|Review by Howard Miller
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,
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
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
(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,
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
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
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
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
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:
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
More than half
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
at the rakes which are smoothing the sand, long-hailing
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
The seventh day he looked to see if there was
anything else to do.
The theater directors had already filled the earth with
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
to observe myself.
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.
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
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
5. The Bridge by Marin Sorescu,
Bloodaxe Books, 2004,
translated by Adam J. Sorkin and Lidia Viane (AJS/LV).