. . . they took out the mountain stone by stone,
And they looked again inside my freshly shorn head
As into a totally transparent egg
And there appeared even more hidden things.
Ileana Malancioiu was born in 1940 in a village in Arges, about a hundred miles northwest of Bucharest. She has worked in journalism and films. In 2004 she received the Romanian Writers’ Union Prize for Opera Omnia (Complete Poems). She lives in Bucharest. From her first collection (1967) onward, her poems draw on rural life and folklore, on religious and literary icons, but their true focus has been on the trauma of history . . . Ten more books of poems appeared in the 1970s and ’80s, and in 1992 came the full text of Urcarea Muntelui (Climbing the Mountain, 1985) which had been heavily censored by the Ceausescu regime.
Newer poems have been included in two recent enlarged collections spanning her whole career, on which this selection draws. Malancioiu’s writing is valued in Romania as a moral force, and for the combination of formal language with frequently shocking imagery. Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin learned Romanian so that she could translate the poems of Ileana Malancioiu. The result is a book of uncommon empathy.
Poetry in translation is hard to come by. This is the stuff of Tantalus for readers — we know there are scores of fascinating poets publishing on the continent, but the opportunity to read their work is rare enough. In 2005 when Cork became the European Capital of Culture, the Munster Literature Centre spearheaded a project to translate and publish thirteen poets from new and applicant European Union countries. As one would hope, several of these poets have reappeared in the Irish literary world beyond the project. Andres Ehin later read at the Eigse festival in Cork, Sigitas Parulskis had additional poems translated by Matthew Sweeney, and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin has continued to work with Ileana Mălăncioiu. In 2011 The Gallery Press published Legend of the Walled Up Wife, a new selection of Mălăncioiu’s poems translated from the Romanian by Ní Chuilleanáin, based on a 2007 collected edition Urcarea Muntelui.
Exactly if and how poetry should be translated has been a matter of contention, with some criticizing the use of an intermediary literal translation of the poem, which the poet / second translator works from. Ní Chuilleanáin admirably learned the Romanian language for the 2005 project, and one can only assume her advancement in studying the language has been important for the new collection. Legend of the Walled Up Wife has a handful of poems which were originally printed in Southword Edition’s After the Raising of Lazarus. With most of the poems in common, few words have been changed—those that have, serve to strengthen or adjust the tone (from ‘stilettoed’ to ‘stabbed’; from ‘begged’ to ‘prayed’). This new selection will be welcome for their earlier readers—poems previously unpublished in English such as ‘Confession’, ‘Legend of the Walled Up Wife’ and ‘Just That’ are essential.
For readers who are new to Mălăncioiu, she is a Romanian poet deeply influenced by life under the oppressive Ceauşescu regime. Poets were heavily censored and closely watched, making oblique language a necessity. Poetry in translation is a puzzle box in itself—and with poetry under repression the mystery is heightened even further.
Mălăncioiu’s world is sometimes visionary, sometimes nightmarish. Her poems are populated by ogres, queens, spiders, bears and scores of poor souls who exist somewhere between life and death. The ‘momento mori’ would be a genteel luxury in her world—death is omnipresent. The real job is not remembering we will die one day, but sorting out who is dead, who is alive, and what exactly it is we should be doing to help them.
Personae often have difficulty deciding whether or not they are living at all. Take ‘Pastel’, where, in the beginning “It is spring, I am in a flowering meadow/ Rejoicing that I am free…” but later, “I place on paper a hard thought to accept,/ With the illusion that I am still alive; / A worm danders along as if through a corpse … ”. The dead don’t do what they should. They write, they have conversations, they convince the living they are dead as well, they worry about etiquette, they struggle with their isolation.
One imagines that life under tyranny is just this—a waking death, a yearning for life and connection, and a hellish realisation that all relationships are subject to unexpected endings. Continuing along the ‘alive or dead’ theme, Mălăncioiu frequently employs images of resurrection. These are moments of reluctant hope on occasion, but more often point to a feeling of recurring nightmare, a lack of escape. Death is not respite.
Faith is not abandoned, although it is yet another source of mystery rather than comfort. In ‘Maybe It Isn’t Him’ a mourner deals with the disorientation and denial that comes with the advent of tragic news. A prayer of uncertainty is uttered: “Maybe it’s only his earthen shape/ Maybe the blood is not actual blood/ His soul maybe is singing across the plain.” Biblical imagery is abundant in Legend of the Walled Up Wife, amongst classical literary and mythical figures and Romanian folk tales and traditions. As Ní Chuilleanáin states in her preface, “Writers under censorship can employ many strategies,” often through referencing well known stories and characters.
The title poem itself is based on “Meşterul Manole”, a Romanian tale about the exploitation people will subject each other to under the demands of oppression. Other characters evoked are Lear, Ophelia, Ahab and Antigone—figures under duress, in the company of death. Here Antigone is a witness, a caretaker and eventually a mourner. Mălăncioiu tells her tale and bravely shifts to a voice one could take as the author’s own, praying “O Lord, do not blind all of my people at once, / Allow us to go two by two, postpone / The last scene of the tragedy, let each one/ Lead one another slowly by the hand.” Sight, eyes, and seeing are recurring motifs throughout the collection. When words are censored and actions controlled, perhaps all one is left with is our ability to see, to witness.
The power of Mălăncioiu’s work is in its quietly disturbing imagery, its passionately restrained voice, and its deft artistry. She “describes her own voice as a shout or a scream” sometimes stifled within the subject matter. Her poetry is useful reminder in our own tough times, which are infinitely easier than the author’s own, exactly how much unattended power we have. With Ní Chuilleanáin’s own poetic prowess and caring, careful skills as a translator, Legend of the Walled Up Wife is a highly recommended read.
Jennifer Matthews, Southword Journal
Year Published: 2011
ISBN PBK: 978 1 85235 519 7
ISBN HBK: 978 1 85235 520 3