Monday, April 21, 2008

A Quiet Protest

The New York Sun

April 21, 2008

The work of Eugen Jebeleanu, one of Romania's best-known poets, may be epic in its scope and span of years, but in "Secret Weapon: Selected Late Poems" (Coffee House Press, 98 pages, $15), his first collection translated into English, the epic is achieved inch by lyric inch.

Jebeleanu's career, too, had epic dimensions: He got on the good side of Ceausescu even before the dictator rose to power, and this afforded Jebeleanu lifelong protection from Ceausescu's arbitrary persecution of artists. He was able, as a result, to write unmolested — often critically of Ceausescu — for 60 years, publishing more than 12 volumes of poems. "Secret Weapon" is Jebeleanu's final collection, released in Romania in 1980, 11 years before Jebeleanu's death and two years before Ceausescu's execution. The poems integrate protest of the conditions of life — both under Ceausescu's regime, and in general — with acceptance of them. They are themselves Jebeleanu's "secret weapon":

This despised thing
envied by all
because it cannot be seen
but exists

Invisibility is key in these poems, the realm in which both the powerless and the omnipotent (the "merciless, unseen force") operate. Throughout the collection, Jebeleanu returns to this theme: the commonality between opposites. Take death, which is impossible to escape in "Secret Weapon": The boundary between it and life is, for Jebeleanu, thin to the point of transparency. And that is the image one begins to develop of the poet himself — of a man looking through material conditions into insubstantiality.

Jebeleanu is not interested in prolonging life, but neither is he wishing for death: Death feels near in these poems — as it likely should for a man in his 80s — but not as a promise of peace. Like life, death makes no promises for Jebeleanu, and both are rendered as states of constant vigilance:

The night comes.
It doesn't allow me
to think about stars.
The winter comes.
Be careful.
Cold is a shrapnel.
And what else. . .

Continue walking.

The poems of "Secret Weapon" have a consistent lyric intensity, made clear in part by the translation by Matthew Zapruder and Radu Ioanid. The simple, transparent language, largely clean of rhetoric, captures layers of allusion and levels of meaning inherent in the expression of a mostly suppressed history. This is the way Jebeleanu chooses to hide — in the open, invisibly. And he makes a compelling case for acceptance — not in a Hindu sense, with the element of surrender, but with fierceness and defiance:

So remain, looking at the tables
just as you'd look at a sky
upon which two stars can be discerned ...

The word "remain" is what strikes the radical note. Jebeleanu insists on looking squarely at the conditions — the "tables" — of life. The calculation is bleak, but Jebeleanu remains vigilant, as poet and citizen.

Ms. Becker's book of poems, "Internal West," won the Paris Review book prize. Her work has been published in Fence, Open City, Filter, the Boston Review, Verse, and the Nation. Her second collection of poems, "Stories That Listen," was recently completed.

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