An independent small press poetry review

NHI independent review
translated by Adam J. Sorkin & Lidia Vianu
Bloodaxe Books
NE48 1RP
ISBN 1 85224 577 8

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90-odd poems written by the Romanian poet (mainly by dictation to his wife) in the five weeks from the beginning of November 1996 that led to his death from liver cancer on 8th December at the age of 60. They are heart-rending in their inherent pathos and their clarity of vision. So aware of death, the poet is so aware of life, as in SOMEONE:

	Gather round me, dear friends,
	You too, God, come weep with pity.
	Your sobs will do me good 
	They're the sound of life.
Prevalent themes throughout the sequence, understandably enough, are of flying (and, at times, falling), crossing the bridge from one world to another, images of ropes and ladders you climb or let go of, a general loss of physical balance and security; in I HAVEN'T THE LEAST IDEA he writes that he is
	Lost without footing on an infinite field of ice,
	Numb with cold and despair,
	At the end of my rope.
In THE BRIDGE Marin Sorescu sees his position between life and death as hovering precariously on an unsupported bridge in the air:
	'I didn't know life
	Was an imaginary line,' I say.
	This buffeting makes sport with me
	On the flimsy plank between earth and sky.
In the same poem he states baldly and soberly that
	I've never been so scared
and in THE MASKS the dramatic and ironic contrast, and at the same time similarity, between the demise of his own frail physicality and that of vast civilisations is poignantly evoked:
	I, who wept mighty sobs
	Over the ruins of civilisations,
	Over the rubble of clay tablets
	And glazed bricks,
	Why shouldn't I weep today, as well,
	Over the ruins of my own stubbled cheeks?
A beautiful, restrained poem, THE DEPARTED, in objectifying his experience attains a bitter, heart-breaking solemnity and despair, as he describes himself (in the distancing, yet evocative third person) leaving home for the last time:
	He left without making sure
	He'd shut off the gas
	Or tightened the water tap.
Leaving home for a short time, and leaving home forever, mimic each other in there being no need to take care of the household:
	He stepped past his dog
	Without saying a word.
	The animal wondered, then felt at ease:
	'It means he's not going far.
	He'll be coming right back.'
	A spider's thread
	Hangs from the ceiling,
	Directly over my bed.
He imagines it to be a ladder to the sky, but
	I've grown dreadfully thin,
	A mere ghost of what I used to be,
	Yet I think my body
	Is too heavy still
	For this delicate ladder.
In FORERUNNERS, as he approaches death he also approaches, in his last moments of life, his predecessors who have all faced the end of existence:
	They found the extraordinary resources
	To fight against the eternal night
	That in anguish they alone knew.
	They faced it like a man
	And breathed their last.
	Now, as I prepare myself to become one of them, too,
	In piety I kiss the shades of my forerunners.
In another poem, AUTHOR, he is in this case conscious of his authorial forerunners and his link to them; through his liking of a book and subsequent empathy with its author
		I've come to meet
	Many of the writers
	Who are the glory of libraries.
	I met them in person.
	They were in my house.
Death of course encapsulates the fleetingness of time, and in ANCESTORS this theme of approaching death pushing him into the past inhabited by his ancestors, indeed becoming one of them, is again present:
	I've been aging unspeakably fast
	In recent months, as others over several years.
	Within one short year, from a man in his prime,
	I've turned into an old man, an ancestor.
Obviously this sequence of poems rushing towards death is probably just a little too basic and awful to enable us to ascertain the worth of pieces written in such a manic frantic mood, but a few of them are a bit like a soldier's account of war, powerfully insightful. The pathos is only to be expected, as in I LOOK SO DREADFUL:
	'Be brave!'
	I hear from all sides.
	What else can I be?
	I comfort everyone as best I can.
	Only  I've no idea what more to tell myself
	When I'm left alone.
Some poems bravely attempt a few witticisms but, understandably enough, they don't quite work. Other poems do no more than baldly state the physical pain he is in, as in AT THE FRONT:
	I wonder how hard a heart
	God must have,
	If He can stand to see the harrowing pain
	Of the wounded forgotten beneath the trees.
Poems such as I'VE BECOME ACCUSTOMED TO SLEEPING WITH MY EYES OPEN WIDE cannot fail to be powerful and affecting:
	I've become accustomed to sleeping with my eyes open wide,
	For fear I should be taken unawares.
	I must be in control of the world
	Until the last tick.
	Like a lighthouse that will not shut off by day,
	I constantly hold the horizon of the sea
	In the lantern beam of a desperate stare.
The theme of fearful travelling along a road (to death) recurs throughout, with the incongruous juxtaposition of physical frailty with intellectual knowledge and prowess, as in THE THREE KINGDOMS:
	I limp down this road
	Without horizon,
	Mere man of flesh and blood,
	My consciousness inflamed by knowledge,
	Inappropriately animal.
One certainly feels, whatever the value of poems written at such a stage, that this is how it feels like to approach death. The problem we are faced with here is whether such poems can possibly give us any insight or truths beyond their immediate traumatic and even ghoulish shiver, whether they do anything more than reflect his anguish, shock and battered consciousness. Marin Sorescu seems to recognize this inherent problem in these poems: he writes in I HAVEN'T THE LEAST IDEA that his lines
		might masquerade as poetry,
	Were they not so desperately true
He is still able as death gets nearer to sculpture beautiful little images, as in A GLIMMER:
	In a marvel of equilibrium
	Little birds perch
	On twigs so thin
	They tremble like strings.
The last few poems are quite a strain to read; they are mainly short, basic, with at times a sense of guilt, what it is like to be in a bed awaiting what must come. A very hard read. It is like encroaching on something very private, and you feel you shouldn't. Very strong stuff, and excellent translations by Adam J Sorkin and Lidia Vianu.

reviewer: Alan Hardy.