Postage and Packing Free - Shortlisted for the 2011 Poetry Society and Poetry Trust Popescu prize. Ivanescu's idiosyncratic, lyrical sensibility offers allusive, comic and elegiac meditations on our common lot.
Publication date: 14 November 2009
Hardback 230 x 150mm full colour
Ivanescu's poetry represents the achievement of a little known master. Centring on a wide cast of characters, including his alter ego 'mopete', Ivanescu's idiosyncratic, lyrical sensibility offers allusive, comic and elegiac meditations on our common lot.
Adam Sorkin - Introducing Mircea Ivanescu
lines poems poetry – three generic, lower-case nouns, an unassuming title for the first book-length presentation in the English-speaking world of an author who comes across as anything but generic. The neutral title of this book, which gathers a representative selection from the core of Mircea Ivanescu’s oeuvre, is emblematic of the poet’s self-effacing persona while it likewise echoes his own practice. This persona is central to his idiosyncratic, almost diffident lyricism, one equally self-interrogating and anti-lyrical, a poetry playful on the one hand and serious on the other, wry, complex, but approachable.
Mircea Ivanescu established his characteristic voice early. The translators agree with the assessment of the Romanian-American writer and scholar Matei Calinescu, who in his anthology lines poems poetry other same old new (2003) observes that Ivanescu’s poetry published between 1968, when his first book appeared, and 1972, during which period four other collections of his works came out, represents his most fruitful period and his strongest work. Ivanescu himself agrees, the poet’s old friend Calinescu notes, as did previous Romanian anthologists. The reader should be aware, however, that the publishing chronology found in the Contents does not necessarily define the order of his poems’ composition. The reason for this discrepancy is that not only does the poet no longer know which poems he wrote when but he also deliberately subverted that order as he organized his poems into books. Clearly the sheer volume of poems published between 1968 and 1972 suggests that he had been writing poetry, but not publishing it, from the time of his debut in print in a literary magazine in 1958 to the printing of his first book a decade later.
In his native literary tradition, contemporary criticism has only lately come to recognize the importance of Ivanescu’s achievement: in Calinescu’s words, Ivanescu is ‘the greatest – and most discrete in his greatness – of living Romanian poets’. Similarly, to the young writers of the post-communist period, Ivanescu has increasingly been celebrated as a precursor to Romania’s delayed postmodern movement in the 1980s (or, rather, a trailblazing practitioner) and an influential exemplar of fruitful, new poetic directions.
Despite such praise, Mircea Ivanescu remains the least widely known among Romania’s abundance of gifted poets in the latter half of the twentieth century. Why this is so entails no mystery. Hardly a recognizable name anywhere beyond the literary borders of his country, outside of which he rarely has travelled, Ivanescu unintentionally contributed to his limited reputation by his reclusiveness and avoidance of festivals and conclaves of writers, at home, let alone abroad.
Born in Bucharest in 1931, where he was educated, earning his university degree in French in 1954, Mircea Ivanescu worked for the Romanian press agency, in magazine production, and at a publishing house. If he did not produce a book of verse until 1968, lines, it was the harbinger of a series of collections through the 1970s into the 80s, all with plain, anti-metaphorical titles such as poems, poetry, other lines, other poems, poem, new poems . . . a total of 16. He also published a small volume written in English, would-be poems (1992) – the poet’s father had learned English during World War I in a camp with mostly British prisoners. Furthermore, throughout his career, he enjoyed indulging in dialogues in poetry with other writers. One such effort, The limits of power or the bribing of witnesses (a russian novel), put into print a decade and a half ago (1994), is in fact his most recent book; it was composed in alternating sections jointly with his protégé, Iustin Panta. Although Ivanescu has not issued a new collection since, a number of selected works have come out during the past decade.
Not just a poet, Ivanescu was, moreover, an indefatigable and greatly respected translator of English, German, and French literature into Romanian. His prodigious output includes seven novels by Faulkner, two by Fitzgerald, Joyce’s Ulysses, much Kafka, Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, Broch’s The Sleepwalkers, poetry by Rilke, T.S. Eliot, Pound, Frank O’Hara, Dylan Thomas, Yeats, Auden, and an anthology published in the mid-1980s, Modern and Contemporary American Poetry. This last immediately ran afoul of censors of the communist party-state, not because of the poetry but because of the Jasper Johns' American flag painting reproduced on the cover.
After the death in 1998 of Ivanescu’s wife Stela, to whom all his books are dedicated (her name containing the only upper-case letter), the poet fell into a deepening depression and became almost completely secluded. In 2005, when I last was able to visit him in his house in Sibiu, the city in Transylvania where he has lived for more than a quarter century, he declared that he no longer wrote and repeatedly disparaged the worth of his poetry. Notwithstanding his protest, after I gently pressed him, he did consent to sign a brief statement giving me permission to translate his work and publish the results, but whether this indicates ambivalence or courtesy, I cannot guess. Since that time, sadly, Ivanescu’s health and vision have seriously deteriorated.
Voice is crucial to Ivanescu’s poetics. In an interview, he cited a passage from a novel by the twentieth-century Romanian man of letters, Camil Petrescu, in which the narrator tells a character to write as she speaks, without literariness; ‘Ever since’, Ivanescu said, ‘I have tried to imitate the natural sound and cadence of my own voice’. On the page, this voice is in part encoded in the iconoclastic lower-case typographical conventions Ivanescu adopted, which were unique in Romanian writing before him. Quite probably, he derived the fashion from E.E. Cummings, who was included in the American anthology, as were ten of Berryman’s Dream Songs, one among a number of possible models, or analogues, for the fragmented self that gets dramatized in his poems (it is no wonder that the poet frequently uses a first-person plural to refer to himself). I should add, because Ivanescu so consistently rejected capitalization, I opted to follow this custom for the English first-person singular, which in Romanian would not normally be upper-case.
For two and a half decades from the late 1960s on, Ivanescu created a substantial body of poetry punctuated by moments of the absurd, the ominous, the mysterious. The subdued emotional pitch of his poems, kaleidoscopic in their irony and ambiguity, is never bitter or angry. His work is invariably self-conscious in a winning but purposeful way, as well as inventive, allusive, bookish, ruminative, metaphysical, delicate, and refined. Many of the poems are set in a town or city and more particularly in the poet’s domestic surroundings and routines, a solipsistic interiority. Ivanescu’s is a microcosm of small, intense dramatic gestures made or, to the contrary, not made at all, hence deferred, fancied, or dreamed. His claustrophobic imaginary space takes verbal embodiment as the extension of his memory or reading, within which, as if the subject of an uneventful, humdrum confessionalism, the speaker situates himself as a passive observer. His love poems – these constitute a significant strain in his work – are themselves registered in a tonality of anxiety and guilt, with an unnamed she or you the object of the speaker’s attention, or it may seem as often as not, his inattention, recollected with anguished lack of tranquillity.
The style of an Ivanescu poem is vernacular but not slangy, frequently impure with a likely parodic slippage toward the prosaic. His sentences can be convoluted, interrupted again and again by the dashes and parentheses of asides, doubts, questions, qualifications, recursions, negations, flashbacks – a technique that foregrounds textuality per se, with a concomitant hesitancy and uncertainty, a mode of writing that disavows its literariness. The poems tend to have no decisive beginning point, no pronounced closure. They unfold a sometimes dreamlike logic that connotes a world of ‘pretend’ (indeed, double make-believe, as the opening of the poem ‘discontinuity’ renders explicitly: ‘pretend you’re at the theatre’). The reader is continually reminded of the provisional, contingent perceptual status of supposedly objective actuality by phrases such as ‘it was as if’, ‘what he’d let you suppose he thinks’, ‘you might say’, ‘i must have fallen asleep and dreamt the rest’, ‘you . . . who still / would like to believe that the hazy swaths of whiteness on the wall mean something’, or ‘we no longer know, by our soul, whether this scene we keep returning to / really happened’. These expressions signal an equivocal, introverted, secretive psychological state (‘we must choose / exactly those words that won’t confide too much’) in which key insights can, perhaps must, be offhand and parenthetical, as the poem ‘consistency’ exemplifies with bluntness:
(although you know it’s already
over–out of the residue of what was
true–there continues only the inward conversation – and that means nothing).
It should come as no surprise, then, that the poet’s habitual posture is one of restraint, withdrawal, inertia, a kind of spiritual acedia. Ivanescu’s characteristic imagery is fraught with stasis and absence: dusk, darkness, night, cold, snow, frozen (but somehow fleeting) time, winter, death, fog, blankness, forgetfulness, memory, regret. Nonetheless, 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. In the process, 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’.
In crafting these English versions of Mircea Ivanescu’s poems on the basis of my collaborator Lidia Vianu’s excellent drafts, I strove for correlatives of his colloquial, almost stream-of-consciousness flow of language, its impression of spontaneity. Translation, as Ivanescu no doubt experienced firsthand, is itself nothing less than an ‘inward conversation’ between an author’s originals and the translator’s choices, approximations, and variations. Ivanescu’s diction is not without mischievous displacement, linguistic feint, and double meanings, quaintly erudite locutions and eclectic intertextual references, word games and mind games. Fortunately, however (fortunate for the translator, I guess), in the formal poems, for example his sonnets, meter, line length, and rhyme scheme typically vary; there are not a few slant or half-rhymes and consonant echoes, with a sprinkling of hyphenated broken rhymes, devices that I took to permit a degree of license. The elastic patterning of these not-quite-so-fixed forms was what I thought of as sufficiently ‘loose-limbed’ in the original to justify impure rhyme and a corresponding ductility of line length in English. By the same token, the poet’s use of enjambment, often serving to alloy musicality with speech rhythms, lent a flexibility to positioning rhyme words. Yet Ivanescu’s unrhymed poems could take as much, and more, care in order to uncoil, and then imitate in English, the intricacies of the fractured, detoured, occasionally puzzling but always deliberately constructed and exactingly detailed sentences that seemed to slither their haphazard, improvisatory way through his lines like conditional memories, random thoughts, lost feelings.
Ivanescu’s ‘mopete’, the character who appears in nearly a third of the translations in lines poems poetry, deserves a special mention before I close my introductory remarks. Surely an alter ego (and comic exaggeration) of the writer, his name is a made-up word, obviously akin to the English moppet, and half hiding anagrams of poet and poem (in Romanian and English, the pair of terms is identical). The name also exudes the aroma of rank self-satire, to hazard a pun inherent in a parallel derivation of ‘mopete’ from French la moufette and Italian moffetta: skunk (the Italian, by the way, reflects the similar three-syllable pronunciation of ‘mopete’ in Romanian, with the one consonant shift). This humour at his own expense is fundamental to the wit, wonder, and pleasure of Mircea Ivanescu’s poetry, his ‘words, words, words’ that reverberate and linger ‘like footprints . . . in snow’ – and a good deal longer.
Cover Art and Colour Section
Florica Prevenda takes the face as a fundamental theme and contemplates the wide range of emotions and anxieties that haunt the human condition nowadays, including the developing depersonalisation of social networks and the reification of consumerism. Existentially pithy messages are inscribed through the surface. As with Ivanescu's poetry, the affects are elusive, yet evocative.
Botosani Mihai Eminescu National Poetry Prize
Deceptively self-contained, gently ironic and stylishly parodic, Mircea Ivanescu's poetry is a source of intrigue and fascination. A noted translator of English and German literature including James Joyce's monumental text Ulysses and works by Franz Kafka and William Faulkner, Ivanescu is regarded as one of Romania's most important contemporary writers.
He deserves to be read not only in order to seek out his unique and subjective lyricism, but also for the surprising capacity to generate from self-sufficiency a kind of gentle altruism, combined with the values and with the forms of an alternative world.