MONICA MANOLACHI Reviews
Paper Children by Mariana Marin, translated by Adam J. Sorkin
(Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, 2006)
If Romanian poet Mariana Marin (1956 – 2003) had lived to this day, she would have been 60 years old, might have participated in poetry marathons and international festivals, and would have probably been awarded other prizes. The stars were against it. They had another plan.
She was born in Bucharest into a working-class family. At the age of three her parents separated and she was raised by her mother and her grandmother. She studied at the “Ion Neculce” High School and at the University of Bucharest, Faculty of Letters. An active member of the Monday Poetry Circle led by critic Nicolae Manolescu, Mariana Marin made her debut in 1981 with A Hundred Years’ War.
Translated by Adam J. Sorkin, with Irma Giannetti, Angela Jianu, Mia Nazare and Liana Vrăjitoru, Paper Children (Ugly Duckling Press, 2006) includes poems of her maturity, many of them written during the early part of the 1980s, but published after the 1989 Revolution: from At The Crossroads of the Great Trade Routes, which was initially a French and Romanian bilingual collection (the French version by Sébastian Reichmann) that appeared in 1990; from The Studios, which contains poems written between 1980 and 1984, translated into French by Alain Paruit in 1990; and from The Secret Annex, initially published in Romanian in 1986, after fierce censorship, which made her invent a persona based on Anne Frank’s diary. Before moving on, it is worth mentioning that, apart from English, fragments of her collections have been translated into several other languages. In 2013, her anthology from 2002, The Dowry of Gold (Zestrea de aur), which comprises all her collections in chronological order, plus a number of new poems, was rendered in Italian, La Dote d’Oro, by Clara Mitola, with the help of Romanian poet Claudiu Komartin, and published by Editura Pavesiana.
An atypical and dissident woman poet representative of the 1980s generation, Mariana Marin wrote oppositional poetry and did not give in when her work was censored. Her antagonistic position – against the system, somewhat against her generation and often against herself – exacerbated by a sense of fragile balance, left a dialogic, inspirational mark on her poems.
If we think of its title, the collection put together by Adam J. Sorkin aims at saving the meaning of her struggle by translating it into a language with international impact. The metaphor “paper children” appears in a poem entitled “House of Death,” a universal message that speaks not only about a specific totalitarian regime, but also about the condition of man at the beginning of the 21st century:
Between us no more than this remains:
just these paper children
we take across the street each morning.
A refusal to continue the species in any other way.
My refusal in times like these
to be yet another house of death.
By simultaneously encompassing the ideas of experience and innocence, the metaphor also represents the anxieties of the contemporary man, generated by situations of no exit, confusion and skepticism, fear and hopelessness. It contains tensions as those between cultural discourse and socio-political realities, between ecology and humanism. The energy of such tensions opens doors to new worldviews by challenging the reader’s consciousness.
Most poems are written in the first person singular or addressed to an alter ego or to a specific person. “I,” “you” and “we” are the most important characters in Marin’s poetry. Some of her favorite, obsessive themes are introspection, love and despair, language and writing, relationships and communication and many questions on morality. Two elegies discussed below offer a glimpse into the solemn and melancholic style of her poems, in which voice predominates over image.
“Elegy XII” explores the meaning of identity in the face of death. The speaking “I,” the addressee “you” and the consolidation of “us” are best outlined in the presence of imagined annihilation. Like a lover or a ubiquitous spirit, nothingness appears at the beginning and at the end of anything that exists. Between the beginning and the end, death is experienced only as a word. Although the geographical references – “a Europe or a Red Sea” – allude to the Cold War and the opposition between the Western and Eastern worlds, the invented relational structure of the poem – “you and me (so to speak)” – subtly supports turning resistance into productive harmony.
All night long death lay between my breasts.
But between you and me (so to speak)
will forever be a Europe or a Red Sea.
The language in which I conceive the word death
is not the language in which you conceive the word love.
What keeps us apart today (so to speak)
will keep us even farther apart tomorrow.
This is why, for all the darkness of our past
that we are unscrolling
like a papyrus from ancient Egypt,
I invite you to run away with me
into the abyss that was given unto us.
Once there, your freckles and your red hair
will surely take the hint
and love the language of my breasts
between which, even then, death will lie all night long.
“The language in which I conceive the word death / is not the language in which you conceive the word love” represents a powerful statement about the necessity of different languages, the purpose of contradiction or disagreement for human consciousness and the meanings of distance. Alluding to the Nietzschean reflection of gazing into an abyss, the invitation “into the abyss that was given to us” is an appeal to always question existence and not take for granted whatever life offers.
In “Elegy XIV,” one can hear the low-pitched sound of a dramatic monologue, meant to transform “the root of evil” with the help of “the person who would draw nearer the self.” Who else but poets, and artists in general, can do that? How else but by questioning the self and its construction can one do that?
You don’t even know:
I’ve started all over from the beginning
the way morning cleans up insomnia’s crumbs
and lays on your table a fiery life.
I had the courage to work at the very root of evil
and exactly there to establish the studios of
“the person who would draw nearer the self,”
who would conquer nothing but truth,
its own paltry tale.
Look at me!
I’m a little uglier and a little more absurd.
I seldom laugh and hardly ever speak.
Much too late I again reach out this hand to you.
And you, do you hear the blizzard already sweeping away our future?
There are several hints in the poem above that the speaking “I” plays upon the idea of non-existence as a source of existence. “You don’t even know” involves an unexpected, hidden reality. “Look at me! / I’m a little uglier and a little more absurd” suggests that death itself or the dead is speaking. The ending yes-no question also invokes man’s mortality. However, the elegy implies that the art of poetry and the search for truth can make the struggling self a subject of the future.
In terms of aesthetic atmosphere, Mariana Marin’s love poetry is similar to Cristian Mungiu’s minimalist films. The “you” of her poems can be read either as an alter ego or as another person, a lover or any possible interlocutor, and functions as an effectively dialogic device. The appearance of natural speech and the scarcity of imagery maintain the poetic tension in the realm of refined discourse and authenticity.
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, Trandafiri (Roses) (2007) and Poveștile Fragariei către Magul Viridis (Fragaria's Stories to Magus Viridis) (2012) and one in English and Romanian, Joining the Dots / Uniți punctele(2016). She is also a translator and editor, contributing to the multilingual literary magazine Contemporary Literary Horizon.