Tuesday, June 9, 2015


Paper Children by Mariana Marin

One day the Great Them will come.
It will throw open the windows,
sit at our table,
drink the untasted wine—
then tear us to tatters.
The most beautiful Mediterranean civilization
will have long ago drowned in the sea,
and the thirteen months of the Ethiopian calendar
set ablaze our Flemish gloom.
One day, like a child in its mother-of-pearl placenta,
the Greta Theme will come,
and we'll set out for the swamps.
We'll exult in the vision of horizontal (universal) mud
swallowing the surrealist sleep that still shelters us.
The insomnia of reason produces monsters—
soon the mud will start to howl.
And the hours of salvation when the poem writhes every which way;
the desert fresh with fiery ashes;
the gaiety of these open arteries
through which I the mud rush, howling...
One day the Great Theme will come.
Possibly it will find us rereading passages
from Gabriela Mistral.
In its wake the wind
will continue
to tear to tatters
your white shirt,
my fire-bright nails,
their red like roses.

My clearest, most persistent memory of the Romanian Revolution of 1989, of the  popular overthrow of the communist dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu, was the rumor I'd heard on the news that he'd escaped with his wife, Elena, under cover of darkness in one of the army tanks patrolling the city that night. I pictured them cowering in the small, cramped space, trembling with outrage and fear. As it turned out, they were not hiding out in a tank after all; instead they had escaped by helicopter from the roof of Bucharest's Central Committee building, had been tricked into landing shortly thereafter, when they were promptly arrested. Once in custody, they were tried by a kangaroo court and summarily executed by firing squad, thus ending what was a nearly 25 year reign of terror and oppression, a toxic cult of personality from which the nation has still not recovered.

While initially championed by his fellow Romanians for his open, often defiant challenge to Soviet control, Ceauşescu remained strict, even creedbound, in his communism—in the centralization of his authority and in his notorious use of the secret police, the Securitate, to control education and the media, and to crush all heterodox expression and dissent. Under Ceauşescu, the Securitate, employing over 11,000 agents and at least a half a million informers, was one of the most brutal secret police forces in the world, responsible for the torture and killing of thousands of people, including, if not limited to, the usual suspects: teachers, intellectuals, artists, and writers.

On the Fifth Floor

when the putrefied loneliness of each morning
thunders inside your skull.
On the fifth floor of a drab apartment building
in a notorious proletarian district,
poetry restores to you the migratory instinct
of small gray birds.
How much love
              “When must everything depart from us?”
              Does everything abandon us?”
(yes, time once held cherry trees and ivy).
In your rabbit-like shamelessness
what kind of death
did you make your bedfellow in these recent years?
Oh, poor earthbound terror!
when inside your skull, like a miracle,
you feast on yourself.
There will come a time for frost and for the snout,
a time for the whip that lashes your cheek
and for small gray pigs.

Mariana Marin lived most of her life—as a woman and poet—under Ceauşescu's imperious thumb. Silenced, forbidden to publish her work, for her outspoken criticism of the government and for her "proud, accusatory" poems, Marin was widely recognized as one of Romania's most gifted poets by the time she died in 2003 at the age of forty-seven. For years a grade school teacher and librarian, she made a name for herself among poets and critics with her first book of poetry, A Hundred Years' War, for which she was awarded the Romanian Writers' Union Prize. Yet it was her membership in the eminent critic Nicolae Manolescu's Monday Poetry Circle, "a self-aware, productive and influential avant-garde," that really brought her work to fruition throughout the 1980's, most of which was first published in France. While translator and fellow Romanian, Adam Sorkin argues, in his fine introduction to Paper Children, that Marin was "not at heart a political poet"  as illustrated by her often knot-like syntax and by the stubborn opacity of her imagery, her poetry is nevertheless distinguished, not by wordplay and wit, conventions for which she'd had little patience as a poet, but by "its mood of stoic resignation and attitude of moral condemnation," by her stern assessment of the world around her, a verdict, a judgment, rendered up—like the words of the Prophets—by means she herself described as "the machinery of  my sickened glance." In her poems there is no vanity, no self-pity. Indeed, as Adam Sorkin remarks in his introduction, Marin’s poems are often so raw it is as if, in writing them, she had skinned herself alive. 

Elegy IX

Oh, the guilt and horror
before so many strangled truths!
Who will testify
about the crimes committed against us?
Today's simple words,
screwed into our only body
which can be given over to death,
will they, I wonder, make us good?
I am not a moral being,
Yet can anyone alive manage to remain
unsullied, maintain integrity?
Sometimes on tropical summer nights
when I climb down the evolutionary ladder of the species,
I see and think with a single eye in my forehead,
isolated and shattered.

Then I seem to hear curses and incantations
in a language in which we used to dream.

Paper Children, translated by Adam J. Sorkin, is published in a beautiful bilingual edition by Ugly Duck Presse as part of their Eastern European Poets Series.

Peter Adam Nash

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