Ana Blandiana: Poet, Civic Figure, Woman

Photo: Miguel Ruiz Durán

 
 
 
Andreea Iulia Scridon
 

Though her name may only be familiar to relatively few readers globally, Romanian poet, essayist, and translator Ana Blandiana (b.1942) is one of her – mostly male – generation’s (the “60s Generation” or less commonly “Neomodernist Generation”)[1] most acclaimed poets, and arguably the most famous Romanian female writer alive. The tumultuous political context in which she has lived and written prove essential to understanding her work: the daughter of a family considered “politically undesirable”, Ana Blandiana managed to publish her work only in intermittent periods of ideological laxation, and first came to widespread notoriety when she began writing protest poems against the increasingly oppressive communist regime of 1980s Romania, her poetry appearing in translation overseas and circulating underground at home, in a unique act of Romanian samizdat. After the 1989 Romanian Revolution, she became a civic spokeswoman, campaigning against the continued persistence of a communist legacy in politics and advocating for democracy, creating, together with her husband, the essayist Romulus Rusan, a Memorial for the Victims of Communism, and re-founding a PEN Club in Romania.[2]

 

As such, Blandiana, now translated into several languages and the recipient of several prestigious international prizes, is an example of a writer whose work functions on multiple planes simultaneously: her poetry in particular addresses human nature in regards to the natural world, women’s identity issues, and socio-political philosophy. Although both her protest poems and her nonfiction books on social and political criticism remain relevant, three of Blandiana’s more recent poetry books will be examined within the framework of this essay, in order to provide readers a close introduction to her work as it has developed to the present day.

 

The Sun of Hereafter (2000) and Ebb of the Senses (2004), published together in one volume (trans. Paul Scott Derrick and Viorica Patea, Bloodaxe Books, 2017), are two lyric poetry books of Ana Blandiana’s that fuse emotional and psychological dilemmas regarding the contemporary Romanian and international political current, informed directly by a confessional, personal implication. Nearly all of the poems compiled share a simplicity of form (either a classic sonnet type or free verse), as well as causational, implicit attention to linguistic harmony. This is emphasized by the repetition of certain words, such as “light”, “seed”, “sea”, and “lord” throughout the collection. The hallmark of Blandiana’s poetry is quite plain language, favoring substance over opulence: what her translator Paul Scott Derrick terms “deceptive simplicity”, noting that “working under the relentless eye of government censorship makes it necessary to learn to write by indirection”.[3] Indeed, rife with thematic substance, her poems are reactions to the socio-historical events occurring around the poetic narrator, presented in the form of disturbing revelations, feelings of vague and visionary terror: “Nothing happens by chance:/Not the shiver in your spine,/Not the fruit on a branch/When everything causes me pain –/The honey in the hive/The salt in the sea –/And everything is fated to take the life/Of the child I used to be”.[4] As a result, a sensation of strangeness or opacity pervades, a barrier of ambiguity and bitterness and of negation, though not of alienation, for Blandiana is sincerely dedicated to engaging with the world around her. Thus, geography is a question of borders, specifically the border between right and wrong, as Matei Calinescu remarked upon her “profound ethical resonance” early on in her poetic career.[5] True to form, addressing the same obsessions, the deliberate lack of resolution in much of her work reflects the larger feeling of hopelessness felt by an entire country: “Too defeated/Not to be free/Too free/Not to be humbled,/Too humbled/To die”.[6] In tune with political stagnation, her poems mirror static reflection and static emotion by the repeated use of passive voice, suggesting both a prerevolutionary lack of human agency and a post-revolutionary passivity and complacency.

 

The feelings of outrage and of disappointment are central to the current political scene in Romania; although they are set in physically universal locations like the sea, there is a stronger tendency towards a metaphysical space of a perceived interior paradise, absolutely central to the poet’s profoundly Christian self-definition. Take “North” (“…mankind/Has not condemned its criminals/To death,/But its saints”), which sublimates the apparent condition, and reflects Charles Altieri’s suggestion that she “manifests well-defined sites of reflection as actual sites of experience”.[7] As such, Blandiana also relies on the metaphor of the seed to present loaded sexuality, consequential fertility or lack thereof, reflective of her trademark of addressing both personal and national disappointments – alluding to Romania’s failure to rise up to the idea of “free world”, to come to term, as it were. Take “Within a Pod”: “Because I haven’t hulled myself/Into other similar beings/All ages are still enclosed in me/Like seeds asleep in a pod,/Too happy to try to break free of their coffin.”[8] Many of her poems, like “Within a Pod” and “Pods”, are often self-directed (Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits come to find) and possess a distinctive voice that the reader feels, at times, can be physically heard: an attempt to define aspects of the self as a woman, as a citizen, and above all as a human being in the grip of passing time: “To be a rock in the sea/In the ebb and flow of the waves/Beating you incessantly”.[9] This self-defining sensitivity offers a unique perspective: it is often a struggle for a woman, as a writer, to reconcile herself between the strictly political and the strictly personal, and Blandiana recognizes this reality implicitly through a wide thematic range and register.

 

Much like Alice Oswald and Anne Carson, Ana Blandiana often remodels ancient elements, contemporizing them and enriching the repertoire of the contemporary female poet, unshackled from what Harold Bloom famously called the “anxiety of influence”. She uses remarkably surprising words and phrases that necessitate a double take, sometimes seeming to preserve the elusive elements of folk songs and carols that Romanians continue to sing, though their original meaning has been lost – take, for instance, the phrase “Cherry trees murmur cherries in reply” in “The Knell of Fruit”. Blandiana’s poems are generally contaminated by Symbolism; images of biblical salvation are repeated, invocations both to God and to gods reappear. Such primordial, mystical themes applied as responses to the modern world and its grander schemes give her poetry a singular, magical complexity, as we see in “Plea”: “Help me to weep; help me to pray/Help me to observe my unicorn’s fate/With the plaited star of a horn on my head /Stared at in dreams by silent crowds…”. Along with contemporizing folklore, Blandiana additionally engages with and writes back to a male canon. One such example is “Ballad”, probably a reference to Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”: “Or that each of us has killed a bit of himself./A sacrifice was needed./So that everything can last-”.[10] Michael H. Impey is correct in noting that “she understands love in the sense Novalis did, as a bridge between the universal and the individual, as the unique path to knowledge of the human condition, with death beckoning”,[11] and indeed Blandiana herself wrote a poem entitled “Remember Novalis”, another entitled “Hölderlin”. By writing in dialogue with these titans, Blandiana situates her and her own country’s geography within a global context – not to mention by nodding to the cosmopolitan “free world”, an act of political protest that, again, characterizes her artistic output.

 

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf remarked that “women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size”.[12] Indeed, despite, or perhaps because of her much more recent validation, the female poet, upon achieving notoriety, obtains a particular social halo that takes her status of female poet into direct account. When this occurs deliberately though a relationship of dialogue between the writer and her readers, the writer becomes a symbol, a cultural brand, she is almost inseparable from her witing. Ana Blandiana, like Anna Akhmatova decades earlier in Russia, is the most representative example of this phenomen in Romania, and in publishing the intensely intimate Variațiuni pe o temă dată (Humanitas 2018), or Variations on a Given Theme, Blandiana has capitalized – in an ethical fashion – on this status by presenting herself as a narrator in symbiotic harmony with her own poetry, evidently written in a period of artistic grace and immense personal grief.

 

As a vocal and perceptive eyewitness of the second half of the twentieth century, Ana Blandiana could also be considered for Romanians what Joan Didion is for Americans – stylistically, they both refuse excessive ornamentation in favor of the acute sensibility to both personal and exterior experiences. Didion’s trenchant lucidity in her journalism produced a cultural echo in the public sphere, as did Ana Blandiana’s pre and postrevolutionary civic work, directly tied up with her poetry and nonfiction. Both writers have represented and continue to represent, for their respective cultures, the intellectual and temperate social writer, legitimizing women’s writing at a moment when this was desperately needed: taking it out of the purely domestic sphere and into the battlefield. Blandiana’s Variations on a Given Theme can therefore easily be compared to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a bestselling tour de force through the grieving process.

 

The book’s notable first poem, “I knew it was Just a Coat”, is characterized by that deliberate simplicity quintessential to Blandiana’s poetry, sublimated by the delicacy characterizing the surprising metaphor of the coat – meaning, of the dying body:  “It sat thrown, rumpled,/Aged by wear, used,/Having nothing to do with you,/Foreign, beneath the flowers”.[13] Questions and hypotheses, attempts to understand death effectively happen through metaphor (Fran Polek calls this  “a mythopoeic interest in the formulation of hope”),[14] quintessentially for the Blandiana who speaks of “the coat beneath the flowers”. The beloved man now belongs to a floral divinity, explicitly Romantic and implicitly biological, where Christian material – as a Christian act of doubting and revelation, somewhat kenotic – and the subject itself meet.The most telling aspect of the poems read as a single unit (one believes they are meant to be read holistically, given the book’s structural makeup) is, however, that of the universal, the same element that contributed to the success of Didion’s book: the paradoxical fusion of two states, palpable in both books, of simultaneous acceptance and denial of death, carefully defines the terrible psychological process of mourning. The poem “As Between the Spirit and the Body” balances carefully between spiritual wisdom as a result of experience and natural justifying inner turmoil, full of expressed regret and dumbfounded wonder: “As between the spirit and the body/between meaning and the word that hides it/There is great confusion/As if it were a single miracle/Inseparable/When the miracle is separation itself.”[15] Here too the pure poetic abstract, forceful precisely through the open recognition of human limitations, is a symptom of the same process. In our hyper-technological era (which Blandiana has bemoaned on a philosophical level repeatedly), where the shroud of death billows over eerily glowing smartphones and televisions, its reality still remains the same: an ancestral fact that makes us feel awkward and lost at best. From this perspective, certain concepts seem clearly idealized, conforming to the ethereal, atemporal signature of Blandiana’s from her first poems.[16]

 
Yet the experience of earthly parting is rich and complicated, old and new nostalgias, reproaches towards the self and towards the death partner mix in the still fresh state of solitude. The trope of the personal mixing with the national, a geography of the soul, persists in “Do you Remember when You Buried the Seeds in the Earth”: “Do you remember how you put the big seeds in the earth, mysterious like recipients of illegally transporting suffering, that you passed safely through customs?”.[17] With the her partner’s departure to another metaphysical/geographical space, a desynchronization takes place, caused by the magnitude of a shock that she understands completely on a microscopic level. Thus, that magical thinking, to use Didion’s term again, is a difficult personal revelation, of collosal dimension: do we have a chance of meeting again? Is there a life after this, in both possible senses? As such, this book overall is a contemporary De anima, demonstrating Blandiana’s synthetic spirit: successful through a coherent, almost classical logic of form and structure, the content itself is an eclectic tapestry of Romanticism, Symbolism, Modernism, and Postmodernism, in the same way always testing the frontiers and edges between life and death.

 

All this said, it appears that Ana Blandiana is more of a trickster than she appears at first glance. In a reversal of smoke and mirrors, to nod back to Woolf’s insight, the deceptive simplicity (which in fact can and does stand on its own, through piercing, memorable metaphors) of Blandiana’s poems hides several strata of personal, socio-political, and philosophical content, as well as a plethora of influences. Given this artistry, suggestive of the tradition of Japanese and Chinese poetry, a magnum opus as impressive as Ana Blandiana’s deserves continued translation and more critical exploration in the English-speaking world.

 


[1] The term “Neomodernism” is accepted in this context as representing a period of stylistic transition between Modernism and Postmodernism. Iulian Boldea specifies that “in contemporary Romanian literature, the “60s are marked, without a doubt, by a reinvigoration of pure lyricism, after an arid period, in which prescriptive dogmatism imposed a didactic type of poetry”. Boldea, Iulian. “Ana Blandiana. Revelaţiile Poeziei.” Revista Limba Română, No. 7-8, Issue XX, 2010.

[2] “The Sighet Museum, integrated with the Summer School and only thus become a Memorial, is the means through which the adolescents of today, untouched by the black wing of malformation, find out what their parents were not able to tell them: who they are, as a result of their genetic history, and who they can become, as masterpieces of themselves.” “Şcoala De Vară / Muzeul Viu.” Blandiana, Ana. Liternet, destinatii.liternet.ro/articol/136/Ana-Blandiana/Scoala-de-vara-Muzeul-viu.html. Accessed May 27, 2020.

[3] Derrick, Paul Scott. “Translator’s Note: Translating Deceptive Simplicity in Poetry.” World Literature Today, vol. 90, no. 5, Sept. 2016, https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2016/september/translating-deceptive-simplicity-poetry-paul-scott-derrick. Accessed May 28, 2020.

[4] Blandiana, Ana. “Nothing happens by Chance”. The Sun of Hereafter, translated by Paul Scott Derrick and Viorica Patea, Bloodaxe Books, 2017, p. 23.

[5] Calinescu, Matei. “Romanian Literature: Dealing with the Totalitarian Legacy.” World Literature Today, vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1991, p. 245.

https://www.jstor.org/stable/40147111?seq=1. Accessed May 24, 2020.

[6] Blandiana, “Definition”, The Sun of Hereafter, p. 16.

[7] Altieri, Charles. Reviewed Work: My Native Land A4 by Ana Blandiana, Paul Scott Derrick, Viorica Patea. Chicago Review. Vol. 59/60, No. 4/, 2016, p. 223,

https://www.jstor.org/stable/24770747. Accessed May 29, 2020.

[8] Blandiana, “Within a Pod”, The Sun of Hereafter, p. 43.

[9] Blandiana, “To Be a Rock in the Sea’, Ebb of the Senses, p. 45.

[10] Blandiana, “To Be a Rock in the Sea’, Ebb of the Senses, p. 56.

[11]Impey, Michael H. “Flights from Reality: Three Romanian Women Poets of the New Generation”. Books Abroad, Vol. 50, No. 1, Winter, 1976, p. 26,

https://www.jstor.org/stable/40130100. Accessed May 25, 2020.

[12] Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Broadview Press, 2001, p. 43.

[13] Blandiana, Ana. Știam că e doar o haină, translated by Andreea Scridon. Variațiuni pe o temă dată, Humanitas, 2018, p. 6.

[14] Polek, Fran. “Red Stars and Eternity: Hidden Realities in Contemporary Romanian Poetry.” Pacific Coast Philology, vol. 24, no. 1/2, Nov. 1989, p. 74. Penn State University,

https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1316603.pdf. Accessed May 27, 2020.

[15] Blandiana, Ana. Ca între suflet si trup”, translated by Andreea Scridon. Variațiuni pe o temă dată, Humanitas, 2018, p.10.

[16] See “If you don’t want to come back again”, translated by Paul Scott Derrick and Viorica Patea. Chicago Review. Vol. 60, no. 3. THE INFRARREALISTAS (2017), p. 4,

http://chicagoreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/60-3-Blandiana.pdf. Accessed May 24, 2020.

[17] Blandiana, Ana. Îţi aminteşti când ai îngropat în pământ seminţele”, translated by Andreea Scridon. Variațiuni pe o temă dată, Humanitas, 2018, p.76.

 

Works Cited
 
Altieri, Charles. Reviewed Work: My Native Land A4 by Ana Blandiana, Paul Scott Derrick, Viorica Patea. Chicago Review. Vol. 59/60, No. 4/, 2016, pp. 217 – 225, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24770747. Accessed May 29, 2020.

 

Blandiana, Ana. “Şcoala De Vară / Muzeul Viu.” Liternet, Liternet, destinatii.liternet.ro/articol/136/Ana-Blandiana/Scoala-de-vara-Muzeul-viu.html. Accessed May 27, 2020.

 

Blandiana, Ana. The Sun of Hereafter and Ebb of the Senses, translated by Paul Scott Derrick and Viorica Patea. Bloodaxe Books, 2017.

 

Blandiana, Ana. Variațiuni pe o temă dată, Humanitas, 2018.

 

Blandiana, Ana. “If you don’t want to come back again”, translated by Paul Scott Derrick and Viorica Patea. Chicago Review. Vol. 60, no. 3. THE INFRARREALISTAS (2017), pp. 1-4, http://chicagoreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/60-3-Blandiana.pdf. Accessed May 24, 2020.

 

Boldea, Iulian. “Ana Blandiana. Revelaţiile Poeziei.” Revista Limba Română, No. 7-8, Issue XX, 2010.

 

Calinescu, Matei. “Romanian Literature: Dealing with the Totalitarian Legacy.” World Literature Today, vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 244 – 248,https://www.jstor.org/stable/40147111?seq=1. Accessed May 24, 2020.

 

Derrick, Paul Scott. “Translator’s Note: Translating Deceptive Simplicity in Poetry.” World Literature Today, vol. 90, no. 5, Sept. 2016, https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2016/september/translating-deceptive-simplicity-poetry-paul-scott-derrick. Accessed May 28, 2020.

 

Impey, Michael H. “Flights from Reality: Three Romanian Women Poets of the New Generation”. Books Abroad, Vol. 50, No. 1, Winter, 1976, pp. 16 – 33, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40130100. Accessed May 25, 2020.

 

Polek, Fran. “Red Stars and Eternity: Hidden Realities in Contemporary Romanian Poetry.” Pacific Coast Philology, vol. 24, no. 1/2, Nov. 1989, pp. 72-82/. Penn State University, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1316603.pdf. Accessed May 27, 2020.

 

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Broadview Press, 2001.

Andreea Iulia Scridon

About Andreea Iulia Scridon

Andreea Iulia Scridon is a poet and translator. She studied Comparative Literature at King’s College London and Creative Writing at the University of Oxford. In 2020, she was awarded the University of Oxford’s STAAR Editorial Prize. She has a poetry pamphlet forthcoming with Broken Sleep Books in 2022.