Ana Blandiana, My Native Land A4 (Bloodaxe, 2014 ). Trans. Paul Scott Derrick and Viorica Patea.
by Matt MacDonald
Coming to this collection as an outsider, to both the native language of the poems and the native culture, may at first appear a fool’s errand. Commentary on poems which will be so completely grounded in the timeline of Romania and it’s often tumultuous recent past, from a Western poet with a cultural normativity that has been untouched in generations may seem incongruous, but there is something that this collection explores which in fact make this commentary more receptive than may at first have been expected.
Paul Scott Derrick and Viorica Patea’s translation of Ana Blandiana’s beautiful and entrancing collection consists of deftly composed vignettes full of emotive moments, captured and released. What can be felt most keenly from this collection, from one of the most engaging yet ethereal poets of the 21st Century, is the notion of space.
Gaps dominate these poems. This collection, perhaps more than her others, deals with the distance between the country we imagine we are proud of, and the country we have to deal with when we open our doors. In ‘Between Him and Me’, she puts these gaps front and centre, wistfully proscribed as part of a discussion about the distance between the poet and the tree that gives her her pages:
There’s a silence so enormous
That it contains everything.
These silences that Blandiana explores are not external to her, they are part of her, they are her history, her present, her future. A deep and resonant feeling for the silences in her world is shown in every poem. The words echo with tremors of shifting theological attitudes. They shake with the crush and intolerance of a totalitarianism that was not merely viewed from afar but that was endured, rebelled against, and satirised.
The title of the collection, My Native Land A4, shows something of her overall aim: Can you fit a country, an origin, on a sheet of A4 paper? This is the question to which Blandiana is attempting to find a solution. And I think her answer is yes. It cannot be done completely at one time or by one person. But if we all filled our A4 pages with our countries, the atlas we built would show so much more links than divisions, would create so much connection, could link the most antipodean people. This atlas would show that even though we grow in different soil, there is so much that can be shared simply with words.
That Blandiana loves her country is obvious, that she is unhappy with the history of it and that history’s affect on her country is equally obvious. Though the poems feature often un-contextualised moments of human life (hill walking, cafés, rollerskating, TV, conversations, watching buildings), there is always the challenge towards theological dogmatism (as in poems ‘In the Frescoes’, ‘Pigeons’, ‘Prayer’, ‘Exorcism’) in those who declaimed themselves gods, but have fallen:
It’s odd that men never wonder
Where the gods live when they stop being gods […].
Blandiana writes with passion, satire, humour yet never loses sight of the fire within herself, and her country.
Much of this collection removes the mystique of God and religious thought. Her angels have pulled out their wings and cast themselves as hillwalkers and explorers, as in ‘The Strap of the Rucksack’:
On the edges of shoulder-blades
The strap of the rucksack
Rubs against the stumps of feathers […].
To consider Blandiana’s relationship with religion, one has to remember that for her youth and young adulthood, violence and intolerance were staples of the country and culture that she lived in. Therefore, the prevailing understanding of a benevolent creator has to do battle with a world filled with informers, totalitarianism, despotism and violence bordering on the casual. Several poems deal with the division between the God we are taught in Sunday School, and the violence wreaked by his creations, but none more directly, or with more freed aggression than ‘Prayer’:
I’d like to know what you felt
When you placed a song in one beak
And a cackle in another
For making some of them victims and
Of your son, who
Does not resemble you at all […]
This poem, which begins with a series of invocations to the God of creatures, insects, night, turns swiftly to short, aggressive lines, laden with plosives and choppy words. This narrator carries less sympathy than others in the collection, and may be closest to the poet’s own opinion.
It is not just angels, or God himself targeted for criticism; even the least well defined and understood element of the Trinity, the Holy Ghost, is vilified. Blandiana carefully counterpoints the innate otherness that the Holy Ghost implies with the truly mundane pigeon, managing to represent both the presence of something divine and yet utterly menacing in the poem ‘Pigeons’:
We look at them uneasily
Too many clones […]
Of the Holy Ghost […]
Most of the poems in this collection are short, nearly Imagist, captured moments. They illuminate a small space in the world for a small time, and they draw the simplest, yet most detailed picture of that time.
However, in ‘Requiem’, the poet faces the most insubstantial, yet the most inescapable distinction – death. This poem, a paean to her mother, is full of a much more human emotion: dealing with coming loss, and the small, indefinable ways that life changes when a loved one has gone:
The fact that I can’t see you
That now we can’t meet anymore,
That I go to
Pick up the phone we used to talk on
And stop my hand in midair –
None of that means that you aren’t here […]
While the actual moment of death is noted in the poem as a small time/date reference, the ripples from that moment feature large in the rest of the poem. Blandiana takes the bold step of denoting that the act of dying is not the primary element of death, of crossing that boundary. The primary element is the way in which life is changed, and whether we choose to remember the lost.
Michael Lee, in his poem ‘Pass On’, notes “when we die, we go everywhere / there is always a breath of wind somewhere” – there is much of this feeling in Blandiana’s eulogy to her departed mother.
This collection strips back to the heart and muscle the poet’s understanding of her country, raising a fist towards the boundaries between physical and metaphysical, while exploring an the silence and space between people and between moments in life. There is a melancholy to much of the poems, but there is still hope and patience in the collection.
Everything is too far away,
Or else too close […]
We all live in a world where boundaries and divisions have become so commonplace, we barely notice how many we clamber over on any given day. Yet, Blandiana can still demonstrate the poignancy of boundaries, the ineffectuality of enforced division, can still speak to the heart of what is sad about separation without the bombast and rhetoric too often used in this area.
She is soft-spoken, yet each carefully chosen word is loaded with meaning, connotation and to move even a fraction out of place would cause the whole elaborately beautiful display to fall apart before both author and audience. Adam Falkner notes that poets spend time writing towards the silences in their life, exploring those areas not normally looked into; Blandiana embraces this concept with this collection. In the concluding poem ‘Country of Unease’, she acknowledges that “This is a country of unease” and asks:
Will I manage some day
To decipher the traces that no-one else can see
But that I know are there, and waiting
For me to write them out […]
There is something incredibly calming about spaces in the world, and there is something concrete about how Blandiana explores the spaces she knows. Her eloquence evokes a clear understanding of her world, and this eloquence connects all those who read these poems, no matter their origins.