MONICA MANOLACHI reviews
Secret Weapon by Eugen Jebeleanu, Trans. from the Romanian by Matthew Zapruder and Radu Ioanid with an Introduction by Andrei Codrescu
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2008)
Eugen Jebeleanu (1911-1991) was a controversial member of the Romanian poetry scene under communism. A fervent supporter of the leftist doctrine in the interwar years, Jebeleanu accepted, along with many others, what some contemporary critics call a profound spiritual perversion, which meant sacrificing aesthetic truth for the sake of cultural socio-political change. For example, in the first volume of Romanian Literature under Communism, 1948-1964, the Romanian critic Eugen Negrici (2010) proposes a new historiographic vision and set of approaches and he distinguishes between two main intervals: the fundamentalist stage of the communist regime (1948-1953) and the stage when the melting down was not real but just mimicked, leading to an unsteady and perfidious dedogmatization (1953-1964). Negrici includes Jebeleanu among the postwar progressionists, who rediscovered everyday reality and wanted to innovate, after years of excessive aesthetic formality. The critic also comments on some of Jebeleanu’s early agitprop poems aimed, for instance, at presenting the invading Soviet hero in a positive light and at manipulating the masses to believe in the idea of the “new man”, candid, honest, simple – and hence easy to influence.
The postwar decades constitute an epoch when modernism and the poetry of intimacy were considered perils to the socialist literature and writing about the self was sometimes seen as a sacrilege. However, Eugen Jebeleanu did not write only politically engaged poetry. Especially starting with the 1970s, he became increasingly aware of the effects of excessive politicization and began to gradually condemn the ills of the regime, in his poetry too, until he was expelled from the central committee of the Communist Party in 1984. His last collection, Armă secretă (Secret Weapon), initially published in 1980 and translated into English in 2007, is a testimony of an inner struggle against the totalitarian regime and of a strong wish to survive as a writer in spite of the political cage in which he, like many others, lived. “In the middle of a very difficult and dangerous time, Jebeleanu spoke out, as clearly as possible and with a great self-implicating power and directness,” writes Matthew Zapruder in “Translator’s Foreword”. What did Jebeleanu write about in his last published collection? Out of the many themes covered in it, three of them stand out: the act of writing, a focus on relationships, and death.
“Secret Weapon”, “The Saddest” and “Futility” are poems which address the difficulty of writing in hostile conditions, characterized by censorship and oppression. As Andrei Codrescu writes in the preface to the book, the “secret weapon” is poetry itself. After a life of struggle for socialist egalitarian values, the poet feels betrayed but discovers in failure the value of survival against all odds. Poetry, as a “secret weapon”, is a “despised thing / envied by all / because it cannot be seen / but exists [...] so precious / it costs almost nothing [...] the breath of the Invisible”. The same description can, however, suit other fundamental concepts such as love and also faith or God, two other aspects which the regime despised.
In “The Saddest”, the poet offers a disturbing and yet bitterly true definition of poetry – “The saddest poem / is the poem which is not written / swallowed with knots / stalked by customs officials” – that reminds us of self-censorship as a result of internalized terror. In spite of this, the volta or the turn of the poem suggests there still are exits: hope and resistance. “Keep that poem. // She is surely the woman / who will give birth in pain // And in her we shall each / recognize ourselves.” Such a humanist message reflects the universal “difficulty of living”, to quote French psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto, and the unusual way in which reality turns into art – by admitting the opposite of our wishes. This poem contrasts significantly with some of the tongue-in-cheek poems Jebeleanu wrote in his youth, which, as part of a larger propagandistic programme, were meant to envisage the embarrassed and uncivilized rural man in urban contexts. What once used to be a subject for mockery eventually became a source of empathy and the poem mentioned here revisits the underlying state of collective pain which, in fact, characterized the Romanian society during communism.
“Futility” is a poem which questions a poet’s faith and vocation. The author invokes God to admit that prayer may not be enough to achieve recognition in front of the divine power. In an epoch when the supreme power should not have been other than the power of the Party, the poet feels guilty, incapable and unworthy, in competition with the divine voice, superimposed on the almost unilateral public voice transmitted through megaphones and mass media: “And Lord, it was all so futile. / Perhaps because I wasn’t dilligent. / Perhaps because I didn’t know / how to launch prayers / for your voice / to listen to mine.”
Several other poems tackle the awkward position of the individual in a society in which the uniformity is prevalent and often functions against exceptionalism.
The first poem in the collection, “The Quiet One”, features a personal trauma and an immeasurable gap between two voices, the poet’s and a woman’s. In 1965, Eugen Jebeleanu’s wife, Florica, died. The portrayal of the dreaming woman alludes to forms of production which may transcend reality. Because there is no direct reference to his family tragedy, the poem can also be read as a complex metaphor about the death of a powerful feminine spirit, more relational and compassionate, a traditional spirit which collapsed once the new generations left the countryside and moved to the sometimes estranging urban areas.
In “My Sister”, the author caricatures the idea of brotherhood promoted by the system, by portraying a cow as friendlier than man. “This cow has such gentle eyes / And she understands me better, / my brothers.” The poem also suggests that the urban man has forgotten about the idea of death and a cow may be wiser because: “She is thinking about the slaughterhouse / prepared for her and for me / by that merciless, unseen power.”
In “Flowers of Spring”, Jebeleanu offers a parable of the changes brought about by the new regime. What seems a walk in the garden appears as an idealized picture of the epoch: “These flowers which appeared overnight / move and terrify me. / So sure of themselves, / so clean and strange… / They come toward me from everywhere. / They tear open, incarnating in themselves / everything white / and everything that is an echo / of innocence, the dream of hope.” The sense of purity and “of an unending rebirth” contrast with the ending line – “It’s an earthquake of flowers.” Three years after the 1977 deadly earthquake, in 1980, when the book was published in Romanian, this line might have meant more than a metaphor, considering that more than 1500 people died then, most of them in Bucharest. The line “I walk among them, staying away” is ambivalent because it may refer to the poet as a spectator of the world, but also to the Romanian leader, Nicolae Ceaușescu, who happened to be in Nigeria when the disaster took place and who, however, cancelled his stay and immediately returned to the country.
“Invisible” is a poem which captures the sense of freedom Jebeleanu felt at the time he wrote these poems. What starts as a warning against someone spying on the poet ends as a surprising turn towards the supreme symbol of imagination, the moon: “Don’t pay too much attention / When you follow me / The more attention you pay / the less you’ll see // I am not where you think I am // I’m in between spaces / I sing between sounds / I hide between bars / and not behind them // Stalked by a tiger / I’m not safe in a cage / but in the spaces between // Sometimes the moon / sneaks through // very pale // invisible”. The directness of the message, the voice in the first person singular in contrast with an indefinite “you”, the absence of punctuation, the insistence on in-betweenness – all contribute to the configuration of a sense of freedom hard to imagine in the subsequent 1980s, when the poet was eventually removed from the political ranks.
The poems translated in this collection subtly draw on the trauma of war and of the radical political change of the 1950s, from years of Nazism to years of Stalinization, which are not explicitly mentioned, however. Jebeleanu lived in an epoch of cultural transformation, when the aesthetic of modernism weakened and the postmodernists emerged. In line with other Romanian authors for whom death meant “learning” (Mihai Eminescu) or “revelation” (Lucian Blaga), Jebeleanu’s vision about death is rather transformative, if we examine the last poem in the collection, “How I died”, which presents the dead as a speaking subject, aware of “two leaves whispering” to each other: “Look, father is dying”.
In terms of translation, Matthew Zapruder and Radu Ioanid preferred to preserve the narrative thread of the poems rather than their rhythm and rhyming schemes, which is visible especially in the case of the short fables. This approach changes Jebeleanu’s aesthetic project a little, but it most probably brings it on the same wavelength with contemporary free verse poetry in English. Otherwise, their translation is excellent.
Reading Jebeleanu’s last collection in translation more than twenty five years after the 1989 Revolution may contribute to the health of Romanian literature and culture and to understanding how good poetry emerges in totalitarian regimes. His concise reflections on personal and collective trauma and his concern for truthfulness in an epoch when truth took unimaginable shapes may help the contemporary readers reconnect with the memory of a completely different past (and space) and extract from it what is undoubtedly valuable.
Monica Manolachi is a lecturer at the University of Bucharest, where she teaches English in the Department of Modern Languages and where she completed her doctoral thesis, Performative Identities in Contemporary Caribbean British Poetry, in 2011. Her research interests are American, British and Caribbean literature and culture, postcolonial studies and contemporary Romanian and Eastern European literature in translation. As a poet, she has published two collections in Romanian and was awarded a prize for poetic eloquence by the American Cultural Center in April 2005. She is also a translator and editor, contributing to the multilingual literary magazine Contemporary Literary Horizon.