Ana Blandiana,the greatest Romanian living poet, is both of yesterday and today.
To many she’s known as a dissident poet. Born in 1942 in Timisoara, she had her first poem published at the age of 17.With her father a priest and political prisoner, Ana Blandiana started her career as an ‘enemy of the people’ and faced many years of censorship. She became a strong opponent of the Communist regime and a voice of the people. After 1989,she became involved in politics and the consequent disillusion lead her to call this period her “ten years of political suicide”.
Today, Ana Blandiana is well known within and outside Romania.To date, she’s written fourteen books of poetry, one novel,essays,and short stories, and her books are translated into 26 languages.She received the Legion D’Honneur,the highest distinction of the French state, in 2009.
The fall of Communism didn’t diminish her fame but it did lessen the intensity of her poetry. Paradoxically, the censorship years turned her into a revered poet, and freedom after the revolution came at a cost. She struggled to maintain the pathos that had animated her connection to her readers under Communism. ‘The hardest thing after 1989,’ she tells us, ‘was to accept that freedom of speech reduced the importance of speech’.
Yet what she wants to be remembered for isn’t her poetry, but the the Sighet Memorial to the Victims of Communism that she’s built and now runs. The memorial is made up of a museum in a former political prison in Sighet and an international study-centre of Communism with headquarters in Bucharest. Blandiana’s been involved with the project for the last two decades and has now made it her mission to ‘understand what we lived so we can understand what we are living now’. What she explores with the memorial is not the plight of the individual but that of the whole people: ‘Everyone knows their own suffering but not so much the collective suffering’.
To herself she’s only ‘a writer who writes what she thinks’. Recently Blandiana came to London to mark the appearance her latest book of poetry My Native Land A4 (Bloodaxe, 2014), translated by literature professors Paul Scott Derrick and Viorica Patea: the latter also translated the work into Spanish (Pre-textos, 2014), with the writer and poet Antonio Colinas.
It’s difficult to dissociate the artist from the person, and in Blandiana’s case both are as vulnerable as they’re dominant, as factual as they’re fantastic. Elegant and feminine, Blandiana answered questions with the enthusiasm of a child, as if her history dissolved into the ether without leaving a mark. But reciting her poems, she seemed like a Mater Dolorosa, admonishing those who had lost their way: it was the voice of the guide and messenger-poet that we read about but never quite hear.
Asked about the source of her inspiration, Blandiana, like many poets, claimed a force beyond her will: her task being to deliver and jot down words from another dimension. Though her voice is original, she’s influenced by the great poets of the past (Emily Dickinson springs to mind) and by her own admission thinks that as an end in itself the search for originality is foolish. What she pursues, she says, isn’t originality but the ability to write invisibly, the poet merely serving a bigger, omniscient source.
Her poetry touches on fundamental themes: God, faith, angels, love and loss. In the poem ‘Animal Planet’ Blandiana writes about the injustice of sacrifice and the animal laws that govern our existence: ‘….the candle of life will always need blood to go on burning/The blood of another.’ It’s an injustice she doesn’t accept, and whose witnessing brings guilt with it. It’s the same remorse we all feel when we observe another’s suffering and cannnot or will not intervene. In ‘Prayer’, the quest for meaning crops up in a question to God: ‘I’d like to know if you feel remorse for making some victims and some hangmen?’
Blandiana confronts these existential questions head on. While she does our job for us she also comes up with answers, her poem ‘Continual Loss’ giving us a way of understand and coping with the loss of people and things: ‘Losing is not hard/ In fact, ascension is nothing more than a continual loss/ The burden of those objects and beings that you left behind, helps you to rise.’
Blandiana’s poetry is now written in freedom. Yet while no longer fighting the oppression of Communism, it still has its dragons to slay. Ana Blandiana makes us aware of the downward slope of modernity – its challenge to truth and beauty – and wants us to stop and notice that ‘the leaves are falling down / And the birds are flying away.’
Ana Blandiana’s My Native Land A4 is available from Bloodaxe Books priced £9.99. ‘Dwelling in Words: An Evening with Ana Blandiana’ was part of the ongoing cultural programme at the Romanian Cultural Institute, London.