Excerpts from Eclogue

This is what they decided: to marry Lena off to a driver.
“Pintea? No! He’s a Gypsy!”
“So what? Then we’ll have a connection at the central office. It’s in our interest.”
“But didn’t you hear me? It’s wrong, he’s a Gypsy.”
“What, isn’t she an outsider, a newcomer, too? With our uncle gone so early, even as a child…”
Victor Şoldea, the Hip, nicknamed the Stutterer, Lavinia’s brother-in-law, is having a chat with his cousin on the wooden steps at the back of the house. From time to time they drop a little bottle into the ţuică barrel and pull it up by its string, filled again, while they smoke bulky cigarettes that they rolled themselves.
“It’s in our interest. Can’t you see that nobody wants to take her as a wife?
Not long from now, you’ll see her around like a spinster. The other one, her sister, at least she went off to Bucharest.”
“And if the cripple, her mother, won’t have it?”
“Huh? Won’t have it! Who’s gonna ask?”

The wedding party comes uphill with the Gypsy fiddlers in front. Lena raises the train of her white dress, her feet numb in new shoes.
A kind of ringing in her ears–she’s so cut off from all this.

Whenever she goes out with her husband, Lena feels that she has to make up for the others’ scorn. Pintea is better than most of them.

Yet, only at night, when they’re by themselves, she no longer lowers her eyes, expecting mockery. Careful to compensate for it. To defend. To laugh to hide to turn upside down people’s words and thoughts, the evil ones. You wouldn’t have found another wizard like him anywhere in the world.
Stars sparkled on his fingertips. His kiss from across oceans and continents. His caresses without fruit.

He is silent. Against the screen of his silence, Lena tells her stories. A thousand.
He lets down her hair. She shelters him in its flowing darkness.

*

In the chicken yard, the red hens, masters of the weeds, flee in haste, they hide themselves among laths tossed in a heap, cackling with alarm: strangers have come in among them.
The strangers leave a new hen inside the gate, then lock it and go.
A white hen with ruffled feathers. They let it out of a basket.
The others watch the new hen askance, with one eye, then the other. Slowly they come out of hiding, sidle up to the white bird–
more and more hatred, anger, draws them to her. They peck at her timidly,
then strike harder, they dart at her, crowd above her, inflamed–
they chase her toward the henhouses.

In his heavy boots, the master hurries among them, struggles to pull them apart. Blind, frenzied, they had flung themselves in a pile on the exhausted white bird, covered with blood.

*

Pintea is sitting at the edge of the bed, with his curly hair. His big eyes, sad. His face, gaunt. Now–in the morning–he is silent.
He looks out at the deep blue sky.
Lena is at her chores around the house. She rattles among things, on purpose.
Whatever she does, he remains with these big, wide-open eyes, turned toward another world. Lost in some memory–he himself wouldn’t have known what.

*

Pintea is sitting on the threshold, his eyes lost in the distance.
Evening is falling. With wild shrieks, geese skim above the water.

Alone at the wheel of his truck, traveler for a lifetime, Pintea can feel the boundaries of his soul, the motion of a black spool, the hand unwinding it ever faster. His own life. His breathing, in and out. He shifts gears.
He passes a truck full of big boxes. The signpost his life forgotten.
His eyes glide apathetically over the road markers.

Pintea sits in a dark mood at one side of the table. The evil words reach him across the faded oilcloth. Savage. Unstoppable. Lena hisses, shrieks, laments, mocks.
Her broad body is trembling, her calico dress torn across her hips.
Pintea remains silent. Silent.
He counts the five petals of the flowers on the oilcloth.

*

Pintea can hear Lena passing by through the kitchen, noisily.
Lena? No. She hasn’t been home for a long time.

Furious words strike the air, spark syllables half hissing half shadow, like from a flint, burning.
Pintea bursts out laughing. He remains silent. He slaps the woman with the back of his hand.
Lena stops still in the air, her face a grimace.
He remains motionless. His hand useless.
Yes. So much time had gone by. When?
The barren hand falling.

*

Victor the Hip, the Stutterer, Lavinia’s brother-in-law has a chat with his cousin on the wooden steps. They take a drag from their cigarettes.
“Get involved with a Gypsy…something bad had to come of it. See?”
“Weren’t you the one who said we should become related to Pintea? Didn’t you toy with him, Pintea yes, Pintea no, Pintea yes?… I’m disgusted!”
“How could I’ve known at that time that he was good for nothing? He had a different look… But now you see, like a snake, he pierces you with those eyes of his, so that even your food sticks in your craw. The devil himself!
We have to rid Lena of the Gypsy–”

Furious words strike the air, spark syllables half hissing half shadow, like from a flint, burning.
Pintea bursts out laughing. He remains silent. He slaps the woman with the back of his hand.
Lena stops still in the air, her face a grimace.
He remains motionless. His hand useless.
Yes. So much time had gone by. When?
The barren hand falling.

Hmmm, yes, says Lavinia dusting the furniture.
She’s taken to talking to herself. A black claw clutches at her heart.
Lena. No sooner has she married, she’s divorcing. That’s what their relatives wanted.
They’ve talked Lena into doing it. Found her soft spot. Look, now she’ll be left by herself.
How much do you live your life? How much does life live you?

•            •            •

Lena sits on a stone, a distance marker on the side of the road. Her hands feel papery, an old lady’s.
Her blood thicker in her veins. She is feeding the sleep of the Sun.

She opens the window presses her belly against the sill.
The baby inside her turns, touches her, trembling, with a wing.
A thin sword, the woman’s thought stabs at her own body.
She fought. She lost.
“After no end of years he’s going to come, he’ll want to take you with him. You won’t receive him”–so the Gypsy Ioana prophesied. “I don’t believe this.”
“It is shown here, in the heart of the cup. And that in your old age you’ll break the white wedding cross.”

Lena remains with her eyes focused on him, listening to his voice like a parched riverbed.
False, only lies. Caked mud opens up a network of cracks between syllables.

Nelu enters the house, he can be heard climbing the old stairs.
Since long ago, Lena has always lived in old houses, houses deserted by others.
“When do you say you’ll marry me?” she asks.
“Right after you come back from the hospital, then!” “And your mother?”
“Huh, my mother…” he lies. He replies to the woman with his eyes staggering on a tightrope. She stays, firm, on the verge of hatred.
A false peace and quiet. He caresses her. He embraces her awkwardly.
He cannot really make her come near. He cannot help his lies. A glass wall.
All at once she bursts out laughing, like a harpy. She grabs at his roots, takes him
between her enormous thighs. She exhausts him: fallen, he is diminished on the sheets.
“Tell me when. When?” “I told you.”
“Go.”
Go. She pushes him down the stairs and flings his clothes after him.
She lets herself collapse on the bed, howling. The baby inside, motionless.
Nelu disappears without a word. Flushed. Hurt. Happy.
Autumn. An evil wind.

A damp morning. Lena gets up from her damp bedding,
tears well up in her eyes, as she remembers. It’s all over.
Over. She’s unsteady on her feet. She circles her arms around her belly.
She adjusts her bones for a new day’s walking.
Her decapitated joy shakes inside her–a branch with pink-white fingers like flowers.
Lena learns again how to walk. Her everyday walk.

In the motionless air no leaf stirs–no breath of life no sense of death. The poplar sheds its winged seeds in tufts.

Lena steals past his house
fangs of humiliation tear her apart. Shreds cover her soul. Patches dipped in brimstone.
She hasn’t eaten in a long while. Her entrails burn.
She sees a vision of herself as the wandering beggar who once stopped at their door.
Her mother, so much younger, served him a bowl of hot soup–maybe the poor man had never before eaten hot soup from a beautiful porcelain bowl. And he seated on a tree stump with his dirty bag by his side.

Lavinia always used to say: eat, my spoiled girls, others would give the world for what you have…
Vagrant and a beggar now, she herself, a shadow of the road.

She is so big. Naked. Huge. Lena draws the curtain so as not to be seen.
She looks at herself in the cheap Solca mirror that reflects as if under water.
She approaches it very closely. Now it becomes a true image: the rings under her eyes, a whirlpool. She hears the child’s heart throbbing against her palm. A humming silence.

Flaming tongues of darkness look for her body in clothing’s shell.
Fear. Cold.

One evening Lena gets off the bus in the village among a few passengers–
a baby wrapped in blankets. She goes to her mother’s, in secret. She leaves at dawn, in secret.
She comes back shyly, seldom. Then ever more frequently.

Lena sits on the bench in front of some unknown people’s house.
It’s night. She cannot see them. She hears the clatter of their pots and plates, their bare feet in the courtyard. So peaceful, their words hurt her empty soul.
Her stray-dog eyes, those words fluid and worn like stones–like precious river stones.

Lavinia takes the wash off the line, gathers in her thin arms
the baby’s clothes smelling fresh air and milk.
Her feet get wet in the dew. The sun shines into her eyes.
A few people pass by in the road, greet her, ask her some question–she knows how they speak about her house.
She looks at them, frozen.
The baby indoors smiles in his sleep. He is growing.

•            •            •

Lena is making a cake. She mixes it in a bowl with a whisk and splashes droplets everywhere. A finger dips into the cream and she takes a lick. She puts the ţuică bottle in the sideboard. Gelu, Fiţa’s son, is due to come with a truckload of wood.
Uh-oh, he’s already here. Lena quickly wipes her hands dry, goes to open the gates. It’s drizzling.
“I’ll unload myself, ma’am.”
Later on, when they have drunken the ţuică, they switch from plum to sour-cherry brandy, vişinată.
Again and again, Lena stands up swiftly, to fetch food, drinks.
Her big breasts in motion, without her being aware. All of her big, child-like. Sweet-ugly.
She laughs like a little girl, with her hoarse voice and pointed teeth. Why does she laugh?
“Don’t keep laughing like that, you may get into trouble!”
“Get in trouble? Why should I?”
She laughed through the night. Her laughter kept him there.
Kept him for years.

Hear what Gelu’s mother, Fiţa, has to say: “What, her boy is to get himself a newcomer as a wife? And her having been married before–to a Gypsy, no less.
And the child of that sinner who sinned and didn’t get married.”
Yet Lena is such a good girl…

You have lent yourself to life.
They have run you over with caterpillar tracks, flocks of sheep, human hooves.
You–you’ve looked the other way, just waiting.
Now this is your time to pass on. Pass across the narrow swaying bridge.

Her entire life has journeyed to his territory, toward his big hands–
the flocks of memories
words sweet and vain.

*

Life’s face, stunted. Heavy matter.
The hallucinating waters of attention.
Lena weaves secret ways, ever on the lookout, ashamed–
on the lookout when day blends into night, night into day,
near his house.
To see. To hear. He. Her. The woman who looks into Lena’s eyes
with eyes like hollows, like harpoons, to steal him away.
Big and beautiful. Rich.
With her young hams pressed together under silk dresses.

Waves of pitch-black darkness boiling where the two of them hid
where they touch delicately,
they…like the belly of a trout or the breast of a dove.

This is how I have been lent and borrowed and sold
to let life fulfill itself through my forces carefully gathered
from the face of the mountain–to be squandered.

She, Lena, lives with her eyes blindfolded. She sees nothing, asks nothing.
Measure for measure doesn’t truly exist.
You have been made for waste and squandering. In the world’s common ways.

*

The bare light bulb, hanging down the house wall, sheds shrill light. Shadow and light cutting across the river stones in the courtyard.
On the windowsill of the stable, two gas lamps burning.
Stale smells overwhelm Lavinia there on the threshold.
In the blood-red obscurity, shapes gradually come into focus.
Down in the straw, the white cow has been ready for hours to calve.
Neighbors have gathered to help. Some men hold on to each other’s waists and try to pull the calf out of the enormous belly.
The cow has been tied to the stall with a chain around her head and horns.
Shuddering all over her body, she tries to prop herself up in the layer of straw. Her eyes burn like embers, under torture.
Kneeling down by her a man painfully clutches at a pair of slippery little toy-like hooves.
He’s the first in the chain of men who tug at the calf, most carefully.
Their hair sweaty under their caps.
“Stop, stoppp!” the man on the ground shouts, in a guttural voice.
“Who knows about this? Come here and take a close look–isn’t this a hoof from a foreleg and another from a hind?”
“Exactly. You’re right.”
“Then, Maria, the knife.”
“If it comes out sideways it’s going to tear her up, poor cow, poor soul, and kill her.”
The woman sobs, her apron raised to her face.
“Stop crying! You’re only attracting evil,” her father hisses between his teeth.
With her head fallen on one side, the cow struggles to tear one more mouthful from the rotten air.

Daybreak. The flames of the gas lamps ever paler in the morning light.
People have succeeded at last to pull out from the cow’s living, almost human body,
an animal frightening to look at–a warm, wet, dead monster.

*

How did her daughter manage to persuade Lavinia, you wonder?
Only a day earlier, it seems, she had come home to the village, that younger one, Lena.

True, true. You may stay by yourself for a long time but solitude will propel you into its opposite.
Such an intelligent woman as she is, Lavinia, how could she be duped this way?

Because the time was ripe.
Like when the fruit has grown fully round on the unknowing branch.

Indeed, why shouldn’t you too follow the world’s way? Why not try to live in a real house, like everyone else, in your old age.
Even if people strike at your human powers and squander your life’s sweet marrow.

Who has come near me (many have come near You)
near Whom have I come? I no less than the prey of those around me
and they–my prey.

How has she been lured to leave her own place and fall for no reason at all into a stranger’s hands?

The cart advances slowly. Among the furniture and bundles, Lavinia is looking back at the house, back down the wheel traces.
Her little rooms left deserted, dark.

A wing of joy flutters above the woman. Then
the vision of the silent mansion, the trace of rain on the ceilings
the roof rotted by rains, falling in.
Life’s shadow, bent low.

The old woman left saying something about coming back.
“My girl, my daughter,” she murmurs. Andrei sits between two parcels with his legs pressed together, full of scratches and fresh wounds. Hmmm, yes.

“Mother, is it cold for you?” Lena asks.

A long time ago, when they came to this village, the same…
(so as to fulfill life’s task here, where she didn’t know the ways.
But God sent her here, such a worthy woman.)
Because she’s so diminished, she seeks shelter at the hem of the stronger woman–her own daughter. For life toys even with you–like a church painter with his portraits. Draws them bigger or smaller as he fancies.

But Lavinia has never been strong. Her force very much a secret.

Uncle Pandele leads the oxen with excessive care, not to damage Mrs. Lavinia’s delicate things, her mirrors and china–many fine things, to the satisfaction of the Staicus.
“Do you think they are happy, the Staicus?”
“Who can know them?… they have made those German-style gates for themselves
so nobody can see what they’re doing in there. They might slaughter and butcher one another, nobody would know. When I took them there, the two women, the old Staicus didn’t even show up. And Gelu was gone to fetch logs, at the timber chute.
May they go straight to hell, those robbers, ‘collective ownership,’ they say. They’ve shorn bald all our mountains. But we’re not allowed to touch even a matchstick!”

Bold women, huh? To go and stay with the Staicus.
Yes. Life’s harsh air.

Lena goes upstairs, gets accustomed to the dimness there.
She notices Gelu’s mother. A woman still seeming young enough, Fiţa with her cloudy eyes–
she slowly turns to Lena and says not a word.
Lena feels the woman’s hatred on her face and neck.
Stale smells of the day permeate the room, corpses of common hours. Cold coals in the iron grate, a lingering smell of ţuică and dried mint.

Not long after, Lavinia’s speech started to change–she now speaks as in a litany:
“I am cleaning washing whitewashing shaking the dust off.”
“Yes–wherever she is, Mrs. Lavinia, she’ll leave cleanliness and order behind her–remember what she was able to do at the mansion?”
“I do my best to keep the house clean and beautiful, for them to have what they need.”
This is Lavinia, she leaves good in her wake: her hands are golden.
“And Gelu comes in. He won’t take off his hat and coat, he won’t wash his hands.
His boots are thick with mud from the woods. He strews food around the table when he eats.”
“Why don’t you tell him…”
“Well, I don’t know how best to please him. Because of Lena.”

When have you ever heard Lavinia talk about her problems? Silent she has been, for a lifetime.
And his mother walks right through puddles, in the courtyard.
“Lavinia, don’t you see? The steps are dirty!”
With that shrill voice of hers–Fiţa. Her wrinkled face like a drunkard’s. Eyes like a thief’s.

Let this cup pass from me, if it be possible. Let it pass, Lord.

“Live and let live, if it pleases them to live in their own filth, Mrs. Lavinia!”
“No. That cannot be. Why, then, are we not human beings?”
“Anyone would take the time to come give you a helping hand. Only, who’d dare enter Staicu’s yard?”
Yes. And even my last bits of food and the air I breathe and my sleep
are without rest without peace without right.

Once upon a time there was a woman who had two daughters.
She chose to remain a widow and brought them up all by herself in the hard times after the war.
The sun rose the moon shone
the little girls in embroidered lace dresses.

Yes. The thread has broken.

Under the shed, Lena turns her face away from the smoke. She is dropping bean pods in the boiling water. She rarely cooks on the gas stove, not to use up the gas cylinder. Now and then she throws another small stick of wood on the fire. She can hardly bend, because of her belly. She holds the cast-iron pot. The steam burns her hand.
“Is the meal ready?” Fiţa shrieks from the porch. “It’s almost noon!”

And then everybody can hear how Fiţa goes on shouting–for Gelu isn’t home.
“You come here, a dam ready to drop, you slattern. To sully my houses.
A Gypsy wench, that’s what you are!! Do you know how hard I worked to build them–
you think I did that for the likes of you?
Go back to your tent, your caravan, your Gypsy slum, with your brood of bastards.
Look at her, conjurer, jezebel. Binding my son!”

A thousand ears everywhere like a thousand flames.

Fiţa goes to the piglet, pats his neck,
“Hush-a-bye, hush, my naughty boy,” she scatters little droplets. “How pretty he grows, my darling.”

Bios

Ioana Ieronim

Ioana Ieronim, a poet, translator, and playwright, is the author of The Triumph of the Water Witch, which she co-translated with Adam J. Sorkin (Bloodaxe Books, UK: shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize). Her collections in English include Omnivorous Syllables (with a preface by Fiona Sampson), 41, and The Lens of a Flame. She is the translator of a Romanian version of Fiona Sampson’s verse-novel The Distance Between Us. Currently she is busy writing for the stage and completing new drama translations (Shakespeare and modern plays), as well as writing plays of her own and poetic works. Eclogue (Eglogă) first appeared in Romania in 1984, but Ieronim republished the poem in 2001 as part of Works, Days, the Sliding of the Ground: Poems 1970-2000. For this translation, she revised the work extensively. Selections from Eclogue are also appearing in the literary magazine Poem. An editor and cultural journalist, Ioana Ieronim was Romania’s cultural counselor in Washington DC (1992-96) and Fulbright program director in Bucharest. She is a member of the Writers’ Union, Romania, and of the Romanian chapter of PEN.

Adam J. Sorkin

Adam J. Sorkin's translations have won the Poetry Society Prize for European Poetry Translation (UK, 2005), the Kenneth Rexroth Memorial Translation Prize, and the Ioan Flora Poetry Translation Prize, among other awards. His recent books include three University of Plymouth Press collections, all translated with Lidia Vianu: Ion Mureșan's The Book of Winter and Other Poems (2011), Ioan Es. Pop's No Way Out of Hadesburg (2010), and Mircea Ivănescu's lines poems poetry (2009; shortlisted for the 2011 Poetry Society Translation prize). In 2011, Sorkin also published A Path to the Sea by Liliana Ursu, translated with Ursu and Tess Gallagher (Pleasure Boat Studios; ForeWord Reviews Silver Award winner in poetry); Ioan Flora's Medea and Her War Machines, translated with Alina Cârâc (University of New Orleans Press; third-round selection, National Translation Award); and The Vanishing Point That Whistles: An Anthology of Contemporary Romanian Poetry (Talisman House). In 2012 were published Mouths Dry with Hatred by Dan Sociu, translated with Sociu (Longleaf Press), and The Flying Head by Ioan Flora (Toad Press). Adam J. Sorkin can be reached at ajs2@psu.edu.

Eglogă. Copyright (c) Ioana Ieronim, 1984, 2001, 2103. English translation copyright (c) Adam J. Sorkin and Ioana Ieronim, 2013.