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LEGEND OF THE WALLED-UP WIFE:
Jennifer Matthews reviews Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's translations of Romanian poet Ileana Mălăncioiu
Jennifer Matthews was born in Missouri (USA) and has lived in Ireland since 2003. Her poetry has been published in Mslexia, Revival, Necessary Fiction, Poetry Salzburg, Foma & Fontanelles and Cork Literary Review,and anthologised in Dedalus's collection of immigrant poetry in Ireland, Landing Places (2010). She recently read from 'JAM Sandwich', her collaboration with poet Anamaría Crowe Serrano, at the Twisted Pepper in Dublin.
Legend of the Walled-Up Wife
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's translations
from the Romanian of Ileana Mălăncioiu
(Gallery Press, 2011)
Buy from Gallery
Poetry in translation is hard to come by. This is the stuff of Tantalus for readers—we know there are scores of fascinating poets publishing on the continent, but the opportunity to read their work is rare enough. In 2005 when Cork became the European Capital of Culture, the Munster Literature Centre spearheaded a project to translate and publish thirteen poets from new and applicant European Union countries. As one would hope, several of these poets have reappeared in the Irish literary world beyond the project. Andres Ehin later read at the Eigse festival in Cork, Sigitas Parulskis had additional poems translated by Matthew Sweeney, and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin has continued to work with Ileana Mălăncioiu. In 2011 Gallery published Legend of the Walled Up Wife, a new selection of Mălăncioiu’s poems translated from the Romanian by Ní Chuilleanáin, based on a 2007 collected edition Urcarea Muntelui.
Exactly if and how poetry should be translated has been a matter of contention, with some criticising the use of an intermediary literal translation of the poem, which the poet / second translator works from. (Click here for more about poetry in translation at Poetry International Web.) Ní Chuilleanáin admirably learned the Romanian language for the 2005 project, and one can only assume her advancement in studying the language has been important for the new collection. Legend of the Walled Up Wife has a handful of poems which were originally printed in Southword Edition’s After the Raising of Lazarus. With most of the poems in common, few words have been changed—those that have, serve to strengthen or adjust the tone (from ‘stilettoed’ to ‘stabbed’; from ‘begged’ to ‘prayed’). This new selection will be welcome for their earlier readers—poems previously unpublished in English such as ‘Confession’, ‘Legend of the Walled Up Wife’ and ‘Just That’ are essential.
For readers who are new to Mălăncioiu, she is a Romanian poet deeply influenced by life under the oppressive Ceauşescu regime. Poets were heavily censored and closely watched, making oblique language a necessity. Poetry in translation is a puzzle box in itself—and with poetry under repression the mystery is heightened even further.
Mălăncioiu’s world is sometimes visionary, sometimes nightmarish. Her poems are populated by ogres, queens, spiders, bears and scores of poor souls who exist somewhere between life and death. The ‘momento mori’ would be a genteel luxury in her world—death is omnipresent. The real job is not remembering we will die one day, but sorting out who is dead, who is alive, and what exactly it is we should be doing to help them.
Personae often have difficulty deciding whether or not they are living at all. Take ‘Pastel’, where it in the beginning “It is spring, I am in a flowering meadow/ Rejoicing that I am free...” but later, “I place on paper a hard thought to accept,/ With the illusion that I am still alive; / A worm danders along as if through a corpse ... ”. The dead don’t do what they should. They write, they have conversations, they convince the living they are dead as well, they worry about etiquette, they struggle with their isolation.
One imagines that life under tyranny is just this—a waking death, a yearning for life and connection, and a hellish realisation that all relationships are subject to unexpected endings. Continuing along the ‘alive or dead’ theme, Mălăncioiu frequently employs images of resurrection. These are moments of reluctant hope on occasion, but more often point to a feeling of recurring nightmare, a lack of escape. Death is not respite.
Faith is not abandoned, although it is yet another source of mystery rather than comfort. In ‘Maybe It Isn’t Him’ a mourner deals with the disorientation and denial that comes with the advent of tragic news. A prayer of uncertainty is uttered: “Maybe it’s only his earthen shape/ Maybe the blood is not actual blood/ His soul maybe is singing across the plain.” Biblical imagery is abundant in Legend of the Walled Up Wife, amongst classical literary and mythical figures and Romanian folk tales and traditions. As Ní Chuilleanáin states in her preface, “Writers under censorship can employ many strategies,” often through referencing well known stories and characters.
The title poem itself is based on "Meşterul Manole", a Romanian tale about the exploitation people will subject each other to under the demands of oppression. Other characters evoked are Lear, Ophelia, Ahab and Antigone—figures under duress, in the company of death. Here Antigone is a witness, a caretaker and eventually a mourner. Mălăncioiu tells her tale and bravely shifts to a voice one could take as the author’s own, praying “O Lord, do not blind all of my people at once, / Allow us to go two by two, postpone / The last scene of the tragedy, let each one/ Lead one another slowly by the hand.” Sight, eyes, and seeing are recurring motifs throughout the collection. When words are censored and actions controlled, perhaps all one is left with is our ability to see, to witness.
The power of Mălăncioiu’s work is in its quietly disturbing imagery, its passionately restrained voice, and its deft artistry. She “describes her own voice as a shout or a scream” sometimes stifled within the subject matter. Her poetry is useful reminder in our own tough times, which are infinitely easier than the author’s own, exactly how much unattended power we have. With Ní Chuilleanáin’s own poetic prowess and caring, careful skills as a translator, Legend of the Walled Up Wife is a highly recommended read.
©2012 Jennifer Matthews
Matthews poems at Poetry International Web
Yank Refugee in the PRC (blog)
Other reviews by Jennifer Matthews in Southword