A generous spread of four poems that appeared in the New Yorker early in 1990 introduced many American readers to the work of the renowned Romanian poet Nina Cassian (Renee Annie Stefanescu). Even though her poetry has been appearing in English versions for the better part of a decade, the New Yorker set, translated by such respected practitioners of the art as Richard Wilbur, Stanley Kunitz, Dana Gioia, and William Jay Smith, drew belated attention to a poet whose body of work ought to rank her among the foremost contemporary virtuosos of the short lyric.
Nevertheless, it may be difficult for American readers to appreciate Cassian fully, the dual fault of our recent literary fashions and the uneven abilities of her translators. She has apparently been too involved with getting on with her life (her bibliography lists 24 separate books of poetry, as well as children’s books, puppet plays, fiction, and translations) to worry much about being stylishly neurotic. Her love lyrics, in particular, are so healthy in their emotional clarity that an audience raised on confessional breast-beating may find them old-fashioned. Her work is not political in any overt sense, though one might hasten to add that in a totalitarian society the cultivation of the private sensibility, expressed in lyrical poetry, may in fact be considered a subversive act. Cassian’s personal history, as related by Smith in his excellent introduction to Life Sentence, is a fascinating tale in itself and one that, if not entirely happy in its outcome, at least manages to avoid the type of tragic ending that for years was all too common in the poet’s unfortunate country.
Cassian was born in 1924, the child of non-practicing Jews who saw to it that she had piano lessons and could read and write before her sixth birthday. Her father was a translator of French and German and was the author of the Romanian version of Poe’s “The Raven,” which may provide a faint clue to the meaning of “The Burning of the Famous Castle Nevermore,” one of Cassian’s most cryptically surreal poems. At 18, Cassian married a young Jewish Communist poet. She was divorced, and then married again, this time to ALL Stefanescu, a critic and novelist who was her great love for 35 years and is the subject of many of her finest lyrics. Her early poems occasioned a typical Marxist literary controversy, for their resolute aestheticism fed ammunition to the regime’s apologists. Smith relates the case: “In one poem she described’ Lenin sitting at his desk while the light filtering through the window turned his inkwell into a great blue light bulb. The poem caused a scandal; she was accused of wishing to write about the ink and the light bulb and of using Lenin merely as a pretext.” Subsequently she wrote four books of politically correct poetry (which she now disavows), books for children, film criticism, and a number ‘ of musical compositions.
Following the death of her husband, Cassian accepted an invitation to visit the United States. While teaching a creative writing course at New York University in 1985, she learned that Cheorghe Ursu, an old acquaintance and confidant, had been arrested. In his office the police discovered a diary in which, apparently in all innocence, he had jotted down his friends’ antigovernment remarks and verses and identified the sources by name. Cassian’s exile was apparently sealed in late 1987 when she learned that her library and personal effects, left behind in Bucharest, had been seized by the authorities. Smith’s introduction was written early in 1989, almost a year before the revolt that toppled the Ceausescu regime, but Cassian has not yet ventured back to her homeland. Her recent project, translating A Midsummer Night’s Dream into Romanian, will perhaps provide an occasion for her return.
Smith admits the difficulty of translating Cassian’s poetry, which provides some challenges that free-verse translators are ill-equipped to meet. She often employs elaborate verse forms and a variety of meters, and a range of translators’ strategies, some more fruitful than others, is evident here. Since the volume is not bilingual, one can only guess at what the originals’ formal devices sound like to a native speaker. “Dream Girl,” for example, appears to have originally been a poem in rhymed quatrains. Brenda Walker and Andrea Deletant translate it as free verse, with a hint of rhyme in the final stanza:
And your familiar sleep
splintered into seven fragments,
and lips became transparent
in a kiss.
That’s how we wandered
seven times seven . . .
—No, just a dream. Just a dream.
On the facing page, Fleur Adcock renders the exquisitely fragile “Because You Don’t Love Me” with its rhymed tercets more or less intact:
I smile, and feel my feeble grin
drip like a blood-streak down my chin
because you don’t love me.
I dance, and my heavy hands just trail
like a pair of anchors. I am pale
because you don’t love me.
I light a cigarette, and choke
in an Isadora-scarf of smoke
because you don’t love me.
Twenty different translators worked on this volume, alone or in collaboration, and Cassian herself contributed both advice and several of her own English versions. As one might expect, the overall results are mixed. Petre Solomon’s attempt to rhyme results in this inept stanza:
Some there are who, meeting me, have said:
“Welcome to my life, you living wonder!”
Other [sic] had nothing whatever to say to me,
and I left them far behind, wanting upward to wander.
On the other hand, Smith manages to turn consistently elegant passages:
I was given at birth this odd triangular
face, the sugared cone that you see now,
the figurehead jutting from some pirate prow,
framed by trailing strands of moonlike hair.
Disjointed shape I’m destined to carry around
and thrust out steadily through endless days,
wounding the retinas of those who gaze
on the twisted shadow I cast upon the ground.
Not surprisingly, Gioia, whose versions of Eugenio Montale’s Mottetti appeared in 1990, and Wilbur, whose translations of French dramatic poetry are contemporary classics, provide the best moments in the volume. “Orchestra,” as rendered by Gioia, stands as one of Cassian’s most memorable lyrics. Its opening two stanzas introduce a conceit, an apt one if we recall Cassian’s musical training, on which the emotion hinges:
Climbing the scales three octaves at a time,
I search for you among the high notes where
the tender flute resides. But where are your
sweet eyelashes? Not there.
Then I descend among the sunlit brasses—
their funnels glistening like fountain tips.
I let them splash me with their streaming gold,
but I can’t find your lips.
Wilbur’s version of “Ballad of the Jack of Diamonds” is animated by a witty lilt that Cassian has doubtless carried over from her children’s books:
The two dark brothers of this jack.
Abetted by the third, alack,
(Who, draped in hearts from head to foot,
Is the most knavish of the lot).
Have vowed by all means to be free
Of him who gives them symmetry.
Making a balanced set of four
Whose equilibrium they abhor.
If everything in Life Sentence came up to this level it would be easy to acclaim Cassian as one of the greatest living poets. That so much of her poetry, “vibrating, sensitive, pulsating, / exploding in the orgasm of Romanian,” is able to overcome the obstacles of English translation provides us with a clear indication of its worth.
[Life Sentence: Selected Poems, by Nina Cassian, Edited by William Jay Smith (New York: W.W. Norton) 130 pp., $17.95]