Reviewed by Andrew Seguin
Part physicist and part naturalist, Romanian poet Nichita Stănescu was always a consonant lyricist. He had created an extraordinary body of work before his death in 1983. Just fifty years old when he died, he had published over a book a year between 1965 and 1971. Conventional wisdom states that prodigious output leads to paltry results, but Wheel With a Single Spoke and Other Poems, which gathers poems from all of Stănescu’s books without being close to comprehensive, presents the case that he may well have been one of Europe’s great twentieth-century poets. English-language readers have translator Sean Cotter to thank for this tremendous addition to their literature.
Born in 1933, Stănescu lived through Romania’s involvement in WWII on the side of the Axis powers, then its subsequent fall into Communism and an oppressive police state under dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, whose downfall, during the revolution of 1989, the poet never lived to see.
Despite the rise of Ceauşescu’s regime, whose restrictions were both obstacle and fodder for many artists, and still are—just see the spate of excellent films to emerge from Romania in the last seven years—Stănescu is a metaphysical poet rather than a political one.
He approaches fundamental questions about the universe, and humans’ role in it, in a straightforward, conversational tone.
From the point of view of stones,
the sun is a falling stone,
people are a tender pressure . . .
They are motion added to motion
and light you can see, from the sun.
From the point of view of air,
the sun is air full of birds,
wing beating on wing.
People are birds never before seen,
with wings ingrown
that beat, hover, glide,
within an air more pure: thought.
This excerpt from the early poem “In Praise of People” displays Stănescu’s efforts at considering perspectives beyond human consciousness, which he pursues in many poems. It also offers a hint of his worldview. People, like stones, birds and air, are one of the universe’s many elements. Each is interchangeable and considers the other on its own terms. Yet Stănescu still celebrates people for what sets them apart: the imagination. It is what allows him to envision the paradox of “wings ingrown” that retain their airy functionality, driving his consciousness to transcend its limitations. Cotter’s choice of “ingrown” here is remarkable—not only does it chime with “wings,” but it heightens the action of the image: a word so often associated in English with toenails instead evokes flight.
Stănescu has a gift for creating active, startling images. In the long poem “The Right To Time,” he writes of the “toothed wheels / of the seasons,” and in “Medieval Letter,” that “the lord of this place is violet, silence, / and carpenter’s glue.” The atmospheric distance between “violet, silence” and “carpenter’s glue” is vast—the former conjures ether while the latter reeks of home repair—yet it’s the very thing that makes the lines adhere to one another and spark in an uncanny way. Far from being mere ornament, the image, with its nouns of strange equivalence, propels the poem to its end: “our souls have returned / from a journey through the world / of pairs, one by one, / tree by tree, blade by blade, / stone by stone.” This is one of the pleasures of reading Stănescu: his attention to earthly particulars allows us to follow him easily into the world of souls.
One of the souls with whom Stănescu is obsessed is Claudius Ptolemy, the Greek mathematician and astronomer, whose geocentric theory of the heavens reigned until a heliocentric theory finally displaced it. In 1968 Stănescu published Laus Ptolemai (“Praise Be To Ptolemy”), a book inspired by the astronomer’s life, and an ample selection of poems from it is included in Wheel With a Single Spoke. In these poems Stănescu is at his best: he examines the nature of time, space and geometry, and in the friction between science and lyric impulse, produces some of his most beautiful lines. From “The Atmosphere”: “how disgusting it can be / drawing, drawing / ticket after ticket / in the shin-bone lottery.” The sentiment that daily existence is a chance operation is nothing new, but its delivery as a “shin-bone lottery” certainly is.
The poems from Laus Ptolemai are also where Stănescu does his most beautiful thinking. It’s as if he fashioned a speaker for these poems who feigns ignorance about the disproving of Ptolemy’s theory in order to arrive at insights that are true no matter which planet occupies the center of the universe. Throughout the poems, Stănescu articulates a complex understanding of time—no doubt indebted to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity—that accounts for a human examining his brief flash across the planet while remaining cognizant of the universe’s cosmic duration.
The speed of existence of a stone
is slower than the speed of existence
of a horse.
But the stone sees the sun and stars
while the horse sees the fields and grass.
To those made of flesh and bone
You only see what surrounds you.
Ideas are a kind of stone,
To those made of wood and other durable materials
If you have seen the whole,
fill yourselves with flesh
so you may see the part.
These lines from “A Few General Statements on Speed” are indicative of his approach. An object or being’s experience of time is directly proportional to the strength of its materials. Humans and horses rapidly decay while stones endure, although humans, admittedly, have an advantage: they can think. Humans can imagine another form of existence. That’s exactly what the speaker invites them to do, and it’s with a generosity of spirit that he also proclaims to the harder objects of the earth, “Shatter! / Rot!” Share in the human condition as humans share in yours.
A certain tenderness permeates such invocations, coming, as they do, in such plain language. “I say” reads more as pleasant suggestion than demand. It’s fitting because Stănescu’s vision is an inclusive one. He places humans on the same plane as the other beings and objects of the universe, even while praising the imagination that distinguishes a human from limestone, for example. But he celebrates imagination because he sees it as a transferable power, and through it the animate and inanimate can trade places and shape-shift in order to more fully experience themselves and the world. These people and objects can cross boundaries, whether of flesh and bone or time and space, and render existence as a series of transformations.
There is an important boundary that Stănescu, even as he cast his eyes aloft to the stars, couldn’t ignore: death. Isn’t it the boundary that, once crossed, brooks no return? Not for Stănescu, which should come as no surprise. In several of his early poems, there’s a pervasive sense of the dead being a fundamental building block of the present: “There are ten skulls in a skull / There are ten shanks in a shank. / There are ten sockets in an eye socket” he writes in “The Right to Time.” In his later work Stănescu weaves the inevitability of death through his investigations of existence, sometimes with the detached manner of a scientist, but more often with a humble sense of his own mortality. The entire text of the poem “Self-Portrait” reads “I am nothing but / a bloodstain / that speaks.”
We can imagine the speaker of that poem as Stănescu; he is someone who conceives of himself in the present as the remnants of a body that has already passed, but who is nonetheless compelled to speak. We’re lucky that, nearly thirty years after his death, his voice still comes through, clearer than ever.
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