By Leah Barber
In 1919, before earning his reputation as an influential Romanian modernist, Lucian Blaga was a sensitive, passionate newlywed who penned his first book Poems of Light (Poemele Luminii), now out in a discerning new translation by Gabi Reigh. Blaga dedicated this early collection to his then-new bride, but its territory is ambitious, flaring far beyond love sonnets. In a distinctly interbellum poetic mode, Blaga explores, through his relationship to the beloved, the tenuous status of the 20th-century self and its connection to a world deepening in its brutality.
Currents of desire undergird Poems of Light, but moments of connection, either with the beloved or with the greater natural world, accompany a sense of profound isolation and suspicion. Blaga writes in an expressionist idiom that straddles the traditional and the modern: mysterious, imaginative, and with a surfeit of dark emotional ardor, his poetics also harbor doubts about the body as a site of beauty, about the possibility of communion between the individual and what exists beyond him. The world’s impenetrable mystery spurs ecstasy in the young poet, as in the collection’s first poem, “I do not crush the aura of wonder of the world”:
I do not crush the aura of wonder of the world
And do not kill
With thought, the mysteries that on my way
In flowers, in eyes, or lips or graves. (1)
Light, at the very center of Blaga’s imagination, becomes one with darkness. It is not that force which brings reason or clarity into the world, but that which degrades as much as it exposes, obscures as much as it reveals:
But I, with my light,
Feed the world’s mystery
And like the moon with its white rays
Does not diminish, but, trembling
Magnifies the night’s secret,
I too, bejewel the dark horizon
With long tremors of holy mystery. (1)
In other poems, the poet grows discontent with such mystery. “The earth” takes a moment of communion between lovers and brings the world up short. Even when the speaker is physically with the beloved, whose motivations are left unexplored, his desire ravages on beyond her to what he cannot have: communion with the indifferent earth. This is Blaga’s Emily Dickinson moment, his “Letter to the World / That never wrote to Me”:
We lie on the grass on our backs: you and I
A question sinks into my soul.
Does the earth have nothing to say to me?
All of this earth, with its unendurable vastness
Its murderous silence, nothing? (4)
Poems of Light takes the poles of knowledge and mystery and puts them into a tense continuum. The collection serves as a thought-map of Blaga’s early career, his poetics bearing the unmistakable quality of a burgeoning poet-philosopher steeped in youthful love and torment, captivated by mysticism and ideology, and staring down the long 20th century. There exists in Blaga’s poetry an explicit attempt to differentiate poetry from philosophy. He celebrates poetry (and himself, as the poet) for its enigmatic qualities and chastises that which “kills with thought […] the world’s mystery.” But even for all of his self-celebration, the poet does not always make good on his promise not to know.
In Poems of Light, the poem is a space to explore, using imagery and metaphor, broad philosophical questions of ontology, religion, love; images of disaster, apocalypse, and the grand and terrible mystery of the natural world. Blaga’s uninhibited use of free verse forms lends his poems a maverick sensibility. He clearly believes in the power of poetry and metaphor to deepen the mystery of life, and his poems proceed with an unbroken ardor for experience not to be limited by adherence to the old forms.
But, even in their ambitious imagery, they retain a blunt quality. Poems of Light lacks the prosody of more traditional verse forms, revealing Blaga’s interest in meaning over music. These poems, though they confront the perennial themes of Romantic poetry, are presented in an irregular free verse style that cements their modern edge. Though Blaga’s work bears a thematic similarity to the Russian Symbolists in their focus on spirituality and mysticism, they lack their innovative modern musicality, their urbanism crystallized into concrete proper nouns—no Blokian “night, street, street-light, drugstore” refrains to be found here. It is unsurprising that after Poems of Light Blaga would go on to have a prolific philosophical career: at heart, these poems are philosophical, abstract, even if they are not academic. Blaga writes poetry as a means to a greater metaphysical knowledge, even as he reluctantly pursues it. In this early volume, he appears both frustrated and enraptured with the poetic form, with its freedoms and constraints. Even in their formal irregularity, Blaga’s poems read like tight strings ready to be broken into explication. They exist beyond what their own forms can contain.
Poems of Light, tense with joy and longing, also betrays an ironic bitterness, and hidden within the ecstasy of the lyric moment are distinct premonitions of 20th-century violence. Reigh’s translation exposes the historical valences of the nature of that forthcoming violence: in “Us, and the earth,” the connection to the specific nature of 20th-century genocide to come in the following decades is clear:
Tonight, so many stars are falling.
The night’s demons are holding the earth in their hands
And blowing sparks over its tinders
Impatient for a holocaust. (9)
Blaga’s poetic sensibility focuses on the dark forces that propel the earth and its history. Read in retrospect, Blaga detects in his own nascent moment the Holocaust, that night of the earth, forthcoming in the decades he would live following this book. His premonitions are both abstract and immediate. “Us, and the earth” detects the “impatience” of Blaga’s historical moment for this impending violence, its inevitability in a world overtaken by metaphorical demons on the edge of ash, fire, and apocalypse. What Blaga couldn’t have foreseen was that this world “impatient for a holocaust” would be apocalyptic via bureaucracy, demonic through banality. Here, his image of evil and destruction may be antiquated—his sensibility throughout the collection is almost pre-industrial—but his premonitions are modern, made even more so by Reigh’s translation.
The body in Poems of Light is a troubled site, both joyful and terrible, marked by inevitable violence and desire that grows until it becomes an unbearable ache. Love’s restlessness is endemic to poems like “Longing,” where togetherness only leaves more want: “And yet you whisper: ‘I miss you,” / So still and filled with longing / As if I were in exile on another world.” Love, for the young Blaga, is the act of looking past: “Where are the seas that howl beyond your heart?” (34). A partial source of Blaga’s torment in love is revealed in the collection’s two takes on the Genesis narrative, “Eve” and “Myth,” and the many references to the Christian origin of the Earth throughout the collection, especially in “Light”:
Storming inside my chest
When I see you,
Could it not be a drop of that light
Created on the first day,
That brightness thirsting for life? (2)
The speaker views himself and his beloved as transfigured avatars of the first man and woman, and they bear that mythical trauma in their shift from innocence to experience. The poet’s love is as consequential as the beginning of the earth and unfolds as a suspended element of that beginning. Though Blaga may be nontraditional in his verse style, he is faithful to timeworn views of love and women.
To a contemporary poetic sensibility this collection can feel, even in its expressions of irony and destruction, deeply and painfully sincere. Blaga’s scope appears broad and ambitious to the point of parody. But the sincerity of his craft and the power he invests in poetry bear an early intoxicating innocence, both in the author’s own history and in the trajectory of poetry, and life, in the 20th century. The poet’s is a heart in disquiet, and he searches, with vigor and conviction, for its meaning: “I feel it flinching, singed, under my foundations — that bitterness of being young, and loving.” Poems of Light maps the flawed beginning of that search. Knowing what comes next, it’s hard not to be moved by such innocence – for the 38 pages it lasts.
[i] Poems of Light is the first title to be published by Interbellum Series, a series of works translated from the Romanian interwar period. The novels The Town with Acacia Trees and Women by Mihail Sebastian will be the next titles to be published this year.