Ana Blandiana, The Sun of Hereafter/The Ebb of the Senses, Trans. Paul Scott Derrick and Viorica Patea (Bloodaxe Books, 2017). Originally published in 2000 & 2004.
Review by Matt MacDonald
The Sun Of Hereafter bristles with the loss of faith. It’s not a religious faith, but a secular faith; a faith in people. In this sense, it is a faith in something intangible. The collection opens with the poem ‘North’ which state
Has not condemned its criminals
But its saints
The poet holds that people have acted in a way divorced from how they should behave. Though able to recognise the difference between “good” and “evil”, we do not always work within the bounds of that knowledge. In many ways, it is the good that are punished and the evil that go free. It is hard to refute the truth of these lines, and even more so in the time since they were published in 2000. This is a collection that deals with change and its repercussions; the affects that can’t be seen coming and the way that large scale change can utterly de-centralise a person.
Blandiana was a prominent vocal dissenter to the Ceaușescu regime that controlled Romania from 1965 to 1989. Her political voice was used to highlight and condemn the actions of the increasingly totalitarian ruler. When the regime collapsed, Blandiana founded the Civic Alliance, an NGO that sought to remove all vestiges of the Communism from Romania and worked to the eventual goal of Romanian inclusion in the EU in 2007. These collections come from the times between those two markers. The Sun of Hereafter was originally published in 2000 and The Ebb of the Senses in 2004. As the introduction to the Bloodaxe book that brings these two collections together states, Blandiana was “a changing voice for changing times”. Her tenure with the Civic Alliance ran from 1990 to 2001; the poems of The Sun of Hereafter are more directly influenced by the difficulties of re-adjusting to a new country while repudiating the traditions of the old. The Ebb of the Senses can be seen as an extension of that voice, but unshackled from the hold of public office, where one’s personal voice is often diminished in relation to other needs.
The Sun of Hereafter presents a voice in conflict with itself, unable to find the familiarity it used to know. In ‘Definition’, Blandiana paints a nation both strong and weak, in a series of couplets formed from paired positives and negatives that culminates with
Not to be free;
Not to be humbled,
The revolution left unexpected and perhaps irreparable changes in Blandiana herself. Political dissident becomes political leader and finds that her previous acts of dissent are required to change as the political landscape does. Her voice has been taken from her, and not by her own hands. Caught between the desires of her own needs and those of the country she finds this balance hard to bear.
In the final poem ‘The Old and The Young’, a title which could represent the political dichotomy between those who suffered under oppression and those for whom oppression is unfamiliar, Blandiana leaves us with the lines:
But hopeless, only discovers there
An exhausting eternity that she cannot bear
It is hard not to feel this collection is an echo of something that would be hard to express in public life, and it feels important that it came out a year before the end of her tenure in the Civic Alliance.
In ‘Nothing Happens By Chance’, Blandiana weaves together her technical skill with the emotional resonance of loss. The poem has a skein of half-rhyme echoing the cadence of childhood poetry, fairy-tales, and nursery rhymes, only to turn the last couplet into an indictment of the enforced ennui of adulthood:
Nothing happens by chance:
Not the shiver in your spine,
Not the fruit on a branch
When everything causes me pain –
The honey in the hive
The salt in the sea –
And everything is fated to take the life
Of the child I used to be
This concept of forced loss or the need to shed skin to change occurs in other points in the collection, like in ‘Ballad’
Or that each of us has killed a bit of himself.
A sacrifice was needed.
So that everything can last-
Throughout The Sun of Hereafter, Blandiana uses a variety of narrators, with degrees of similarity to her own outlook. All her narrators are lost, looking for the remnants of faith in something that has irrevocably shifted. In ‘Apollo’, we are told to
…come witness the poetry impoverished
And poets fallen under history’s impoverished curse
It is not just in herself that she sees this loss of faith has occurred in; the ripples in the scope of poetry itself are far reaching. These themes of loss and the hopeless faithlessness that comes from changes that bring about the death of one form of life occur as major elements in the poems ‘The End of the World’, ‘The Wound at the End of the World’, ‘If We Were Going to Die’, ‘Happy You’, ‘To and Fro’, and ‘Clock’. It is testament to her skill with words, and the talent of the translators that this repetition is not irritating, but only works to deepen the understanding of the motif at play.
Blandiana’s loss of faith, or the fear of loss of faith, is tenderly stated in these poems. There is a plethora of voices, but each poem is framed in the first person; the absence of any additional characters charges each poem with a reality that is hard to ignore. These poems are not repetitions of the same voice but many voices saying the same thing in many ways. It is in the poem ‘Self-Sufficiency’ that these themes are given their clearest exposition:
I’ve never been self-sufficient, I know
Always in the air, hanging – like fruit from
Its tree, like an arrow from a bended bow,
Like a word from its etymology
All of these comparisons involve something that leaves its origins in order to achieve completeness; but without those origins, is either unintelligible or without function. Blandiana’s growth was as a political outsider and now that she is a political insider, her role has changed. The Sun of Hereafter is the poetic catharsis of that understanding, and it echoes with the loss of purpose and direction.
In this edition, these collections have been paired. It is clear why. They both teem with lost voices, changes, water imagery (both collections feature a poem titled ‘Ocean’) and vague and indeterminate references to god, always with a small ‘g’. What marks their major difference is the emphasis placed on the loss in each. Where The Sun of Hereafter is framed in a more plaintive, and reflective voice, The Ebb of the Senses paints a far more visceral and brutal portrayal of the same emotion. This is perhaps not surprising given the title, as Blandiana’s faith and sense of self are clearly at the lowest ebb in this collection. In the poem ‘Old Angels’ she talks of those
Too sad to bring good news
Too thin to wield the sword of fire
They sink half asleep into the earth
It is impossible to consider that she isn’t talking about herself as one of these.
Throughout The Ebb of the Senses, Blandiana returns to the same state of exhaustion and borderline ennui. This is a collection that has been to the bottom of the ocean and is beginning to resurface, if somewhat slowly. ‘What I don’t understand’ tells us that something inside Blandiana, or her narrators has gone, perhaps irretrievably.
It kills me, everything I don’t understand
The woman who keeps on
Asking for explanations is dead
This constant back and forth of change and growth and change and growth has beaten her down, leaving her unsure of her place or her function. The Ebb of the Senses came out after Blandiana stepped away from public life, and after some of the most dramatic and fundamental changes in our world at large, that irrecoverably altered how we live our lives (September 11th, the Second Gulf War and the political fallout this created).
In ‘To Be A Rock In The Sea’, Blandiana explicitly calls out the after-effect of this kind of world, where change is so constant as to be unbearable.
To be a rock in the sea
In the ebb and flow of the waves
Beating you incessantly
And in ‘A Young Horse’ the first and last lines form a telling couplet of lost identity.
I’ve never figured out what world I live in
In a century that wasn’t my own anymore
We experience Blandiana here as a poet who cannot see anything other than the loss of her world and while they were not released in the UK in chronological order, the sense of nationhood that is expressed in My Native Land A4 can clearly be traced back to these collections.
While these collections are suffused with a melancholy, there is something of hope left at the end of the collection, where in ‘This Poem’, Blandiana considers the inherently insubstantial nature of her work and the way that poetry alters based on one’s experiences; perhaps the poetry changes our experiences sufficiently that when read through, it can provide the catharsis needed to reaffirm faith.
This poem only lasts as long
As it takes you to read it
The next time you do
It will change
Because you will also have changed.