"[P]oetry makes nothing happen: it survives, / [...] a way of happening, a mouth." -W. H. Auden

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Second Experience: A Review of Two Books by Stella Vinitchi Radulescu

by Luke Hankins

*This review originally appeared in Asheville Poetry Review (issue 19, vol. 16, no. 1).

Stella Vinitchi Radulescu:
Insomnia in Flowers. Plain View Press, 2008.
Diving with the Whales. March Street Press, 2008.

Novice poets often make the mistake of putting most of their effort into evoking the feeling of experience rather than first practicing a more objective, concrete description of experience. If something is highly emotional, highly subjective, then to them it automatically qualifies as good poetry. They don’t realize it yet, but they are trying to take a shortcut to eliciting emotion in the reader. If the poem contains an overabundance of emotion, then how can the reader not have an emotional experience? The problem is that witnessing emotion or being told about emotion is not at all the same as having an emotional response to a firsthand experience. And I don’t think, when it comes to poetry, that this is a failure of sympathy. What happens is that, without a participatory experience on the reader’s part, any emotion in the poem is likely to remain unconvincing at best, or to seem like a gimmick at worst. The inexperienced poet does not yet understand that it is impossible to create emotion without creating experience for the reader—and that is precisely what all good poetry must do, rather than simply chronicling an emotional response to some other experience. The experience that a poem creates may be of any kind: realistic, fantastic, linguistic, rhetorical, philosophical, propositional, etc., etc. But if the poet is unaware of the need for creating an experience of one kind or another for the reader, he or she is not likely to succeed very often at doing so, merely by chance.

What Stella Vinitchi Radulescu does most expertly is to create an experience for the reader of her poems. The nature of the experience of reading a poem of hers is most often surrealistic, achieved in a sparse, fragmentary style. In many of her poems, she is also concerned with creating a meta-level linguistic experience. It is clear that many of her poems do chronicle emotional responses to various experiences, but she writes her poems with the inherent understanding that they must create a second experience that is not merely a retelling of the original. The opening poem of Radulescu’s collection, Insomnia in Flowers, is a fine example of this:

a room 
in the room 
my flesh in yours thank you mother 

thanks for taking me back for the fresh leaves 
the language I speak once a year when the sun 

digs you out cherry trees in blossom again 
rehearsing a new death
spelling loud your silence 
a short yes 
flowers for teeth 

teeth for flowers 
                (from “Spelling Loud”) 
What we can notice about Radulescu’s poem is that it is not a retelling of experience, but a distillation of experience. Thus the fragmentary images and thoughts—only those things that will be most vital for the reader’s second experience. She is also unafraid of defying the original experience for the sake of the second; in other words, she makes something new out of the material of the original experience, and is willing, even eager, to shape and distort the raw material. This way, she achieves a surrealistic effect, conflating the cherry trees with the mother, such that the blossoms begin by “spelling loud” the silence of the dead mother—in other words, simply reminding the speaker of her mother and of her death—and then morph to actually take on physical characteristics of her, to become her: “flowers for teeth / / teeth for flowers”. I would contend that this second experience that the reader has is not the same experience the poet (or the speaker of the poem) had, and yet, perhaps because the poem is not an attempt to simply recreate the same experience, and it is also not an attempt to convey emotion divorced from an experience of the reader’s own, it succeeds in conveying the emotional quality of the original.

Other poems of Radulescu’s seem less likely to have arisen from a single identifiable original experience, and yet are no less adept in creating an experience for the reader. We can see this in “Scream,” which I reproduce here in its entirety:

I went too far, too far in the woods. The tree
was there, the body hanging
from a branch.

It was yesterday, I was looking for God.

Free from gravity, his legs in the wind
right, left…
a creepy balance between shadows and light.

Too far on Earth, too far into night… I touched
the corpse, it went away in flames
and dust.

He is still here in the declining moon some words would fit
his skull

And I was scared, the scream
took my whole body with it, I thought I was flying…
But no, there I found myself stuck on the ground
from scream to scream building
an altar of silence.

This poem is more propositional than “Spelling Loud.” Even the fact that there are capital letters, as there rarely are in Radulescu’s poems, indicates that this is a narrative, discursive mode, rather than primarily an imagistic mode. Here, we have the idea of mystical pursuit taken too far. The poem seems to indicate that seeking God can be dangerous, when one is attempting to exceed the bounds of human knowledge and experience. And yet, the traumatic experience ultimately results in worship: “from scream to scream building / an altar of silence.” In this poem, Radulescu is proposing an idea rather than simply recounting an experience, and yet, it is through the reader's imaginative experience that the idea arrives so forcefully and so convincingly.

Oftentimes, in true Surrealist form, Radulescu's poems ask the reader to see combinations and juxtapositions of things that would not be possible in “the real world.” These surrealistic images and scenes create yet another kind of experience, akin to that in “Spelling Loud,” and yet distinct, because the surrealism in that poem can be read as psychological metaphor. It is not so easy to categorize other poems of hers this way, poems which are more fully surrealistic. The final stanza of the poem “If I Remember,” from Diving with the Whales, is a fine example:

lavender evening
ghosts approaching the shore
I follow their footpath I almost
hit a star

In “On Turtles and Death,” from Insomnia in Flowers, Radulescu combines her fascination with language itself with her surrealistic style:

the high tide leaves more verbs on the beach
I draw them all over my feet    they whisper

The title poem of Insomnia in Flowers contains these wonderful lines:

my house floats backwards on the river

a child in the garden opens
black wings

And Radulescu can be more playful as well, combining artistic or literary allusions to create unforgettable images:

sky was a joke in our late conversation
a man lighting his blue cigars
with Stevens' tie
(from “Stars are like Children,” Insomnia...)
It seems to me that Radulescu’s basic concern is spiritual investigation, and carrying the reader along, to the extent that it is possible, in her mystical pursuit. In “Starting Point,” from Diving with the Whales, she writes about seeking understanding, and says, “and what if I fail and what if I don’t,” acknowledging the fearfulness of each possibility—either perpetual uncertainty, or revelation that is too much to bear (as in “Spelling Loud,” quoted above). She goes on to say, in the third section of the poem:

the answer is in our hands
but we don’t understand a long time ago

we named things at random
now we are paying for it

we don’t see a soul like we see the moon rising
we don’t understand simple facts

where are we going
why do the seagulls cry     I have these words
sometimes I feel like touching their flesh
the roundness
and then I let them fall
one by one into your mouth, Mr. Nothing

make me an offer
I will buy your big and burning eyes

Those burning eyes of Mr. Nothing tell it all—Radulescu suspects that there really is no answer to the mystery of existence, no ultimate meaning. And yet, in personifying and speaking to that nothingness, the poem gives nothingness form and refuses to accept nihilism. The only way, for Radulescu, of approaching the mystery of existence, is words themselves. Notice how she makes them tangible: “I have these words / sometimes I feel like touching their flesh...”. And then they become the bargaining chips with which she will “buy [the] big and burning eyes” of Mr. Nothing by dropping them into his mouth. Radulescu is skeptical, but unrelenting, in her pursuit of mystery. In her unrelentingness, she reminds me of the 17th century Metaphysical poets, while stylistically, she is clearly a descendent of the Surrealists and Modernists. She has melded disparate traditions seamlessly in her poetry, and the precise mixture of elements in her work is perhaps unique in American poetry, and our poetry is richer for it. The reason her poetry is so successful is that it has the ability to offer the reader powerful experiences by which he or she can participate in the mystical pursuit that is the fundamental characteristic of her work.

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