Featured review

After the Raising of Lazarus

After the Raising of Lazarus

By Ileana Mălăncioiu

Translated by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

Southword Books, ISBN 1905002041, £8.99
Series 3 No. 4 - Between the Languages

Throughout Mălăncioiu’s poetry vitality and death are placed alongside each other and the reader wonders with her at the random and incredible way in which death and life switch places.

Review by Sasha Dugdale

Song of Joy

Translating contemporary poetry from countries which have strong lyrical and folk traditions is extremely hard. Whilst the translator wishes to preserve the lyrical nature of the poem, the same structures and traditions are not open to her in English. Somehow a freer verse structure must be found, with the appearance, rather than the presence of the often strictly metered and rhymed original form and melody must be suggested, rather than hammered out. Folk images require a delicacy of touch in English to avoid sentimentality and the combination of mythical and fairytale with contemporary can seem awkward and quixotic in contemporary English. 

Often the demands on the translator prove too much and the whole endeavour fails - but not in this case. Ileana Mălăncioiu has found a translator equal to her poetry in Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. The translator opts with experience and wisdom for the simplest, clearest words and an intuitive melodic structure. She rarely reproduces the rhyme patterns of the original, but often hints at a rhyme or a binding structure. This creates the impression of a piece of tracing paper through which the original can be felt and even partly seen, and an honesty about the enterprise of translation. Many of the poems, in their spareness, achieve that rare thing: they become new poems in a strange poetic language, which is neither English, nor Romanian:

It was a night almost sleepless, Lord, what a night it was
And how afraid I was alone with Ieronim
And his body shone so brightly that
Through it appeared every one of his broken bones.

(From ‘A Night Almost Sleepless’)

The collection opens with a poem ‘The Headless Bird’ in which the poet takes the body of a slaughtered bird in one hand and the head in another. The head dies first and the poet feels death ‘passing through’ her to reach the body, like an electric current. This peculiar and powerful image, at once flesh and earth, and yet metaphor for the poet as a living conduit for death, sets the tone for this collection. Mălăncioiu’s preoccupation with death, the rituals and event of it, is constant - death is in us, around us, preparing to claim us. In the title poem ‘After the Raising of Lazarus’ the poet asks ‘For how much time, for whom and for what / Did you raise me up?’ Death is found in elements and objects, everyday memento mori, and Death is also a protagonist: in ‘In my Steaming Mirror’ Death washes her hair and combs it, and the mirror is where she waits for the fearful lyrical persona.

It is as if Mălăncioiu carries constantly inside her the sense of disbelief and wrongness which one feels after another’s premature death. She circles around the theme of death asking over and over how it can be so, finding inexhaustible numbers of metaphors and images for life passing into death. And yet at the same time she has armed herself: the act of imagining and writing are the weapon and the shield against the fear of death. ‘Forgive us this day our daily fear,’ Mălăncioiu writes in a poem about the death of a son, ‘Forgive us our fear’. In a desolating poem about visiting her sister who is dying, a horse appears to her – their own horse which died the year before, and it is outlined as if ‘picked out in gold’. The dying woman gazes after it and the poet wonders again how it can be possible that there isn’t a cure. How can it be possible, when life is so full of symbolism and miracle and human inner life is so rich? 

Throughout Mălăncioiu’s poetry vitality and death are placed alongside each other and the reader wonders with her at the random and incredible way in which death and life switch places. Indeed, in the poems which appear to be dedicated to her dead sister, death shifts between them. ‘Your hair had grown’ is a confusing tangle: a grandmother, ‘you’ and ‘I’ attempt to plait the hair, as if dressing a body – but the hair, symbol of strength and vitality, continues to grow. In ‘Laid Beside You’ the bodies themselves are interchangeable:

nobody knew I was buried,
if they had called to me I would have answered
from under the flat stone

which I had pulled slowly over me
without realising it
as I would draw a rug
where we were sleeping together
leaving you half bare.

(From ‘Laid Beside You’)

A revision of the Antigone myth shuffles both protagonists and elements, so that it is the ‘traitor snow’ which starving dogs come to tear at, and the hill to which she gives burial. The myth is jarred and bruised – Antigone mourns the landscape, and yet is buried alive in the hill which she has mourned like a sister. In this poem, as in others, it is hard not to see a political edge to Mălăncioiu’s writing. The poem directly accuses the community of letting Antigone enter the tomb to die. Mălăncioiu herself was censored under Communist rule, and did not avoid politics in her poetry. On the evidence of this collection the political is mainly congruous with her poetics, an extension of her vision. Only the poem ‘Monument’ in which they are all working in chain-gangs to complete an enormous monument to the dead seems more overtly and completely political. Ní Chuilleanáin has reflected this in her choice of strict end rhymes for the translation. 

‘Song of Joy’ makes the life equation plain. In this poem ‘joy for all my life’ coexists with ‘one intense grief’ – aging and death. In this delicate and extraordinary poem the rejoicing is remembered – even as it coincided with the passing:

There you brought me secretly sparrows’ eggs
for my meal in the morning
and cuckoo’s milk in the evening
and joy for all my life
and one intense grief
because it could not last
until old age.

After the Raising of Lazarus is a handpicked collection – Mălăncioiu’s poetry has been published in Romanian for over forty years and so this can at best be a tiny part of her output. There is a sense that the translator has been able to choose those poems she feels will translate. As a result Mălăncioiu is represented at the height of her powers, by a translator at the height of her powers. There is barely a poem in it which does not offer revelation in its imagery, the strangeness of its voice or its perspective. 

There is much to praise in this collection. Mălăncioiu is not afraid of rich multi-layered imagery, prophetic and political statement. Nor is she afraid of religious belief, which she wears in the poems without self-consciousness, in a robustly Old Testament spirit. Her poetry is dense with symbolism. Even in the contrasting spareness of her language she has an assurance and majesty. 

Her poetry should be read for many reasons, not least because these translations offer English language poetry new strategies and ways of existing. We have rather cut ourselves off from poetry like Mălăncioiu’s, which permits the presence of the grand and mythical, and in which there is a solemn and sincere belief in the continuity of imagination.

Sasha Dugdale

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