Feb 3, 2015


[A slightly shorter version of this note first appeared on Asymptote's blog HERE)

“Eutychia” has been identified by Simona Popescu—poet, critic, and foremost authority on Romanian poet Gellu Naum’s (1915 – 2001) work and life—as the Naumian poem par excellence, not in the sense that all the rest of his huge oeuvre is contained in it, but as being one of the most comprehensive and emblematic expressions of the poet’s creed and poetics.  And particularly of the unmistakable way in which for such a poet poetry was not only an art, but a mode of existence. 

A visionary, a great shaman—le grand chaman de Roumanie, as a French critic once called him—whose poems have always worked as Pythic oracles, Naum was also an incredibly shrewd and inclusive craftsman; the very personable and humorously playful person that he was in everyday life was the same as the artist who integrated biographical details, political critique, and popular culture (along with his erudite and alchemically-oneiric intertexts) into his mesmerizing rhythms, expansive diction, and enthralling imagery.  Although—or rather particularly because—he was a true  poeta vates, a poet-prophet, he did not look down on the ‘trivialities’ of ‘common’ existence, while his corrosive ironies never settled upon postmodern detachment, and therefore, instead of rendering the verse flat, his absorption of the ‘insignificant’ actually turned the everyday into something magical, miraculous, and overwhelming.

The psychedelic experience of watching an insect and its colors at the closest range possible, for instance, triggers a sort of meta-rational ‘derangement of the sense[s]’ that helps one to see and hear a poetry of the species and, at the same time, an ecopoetry avant la lettre:

so the psychedelic colored insect
waits for me
with its shape reminiscent of triangular bombardments
the insect-poet looking at me with its deep blue-green eye
struck dumb on an unripe raspberry
the sole survivor of a long extinct species
the newly arrived insect-poet set to witness crazy
death by tragic multiplication
as I am certain it recognizes me
as far back

as when the times got tangled
I sit on a rock and look forward
through tangled times
as a psychedelic age arrives while the rest is merely
a golden blue-green ethereal triangular insect
trying to communicate words

In fact the title of the poem itself, which could be translated as “true luck” or “good fortune” (from Old Greek) speaks of a search for, or conjuring of good omens, of what brings good luck and a good fate, the poem thus assuming the functions of an amulet or a spell.  Yet this is not solely about one’s personal fate, as the root of the word, Týche (Roman equivalent: Fortuna) was in ancient times the presiding tutelary deity that governed the fortune and prosperity of a city, its destiny.  This city, one starts to suspect while plunging into Naum’s ocean of images, is one of the whole world (humans, nature, and cosmos together), and contemplating its destiny is having a vision of—to paraphrase Eliot—its end in its beginning; and both its beginning and end are fractally present in our insect-tiny “daily events”: “Only when beginning at the end are we able to understand/ the nostalgic mechanics of daily events the fury of layers preceding and/ following us…”

The surprising relevance of such a poet nowadays (famous in Romania and widely known in France and Germany but until recently virtually unknown to the English-speaking world) is most likely one of the reasons why his recent selected poems in (facing page) translation, Athanor & Other Pohems from Calypso Editions, was unsurprisingly named by World Literature Today one of 2013’s most notable translations.

One of the Romanian poets I would love to see featured in Asymptote in a near future is Șerban Foarță.  Foarță is one of the greatest writers in postwar Romania who, because of his subtle, euphonic, and pervasive formalism has hardly been, if ever, translated into English (or any other language, for that matter). 

A versatile and tirelessly prolific practitioner of forms ranging from the ‘classic’ and troubadour traditions to rock lyrics to experimental chiasmic “holograms,” the poet has over decades authored an oeuvre of such pitch, variety, and amplitude that one could indeed—as younger poet Emilian Galaicu-Păun allegedly (jocosely but relevantly) did before meeting the writer in the flesh—suspect that behind his name hides an entire institute of philology and poetics. 

A masterful and acclaimed translator in his own right, with an overwhelmingly diverse and demanding list of accomplishments—from the French Renaissance poets to Leonard Cohen’s Book of Desire to Mallarmé and Apollinaire to Georgio Baffo’s ErosonnetsFoarță himself represents a huge challenge to the most courageous translator.  Well… except when he includes the translation in the text itself, as in this multilingual poem I can quote without having to translate anything but the (actually already a thousand-time translated Villon’s ballad) title—BALADA DOAMNELOR DE ALTĂDATĂ (“Ballad of the Ladies of Bygone Times”)… Still, even the simplest things are not that simple: how could one ever render the subtitle, with its pun on Babylon and François Villon’s name—“în vavil(l)onică transcripţie”—“In Babylonian/Vavil(l)onian Transcription”?…  Until we find an answer, here is one stanza and the envoi of this brilliant poem:

Where is the wise girl Heloïs
Because whose abelardiana
Calamitas à Saint Denis
Incepit (Domine, hossana!);
E dov’è ora la sovrana
Die nun befahl daß Buridan
Verschlungen sein soll, a Sequana;
A gde prekrasnîi snej d’antan?
Sweet Prince, I don’t say omnia vana;
mais quant, enfin, à l’antean-
nua nix, ~ frag, bitte, die Morgana:
« Où sont, où sont les neiges d’antan? »


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