Postage and Packing Free - There is at once an enigmatic and original character to the poetic language of Ion Muresan who concerns himself through this anthology with the political nature of Romanian poetry.
Publication date: 25 November 2011
Hardback 230 x 150mm full colour
“I sing the dark force in my mind,” writes Ion Muresan in a recent poem, ‘Dark Song.’ It’s a kind of poetic credo, one of a number of moments when the poet speaks directly about poetry and the world its writers and readers live in – directly, but not necessarily as simply as may first seem. Muresan’s work is challenging, even to fellow poets and admiring literary critics, let alone to the willingly engaged reader. His lyrical discourse is often cerebral, hermetic, convoluted: “I am the dark force in the mind of the dark force in my mind,” this same poem elaborates, near its end. The characteristic imagery of his poetry, always precise in detail, shifts without transition between the sensory world of everyday actuality and an irrational, dream-like (occasionally nightmarish) terrain of the surreal, fantastic, absurd, even oracular.
Both polarities in this dichotomy come across in the poems as equally real. “I have only one prejudice – reality,” begins ‘The Expulsion from Poetry,’ but what “reality” is, whether outward or inward, physical or mental, the cognisant here and now, the remembered past, or the anticipated future, becomes blurred, a suspension of judgement, ‘slippery’ in its articulation, though neither the question nor Muresan’s poetry ever loses its fascination or vivid aesthetic presence. An inspired poetic madness is rarely far away from the poet’s attention: “I tell myself that I should show more indulgence of my own madness,” ‘The Poem of Winter’ confides, ending, “I rise up from my armchair / and begin to bark. ‘Woof woof woof.’” The visionary intensity and impressionistic subjectivity modify to a degree in Muresan’s most recent book, which I’ll comment on below, but the poetry never deviates from its concentration on the poet’s mediation between world and spirit, self and word, emotion and interpretation: “I speak from inside my skin… / offering words a kind of dignity with pores and delicate downy hair.”
Ion Muresan is not just self-conscious but also self-mocking and playful about the challenges of his writing. In a riddling phrase that serves as the title of the poem I’m about to quote from (and of the book it appears in, Muresan’s second collection), the poetic persona announces that he is working on “the poem that cannot be understood” and immediately specifies, “It’s a shiny black rock” – polished, beautiful, sensual, revelatory of an unyielding quality, elemental, and a bit frightening. Another poem, ‘The Poem on Poetry’ from Muresan’s first book, begins, “All my life I have gathered rags to make a scarecrow”; however, this five-line confession concludes, “Yet now that it’s ready, night after night I turn off the light and simply suspecting it’s there, / I start to howl in terror.” Perhaps the fear derives, and cannot be separated, from the essential reality, poetry’s intrinsic nature. ‘The Poem That Cannot Be Understood’ ends with a more hopeful (possibly illusory) vision of poetry’s capacity to move and change its readers: “getting old, nearly hunchbacked,… / I stand in line, behind hundreds and hundreds of people, / in order to see, at least at the end of my days, / the poem that heals, / the poem that cannot be understood.”
Ion Muresan was born on January 9, 1955, in Vultureni, a village in the county of Cluj in Transylvania, the region of Romania where he has spent his entire career. His parents were peasants. Educated at Babes–Bolyai University of Cluj, he graduated with a degree in philosophy. While at university, he became a member of the group centred on the influential literary review Echinox; then after graduation, part of a writers’ circle, Sæculum, that formed in Cluj, migrated to Dej (where the communist authorities closed it), and then found sanctuary (or at least was ignored by the powers that be) in the village of Beclean in northern Transylvania. In 1981, Muresan was assigned to teach history in a primary school in the isolated village of Strâmbu, which he did until 1988, when he returned to Cluj as editor of the venerable cultural magazine, Tribuna. As he later observed in an interview, commenting on the state ‘model’ for treating writers as potential threats in the 1980s, “we were in practise all spread out, sent the devil knows where… so that we could not gather, it was a communist obsession that organisations not be created, that there not be organised structures.” After the 1989 revolution that overthrew the communist government, Muresan continued as a journalist in Cluj, as editor-in-chief of Verso, a cultural magazine.
Meanwhile Muresan gained increasing prestige for his poetry and his role as a cultural celebrity. Although very active in public festivals, debates, readings, panels, and the like, in producing books of his poetry he is decidedly restrained, a craftsman with a sensibility seemingly possessed by a pure quest for literary perfection. “I do not make poetry by the kilogram,” he said in an interview. Indeed, his three collections of poetry, published at widely spaced intervals – The Book of Winter (Cartea de iarna, 1981), The Poem That Cannot Be Understood (Poemul care nu poate fi înseles, 1993), and The Alcohol Book (Cartea Alcool, 2010) – would not weigh in at half that. He has written a book of short stories, The Sunday of Madness (Duminica turbarii, 1994). His collection of essays on revisiting books he read as a child, The Lost Book – a Poetics of Traces (Cartea pierduta – o poetica a urmei, 1998), was honoured by the Cluj branch of the Romanian Writers’ Union. In 2004, he published Carnival in the Meadow (Carnavalul din poiana, written with his wife Ana), a book of plays for children that also won similar recognition. Along the way, Muresan poems were published in literary magazines and some of his work reprinted in anthologies, including a collection of five poets of the Romanian 1980s who ran counter to the decade’s fashionable dogma of elaborate post-modernist irony and intertextuality, The Absinth Drinkers (Bautorii de absint, edited by Bogdan Cresu, 2007).
Some of Muresan’s poems have been translated into English (in my own co-translations with others) in Transylvanian Voices: An Anthology of Contemporary Poets of Cluj-Napoca (1994; revised and enlarged, 1997), and Day After Night: Twenty Romanian Poets for the Twenty-First Century (1999). Two books of his work were published in French, Le mouvement sans coeur de l’image (2001), and in a bilingual German-Romanian edition, Zugang verboten / Acces interzis (2008). In 2005, he was invited to France under the programme Les Belles Étrangères. There is also a trilingual volume containing one poem that Lidia Vianu and I independently selected and co-translated for this University of Plymouth Press collection, Paharul / Glass / Au fond de verre (2007).
Muresan is a member of the Romanian Writers’ Union and is a founding member of the Association of Professional Writers of Romania (ASPRO).
The year Muresan graduated from university also saw his first collection of poetry, The Book of Winter (Cartea de iarna, published in Bucharest by the distinguished Cartea Româneasca [The Romanian Book] publishing house). Included in its entirety here, The Book of Winter won a Romanian Writers’ Union prize for a debut volume of poetry, and in the view of many critics it is one of the most important books of the 1980s. Muresan thus appeared on the scene at the beginning of Romania’s bleakest decade – communism’s last stand, as it were – which was manifested in widespread restrictions on fundamental liberties and scarcities of basics and amenities both, with a lack of heating resulting from planned shortages of fuel, and a freeze on individual expression of thought in a context of political and social repression. The same decade featured, in contrast, the experimentalism and the flagrant stylistic games of the ‘blue-jeans’ generation of poets, Muresan’s contemporaries, who broke with previous Romanian artistic modalities. Muresan, himself much more of a traditional modernist and expressionist than an iconoclast or, in the self-description of a prominent 1990s group, a ‘fracturist’, nonetheless seems in retrospect to have struck just the right note with his book’s title. It is not surprising that in a recent interview Muresan stressed that “the poet’s social role is essential” – by which he means, as he went on to say, “I have often maintained that poets are the right medicine for this ill society.”
The Book of Winter can be said to foreshadow the harsh period during the 1980s, when such famous incidents occurred (in the way I’ve heard the anecdote) as the time a Romanian audience, huddled in their winter coats, hats, scarves, and gloves in an unheated theatre for a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III, applauded the opening line, “Now is the winter of our discontent,…” choosing to hear it as a veiled political barb. In fact, Muresan’s poetry, for the most part, neither glares forth with the pop-culture-savvy verbal gamesmanship of Romania’s post-modernism-before-post-communism (the most prominent example is the poet and prose writer Mircea Cartarescu) nor positions itself as the repository of parabolic, black-humour, between-the-lines hints at resistance to censorship and the party-state, such as was achieved in referential camouflage by a number of poets popular both in Romania and in the West more for their implicit dissident politics than for their otherwise strong, personally moving and/or witty poetry (e.g., Ana Blandiana, Mircea Dinescu, or Marin Sorescu). However, a few of Muresan’s allusions in the poems certainly would have been read as subversive, such as the parodic language of civil obedience in happily respecting traffic lights or the inclusion of an otherwise unidentified “Elena” twice, a name that, whether intended by the author or not, Romanian readers would almost automatically have associated with dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s reviled wife.
Instead, in The Book of Winter and the volumes that followed it, the figure of the poet is presented with a more complex and elevated conception than as an imp of protest, rather in a priestly aspect – which in effect turns out to be the same thing as the pose of a madman. The Book of Winter is arranged in four sections, the first three numbered and the last presented somewhat disingenuously as merely an ‘Addenda,’ although it contains the tellingly named five-part sequence, ‘The Expulsion from Poetry.’ Images of cold and lunacy suffuse the book, alongside images of being laid bare: “Anyhow, I stand before my poetic creed as before a woman without skin.…” The poet’s “flesh my yellow flesh” is “winter’s cruellest coming” in a refrain in his bitterly ironic ‘As for Beauty.’ While the collection contains much that one might call beauty in its language and fluid imagery as well as raw emotional power, it is notable that Mure?an chooses to close the book with lines personifying madness as it “sits at my work table,” leading the poet, whose verbal costumes and masks reflect a kaleidoscopic means of confronting and making spiritual an alien, tragic, deformed, problematic reality, to want to assume still another, familiarly paradoxical poetic guise, that of a kind of prophet, and “to scream with somebody else’s mouth, even a deaf mute’s.”
Winter suggests a frozen season as dangerous as a poetic state, a deathly condition. Poetry itself is an affliction – “I just carry my disease: this poem / like a sour apple in my mouth” – albeit a saving affliction. But if winter is ultimately associated with death, both poetry and madness are possible means of transcendence, and there is something religious about them. Without them, as Muresan warns in the book’s opening poem, “we shall not be pardoned.”
Twelve years after his first book, The Poem That Cannot Be Understood (Poemul care nu poate fi înseles) appeared in Târgu Mures in 1993 and went on to win critical acclaim as well as the poetry prize of the Romanian Writers’ Union. The volume extends and deepens Muresan’s literary exploration of the fears, neuroses, and displacements that constitute his persona’s interior reality. The voice of these carefully wrought, ambitious poems is perhaps more openly ironic, and the imagery even more extraordinary, intense, and varied. The poet is very much like a conjurer whose art transforms what he thinks and says into unfamiliar objects, a kind of magician depicted as if a “very old man yelling something incomprehensible” and evoking “fear” that causes others to band together and stand vigil. The poet excoriates poetry as “poisonous” and goes on to accuse it: “you have exhausted my life, squandered the honey of my days….” As critics have defined Muresan’s work, the tonalities are ‘fiery,’ the poetry ‘metaphysical.’ On the other hand, to the writer, poetry is likewise communication, connection, “white cartilage stretched taut from mouth to mouth,” and it is God’s revelation that, within it, “the spirit” looks back, “grinning from the brain’s periphery.” The seven poems from The Poem That Cannot Be Understood translated and included here in The Book of Winter and Other Poems were selected by the poet himself.
After a wait of 17 years, Muresan’s much anticipated third book of new poems, The Alcohol Book (Cartea Alcool), was launched in 2010, to instant acclaim. Named best poetry volume of the year with an award from the Romanian Ministry of Culture, the book is somewhat of a departure for Muresan in that numbers of poems are narrative and discursive, relatively transparent, with what one might call an avatar of the poet, “the bearded man,” appearing as a character in several of them, whereas a first-person voice guides others. The mood and themes, not unexpectedly, display a consistency with Muresan’s two earlier books (the phrase I use for the title of this introduction, from the poem ‘Dark Song,’ was borrowed from The Alcohol Book). In the collection, Muresan gives new prominence to the subject matter signalled by the title (which alludes biographically to his own drinking but also associates itself with the mystical alcohol of French symbolist and surrealist traditions, particularly in the imagination of Rimbaud and Apollinaire). The pub, or bar, or the drinker’s glass, becomes holy lyrical terrain, just as the alcoholics of ‘The Alcoholics’ Poem’ seem to have a special communication with God, along with a sort of specially protected innocence. Muresan has said explicitly, “Sometimes I wonder if you don’t find God in a pub rather than in a church.” In a 2011 interview on Romanian television, reprinted in Tribuna, he noted, “I am a religious person, a religious man, and I believe that, in the end, and I’ve said this many times before, poetry is the best proof of God’s existence.”
The Alcohol Book contains 32 poems. “You could ask me why 32,” Muresan suggested, co-opting his interviewer’s role, and then proceeded to answer, “There were more poems, but I stopped at 33 and removed one.… So there wouldn’t be 33, Christ’s age.” The collection has instances of tenderness that coexist with self-mockery and a mature acceptance of the cruel, the evil, and the sordid; at the same time the poetry indicates a sense of wonder at the world, a love for it. In the simple, child-like poem ‘The Glass,’ the speaker may fall, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, except not down a rabbit hole, but into a tumbler of vodka, with pain and tears, yet this Song of Experience rather charmingly turns into a kind of Song of Innocence with its half-reassuring, though also half-ironic, refrain, ‘All is dream and harmony.’ And in the moment of fear and conjoined anger and weakness after the narrative of events in ‘The Old Lover and the Young Lady,’ more of a love poem with religious overtones than might first seem, the first-person voice of the poem reacts to his ‘lady’ momentarily with resentment, but immediately he relents: “And I call her slut. But then angel.”
The poems included here from The Alcohol Book were selected by the translators, to round out the English-language reader’s view of Ion Muresan’s talent and to bring this collection up to date.