closest connection to the Heavens is his stove. Yellow and crumbling, with tiles held together in a framework of spongy clay . . . smoke that stretches to the sky, and its own massive weight pulling downward to the center of the Earth, the stove is the axis around which he spins his hopes of discovering order, few as they may be.

Andriescu recognizes the impossibility of order, and his poems flourish in a place beyond it. Hopes for us may be few, existing only in our imagination, but they are.

Each poet in Memory Glyphs takes his own path though darkness, humor, love, and mystery, and none is ashamed of groping aimlessly forward. The result is an unsettling pleasure, a collection of poems that grapple with our deepest questions, if only by representing the whims and cluttered wills of their authors.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009