Review by Howard Miller

Marin Sorescu's Poetry: Some Observations

Marin Sorescu (1936–1996) was the leading Romanian poet of the second half of the 20th century, and a writer whose work (he was also a playwright) was praised by such poets as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney and who was a nominee for the Nobel Prize for Literature at the time of his death from liver cancer. He was immensely popular in Romania itself, where his public readings were held in athletic stadiums to accomodate the crowds. His work deserves wider familiarity.

Sorescu is most often described as a "comic poet," and he is, but what needs to be understood is that comedy is for him a means, not an end; his work addresses the same serious concerns of identity, freedom (political as well as philosophical), and the meaning and purpose of life as does that of his contemporaries, but does so most often through comic means. His comedy has affinities with the absurdism and black comedy of the mid 20th century, but differs somewhat from those in that his attitude is most often more whimsical and playful and somewhat less darkly grim than one finds in works associated with those approaches. In his poem "The Cowardly Coffin," for instance, we are presented with Sorescu's own funeral (the poem was written only five weeks before his death), a funeral disrupted by the bizarre behavior of the coffin which shoots skyward out of the grave as soon as it has been lowered:

The coffin gave a quick shudder,
A start,
And shot high above
Dragging the gravediggers along,
Caught in the straps.

It knocks over several headstones in the cemetery, bumps into the church steeple, and finally settles back down on the ground next to the grave as the gravediggers climb down from the trees where it had deposited them. Lowered a second time into the grave, it takes off again "The narrow end first, as if from a launching pad, / Aerodynamic," and continues to circle overhead until such time, we are informed, as it can be

shot down
By some rocket or other
From our missile defence.

(5, "The Cowardly Coffin," AJS/LV)

It is the coffin itself which is "cowardly" and apparently doesn't want to be buried; Sorescu refers to himself only once in the poem and it's clear that he (as a corpse) is simply a passenger on the coffin's flights. This kind of self-deprecating irony is also characteristic of him, as will be seen further a bit later. Sorescu's own feelings about his impending death are thus transferred to the inanimate coffin which in turn becomes a comic actor in a bizarre farce with very serious undertones.

Often, his poems will begin with an absurd situation, one which he then takes literally and follows out to its conclusion. Here, for example, are the openings of several of his poems:

Someone overnight sticks a gigantic
sheet of carbon paper on my door.
Everything I am thinking immediately
comes through on the other side of the wall.

(1, "Carbon Paper," MH)

[for all references to Sorescu's poetry,
please see bibliographical end note]

Throw a few more logs
on to the sun,
in a few billion years,
they say, it will
go out.

(1, "The Sacred Flame," MH)

The sea is an enormous compass
With nervy fishes
Pointing all the time due north.

(2, "The Compass," ML/JRG)

Evening after evening
I collect all the available chairs
in the neighbourhood
and read them poems.

(1, "Impulse," MH)

We're washing with your suds, sun,
Our fundamental soap,
Made available
On the sky's shelves.

(3, "Matinal," GD/SF/AV)

In "Carbon Paper," for instance, people gather outside his door to read his thoughts, and react in various ways to what he knows, which is everything -- with one exception: The only thing he doesn't know anything about is his own soul which, whenever he tries to grasp it,

slides away from me between days,
like a cake of soap
in the bath.

The image of attempting to grasp—to comprehend—the soul which slips away communicates a comic sense at the same time it makes clear the enormous intellectual difficulty of the task the speaker undertakes. In "Matinal," our morning ablutions with the sun's "soap" causes us to "rub ourselves so hard with light / Our bones hurt from all the happiness." But when we come to dry our faces afterward, we aren't able to find the "best towels," so have to settle with wiping "our faces with death" instead; in this case, the seriousness of the conclusion ameliorates the humor and joy felt earlier in the piece. This technique is a fairly common one for Sorescu. In "The Compass," each fish has its own "north" towards which it points, creating confusion; but a method is being developed that will cause all fish to "swim with the tide / nose to tail," and when that occurs, "The world will, have a clearer idea / Of where it stands from day to day." The indirect political implications of the attempt to impose such conformity are inescapable; Sorescu was writing during the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu and such indirect methods were necessary to avoid the censorship which was so much a part of Romanian life until the fall of communism. But the implications of "The Compass" go beyond the political to the moral and philosophical, as well, issues which always concerned Sorescu (whose university degree was, after all, in philosophy); the conclusion appears to applaud the loss of individuality, but this conclusion is ironic, because the concept of the individual is central to Sorescu's work.

Ultimately, what each individual has is only the self, and the self frquently seems overwhelmed and inadequate, a situation Sorescu often develops with self-deprecating irony, as in "The Cowardly Coffin" discussed above. Likewise, in poems such as "Precautions," he presents the self in a similar light: here, the self encases itself in armor made from water-smoothed pebbles, glasses, gloves, and a breastplate made from an ancient tortoise; only then, having left

no part of my person
exposed to touch
or other poisons,

the self acts by replying to another self:
I love you too.

(2, "Precautions," PM/JRG)

In "Balls and Rings," the speaker is the son of a juggler who has been called away, leaving the son to keep the balls and rings (which comprise the world) in motion through the air, and the son begins to suspect his own inadequacy:

It's late, and father
shows no signs of coming back.
I've thrown up one more
than I think I'll be able to catch.

(2, "Balls and Rings," WS/JRG)

In "Reading Matter," Sorescu describes the life of the self as a newspaper pushed under the door each morning:

As usual,
the day is pushed into my room
from under the door.

As the self reads about its life, it questions who is responsible for its many mistakes, implying that the anonymous "they" are and that it (of course) isn't:

Where on earth do they print
this stuff,
my life,
when it's full of

(1, "Reading Matter," MH)

Further, there are times when the self is aware of its own responsibility for things which have happened, but would prefer to avoid the unpleasant consequences. In "Ulysses," Sorescu presents an alternate version to the events recounted in The Odyssey. Here, rather than desiring to return home, Ulysses in fact states precisely the opposite; it's not just or event mainly the problems he's going to have with the suitors—what he really wants to avoid is the scene that he knows has to occur, when "that weeping woman" confronts him and demands an explanation she's already decided not to accept:

--Where have you been?
--I've been fighting the Trojan War, don't nag . . .
--Well, well, but Clytemnestra's Agamemnon,
How come he got away earlier, he's already rotted by now,
Weren't you all fighting the same war?
--For ten years I wandered on the ocean because Neptune . . .
--Leave Neptune out if it, please, and just tell me:
With whom?
And right up till now?
Really up till now?

(2, "Ulysses," DJE/JRG)

Considering what's awaiting him, Ulysses concludes with the wish that he could just build a small hut and simply live a quiet life between the monsters Scylla and Charybdis.

Not only does the self seem inadequate at times, but it's sometimes difficult even to find the self. In "The Sea Shell," for instance, the speaker tells us that "I have hidden inside a sea shell / but forgotten in which." Consequently, he spent his days searching the ocean floor looking for the one shell among the "millions . . . that all look alike," unable to find which one was himself:

How often I've gone straight up
to one of them, saying: That's me.
Only, when I prised it open,
it was empty.

(1, "The Sea Shell," MH)

At other times, the self seems glad of absolving itself of its responsibilities and turning them over to others, as in "The Compass" above; similarly, in "The Arrow" (one of Sorescu's poems that were surpressed by the Ceausescu government and not published until after the fall of communism), the "he" of the poem is delighted that he's been provided with an arrow that always points in the direction he should follow so he no longer has any doubts about his course, although the arrow was fired into his back so that

More than half
of it
protruded from his chest
and showed him the way.

(4, "The Arrow," JHW/HO)

However, what must be borne in mind is that Sorescu's work is ironic, that he is not advocating that the individual is weak, purposeless, irresponsible, inadequate—far from it. Sorescu so often shows us his speakers as disengaged precisely because he himself is engaged with others, with politics and morality, with the world. In "Ulysses" discussed above, the title character realizes that he must return home and face the consequences of his actions, much as he'd rather not. In one of Sorescu's longest poems, "Taking the Bull's Part" (another of the surpressed poems), he actively identifies with and supports the trapped and murdered bull in a Spanish bull ring:

They've forgotten you already, avidly staring down
at the rakes which are smoothing the sand, long-hailing your executioner.
Only me, I'm on your side. And I am troubled, crying . . .

(4, "Taking the Bull's Part," JHW/HO)

The fact is that the individual is actively engaged in life, his own and to some extent that of others, as well. In "Chess," for example, the speaker plays chess with an unnamed figure who is clearly Death:

I move a white day,
he moves a black day.

The game goes back and forth, with the "he" repeatedly threatening the speaker with sickness and misfortune, as the speaker responds with "a book" and "feelings." As his family and the rest of the universe watches, and even though he realizes he's ultimately going to lose,

I light a cigarette
and continue the game.

(1, "Chess," MH)

It is the engagement, the active participation, that is of value. The individual is likewise engaged in the mistakes, the errors, that are a part of the world around him; he cannot simply blame others. In "Heritage," for instance, he shows how the present draws many of its mistakes from the past:

From antiquity, from
The Middle Ages, from
All of history, anywhere,
Whole trainloads of errors
Addressed to us
Are still rolling in.

And why do they continue to affect us? Because
We, the laughing heirs,
Only keep on unloading
And signing receipts for the stuff.

(2, "Heritage," MH)

But the individual is also responsible for helping to create the world in which he finds himself. It is of course the artist who most contributes; in "Shakespeare," for instance, we are told that "Shakespeare created the world in seven days," and his efforts on each day are catalogued; then,

The seventh day he looked to see if there was anything else to do.
The theater directors had already filled the earth with posters,
And Shakespeare thought he deserved to see
A performance after so much labor.
But first, because he was so very worn out,
He went away to die a little.

(3, "Shakespeare," GD/SF/AV)

Creation and death: in one sense, these may be said to sum up the individual's life. But by its very nature that life is important and worthy of being recognized. To contribute to the world is in fact the ultimate engagement and is the goal for the individual, each of whom is in his or her own right an "artist":

"Portrait of the Artist"

I left my shoes
to the road.
As for my trousers, I slipped them over
the trees, right up to the leaves.
My jacket I wrapped
round the wind's shoulders.
I put my old hat
on the first cloud
that came my way.
Then I stepped back
into death
to observe myself.
My self-portrait
was a faithful one.
The resemblance was so close
that quite spontaneously people --
I had forgotten to sign it --
inscribed my name
on a stone.

(1, MH)

There has been no attempt to survey the full scope of Sorescu's work; rather, the purpose here has been simply to try to trace a few of the more significant techniques and themes that make his work both important and enjoyable.

Bibliographical Reference Note:

For the sake of comparative simplicity, I have made use of the following system for indicating the source-volume and the translators of the poems quoted in this article.

Following each citation of a poem, I included a reference in this form:

(5, "The Cowardly Coffin," AJS/LV)

The number in bold refers to one of the following five volumes I consulted, followed by the title of the poem in quotation marks and then the initials of the translator(s):

1. Marin Sorescu Selected Poems, Bloodaxe Books, 1983,
translated by Michael Hamburger (MH).

2. The Biggest Egg in the World by Marin Sorescu, Bloodaxe Books, 1987,
translated by Seamus Heaney (SH), Ted Hughes (TH), David Constantine (DC),
D. J. Enright (DJE), Michael Hamburger (MH). Michael Longley (ML), Paul Muldoon (PM),
William Scammell (WS) with Joana Russell-Gebbett (JRG).

3. Hands Behind My Back: Selected Poems by Marin Sorescu, Oberlin College Press: Field Translation Series 18, 1991, translated by Gabriela Dragnea, Stuart Friebert, and Adriana Varga (GD/SF/AV).

4. Censored Poems by Marin Sorescu, Bloodaxe Books, 2001,
translated by John Hartley Williams and Hilde Ottschofski (JHW/HO).

5. The Bridge by Marin Sorescu, Bloodaxe Books, 2004,
translated by Adam J. Sorkin and Lidia Viane (AJS/LV).


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