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Review of Crossing the Carpathians
Kelly Grovier, The Oxonian Review of Books, January 2005:Previous review of 'Crossing the Carpathians'... Next review of 'Crossing the Carpathians'... To the 'Crossing the Carpathians' page...
The cover of Crossing the Carpathians - the debut collection of poems from Romanian-born American writer Carmen Bugan - is swaddled in half-light: in dingy-blue dusk a periwinkle horse seems frozen in midstream, while all around fall small sprigs of flowers - hardly flowers, but the painted silhouettes of what were once flowers - which imprint themselves onto the curvaceous canvas of the horse's hide, as though the animal had been wading there for centuries, thus emphasizing the strange stasis of this 'crossing' scene. The tension between the title of the collection - all about movement - and the cover illustration - all about the suspension of movement, the translation of transition into art - aptly captures the restless essence of this extraordinary volume.
From the very first poem, 'On the side of forgetting', Bugan offers a markedly original voice - at once childlike and assured - capable of capturing compellingly a stranger's complicated feelings of fascination and fear. Of her awkward acclimatization into Western society following her family's flight from Ceausescu's Romania, she movingly remembers:
After I learned the new language
And abandoned the old one,
I practised pronouncing new words
And felt new in their newness.
But the exhilaration of limitless linguistic expanse is heartbreakingly set alongside the suffocating realisation of an unspeakable isolation:
The church orchestra practised for Evensong
And something in me, like the breath released
From the throat of a flute, escaped:
I mattered to no one there.
The slender 'throat of a flute' from which such sentiments are suddenly unstifled, finds itself transformed midway through the collection, in the poem 'Home', into an enigmatically fragrant fragment of memory. 'In last night's dream gladioli grew wild around the house', Bugan begins before unravelling in flashes an imagined encounter over a 'meal of bread, onion, and water' with her grandparents back in Romania. Though what the poem knows depends mostly on the nose - the 'smoked fish under the eaves' and 'the smell of summer' - the ultimate sense of being here depends rather on the ear:
Something like the sound of galloping horses.
They carried on with the meal. Then they sifted wheat.
I saw them walk right past me. They loaded the cart.
And I thought I heard my name in the throat of a gladiolus.
Such smudging of the senses seems somehow appropriate for a poet who is able also to blur the boundaries not only of movement and stillness but of politics and poetry. In 'Fertile Ground' the reader meets a girl gifted in the art of innocently insolent rebuke. Though the atmosphere, a flashback to routine ransacking by Romanian police, is genuinely menacing ('I was pruning tomato plants when they came to search / For weapons in our garden'), the poem ends with an enviable answer by the narrator-child which unexpectedly reconfigures the poles of power between the parties and demarcates the absent parameters of meaning and justice:
And when the oil spilled on the ground, shiny over crushed tomatoes
They asked me about weapons we might have kept.
'Oil,' I said. 'You eat and live.
This alone makes one dangerous.'
The exchange is disarming, as it were, and eerily echoes an encounter between Pablo Neruda and the henchmen dispatched by Salvatore Allende to comb the ageing poet's garden for arms while Neruda lay defenceless on his deathbed. 'There's only one thing of danger to you here,' Neruda famously groaned in defiance: 'Poetry.'
Crossing the Carpathians is an astonishing first collection which undulates between peaks of urgency and lyricism, fragility and relevance, and heralds a distinct new voice in what is an often flat and predictable poetic landscape.
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