Any collection of national poetry shows its audience the formed, collective identity of its poets and their artistic milieu. The Vanishing Point That Whistles: An Anthology of Contemporary Romanian Poetry is no exception. In truth, the anthology, brilliantly compiled by editors Paul Doru Mugur, Adam J. Sorkin, and Claudia Serea, sketches a post-Iron Curtain world where Romanian national identity is as fractured as its economy and societal mores are as complex as the centuries of religious strata that seem to overlay every life – or, in the case of the poems, every text. To quote Doru Mugur in his introduction, these texts are what linguist Umberto Eco calls “the authentic fake” and, in the context of The Vanishing Point That Whistles, the texts, the lives, and the poems are the truths, lies, and everything grey in between. The theme of “authentic fake” through a fractured national identity is most clearly seen through the poems and prose that acknowledge the deep and permeating role of religion in Romania’s national identity, rawly juxtaposed against everyday being and everyday living in Romania.
Doru Mugur claims, again in his introduction, that the style, scope, even the very fabric of Romanian poetry has been informed by the American Beat movement, and as the Iron Curtain came down and rigid formalism gave way to many things, the artistic freedom through relativism that Beatnik poetry had to offer resounded with 1980s Romanian poets. This becomes particularly lyrical and poignant when authors such as Cristian Popescu, Constantin Acosmei, and Marius Ianus take the fractured strands and prosaic styles of the Beat movement and fold them into the religiously informed text of everyday life. The introduction, “Hyper-Realism in Contemporary Romanian Poetry: Reality as a Special Effect,” is useful for a reader not immediately familiar with the history of contemporary Romanian poetry.
Although it is difficult to highlight specific pieces from an entire collection (as it begs the question, “Why this piece and not another?”), several pieces do stick out as being brilliantly telling examples of this hyper-realism. In these examples, the reader sees a poem, a text—a life, really—that is so much a truth that it is a lie that it is, again, a truth. In “The Telephone at the Corner,” Cristian Popescu tells a simple story four times. He makes four telephone calls, using a shell, a rose petal, cigarette smoke, and finally the one-leu coin. Each of these calls summons a different memory—this memory invokes a scenario so commonly imagined by anyone and everyone that the reader knows the “type.” Popescu tells the reader that a call with a seashell, gathered from idyllic times, promises a conversation with an imagined love:
At night, if you drop a seashell into the telephone at the corner instead of a coin, a small, white, unchipped seashell gathered from the beach in summer, instead of a dial tone you’ll hear the wondrous sound of the waves. Then you can dial any number and the liquid voice of a siren will answer, summoning you by name.
The reality is the ideal and the fantasy—the reality, too, is the last call, with the one-leu coin, to the wife who says that she won’t warm up supper and that she’s leaving him.
Popescu’s three psalms further explore the hyper-reality text of himself, the circus, and the theater—a trinity that show the religious element of a fundamentally religiously informed cultural identity. The poems ask the reader to deconstruct how religion and God inform the socio-cultural fabric of Romania, but there’s a certain ironic empathy that Popescu excludes in his psalmist conversation with God in “Anti-Portrait” and “The Circus I,” respectively:
Lord, grant me just a snippet of the peace that dwells in Alecsandri’s head among the busts in the writers’ rotunda in Cismigiu Park. That’ll be enough for me now.
Now, Lord, whaddya want us to do? . . . For us down here the circus is the thing. No kidding, the circus! Ain’t nothing else like it. We torment ourselves with Art just like those animals.
In short, Popescu uses the psalm, prosaic religious formalism, as a conversation with God, rather than a prayer—the conversation is informed through the “fracturistic,” Beat-like nature of contemporary Romanian poetry, but the underlying cultural elements are there. In all instances, Popescu’s poetry illustrates the broader themes and types of poetry and prose within the anthology, and he is certainly not alone in his artistic commitment to this. The other poets gathered into the collection of The Vanishing Point That Whistles show equal poetic heft and take on equally complex themes.
The Vanishing Point That Whistles: An Anthology of Contemporary Romanian Poetry is a fantastic collection of work by a unique salon of Romanian poets. Indeed, the editors—as editors and translators—deserve a particular nod of appreciation and acknowledgement as they have done a commendable job of compiling a variety of topics, prose, and poetry that illustrates contemporary Romanian poetry.