I intended to take two poems by younger women but some of the younger women were translated into French, not English, or rather they wrote in French and were translated into Romanian so I feel incompetent to discuss the poems of, say, Linda Maria Baros (b 1981), a Romanian poet who writes in French (and with whom I exchanged books), or Irina Nechit. Instead, I'll take poems by two Slovenians, Veronika Dintinjana (b.1977) and Barbara Korun (b.1963)
Sparrow, through a Hospital Window
I saw death
sit down beside him on the bed and take off her slippers.
His blood pressure dropped,
his face paled, as she lay down.
His eyes were frightened.
I flew out. As I did not
have a share in his life,
it was only right not to have a part
in his dying.
Half an hour later I returned
to pick up the bread crumbs
left over from lunch.
Translated by the author with Ciaran O'Driscoll and Rose Aasen Rojas
This is a simple matter of fact narrative, voiced for a sparrow, or so it seems. The female figure of death is unusual. Another Romanian female poet wrote in one poem that she could not see death as anything but male. Certainly the figure of death is often depicted as a hooded man - I think of the classic Bergmann - or as a male skeleton with a scythe. But who is the woman in this case? Is she an allegorical figure? a nurse? a mother? Didn't Munch show the female figure at three stages as Virgin, Lover and Death (see above)? No, she cannot be either a nurse or a mother. She removes her slippers and lies down. It is the lying down that makes his face go pale. So maybe she is Keats's Belle Dame sans Merci who rides the knight then leaves him palely loitering. She is some such compound figure, but she appears quite natural there, a disturbing quotidian vision, the last of the hospital visitors.
And then the poem takes a moral turn. The sparrow considers the rightness of his being at the dying man's bedside. The sparrow might be scared of course, but at the end, his scruples laid aside, he returns for the crumbs that have gained a powerful ambivalence, as in 'the last crumbs of life'. The whole poem is a seamless piece of narrative, casting a cold eye on death, or at least seeing it in perspective without any false drama, its subjectivity under firm control. It's quite a tough poem, reserving its feelings. I wondered whether I would pick the poet as female and if so on what grounds? Would it be because the intellect was not constructing games of distance? Because wit was a lower value than concentration?
Maybe it would be different with the other poem.
Through my dreams
you roll a stone.
groan in sleep.
You roll the stone,
two slits of dark.
a surprise to me
over and over again,
you pounce on the stone
like an animal,
a body delighting
when I catch up with you
you are already panting
in happy exertion.
Through my dreams
you roll a stone,
under my ribs the echo
of your terrible footfall.
Translated by Theo Dorgan and Ana Jelnikar
Sisyphus is a figure I myself have written about, but here Sisyphus is partly internalised. He is a dream that is associated with the body (My body, my heart) and is itself a body 'delighting in movement' with whom the writer has to catch up. The figure is rolling a stone whose effect is under the ribs. There are echoes of death (your eyes / two slits of dark) and sex (you are already panting / in happy exhaustion), death and sex exchanging places and terms, the two conflated, as they were in her other poems. The terrible footfall is like that of some rough beast slouching towards a Bethlehem of the inner constitution.
I am pretty sure I would have identified the author of this poem as a woman. Why? Because of the conflating of body and exteriority, the body becoming the register and barometer of the world? Because the register is unconcerned with irony, preferring urgency? Because Sisyphus's burden is as much pleasure as curse? Because of the poems comprehensive subjectivity? Would a male voice behave like this? Would it press its claims in this precise way?
I leave these as questions. The questions are interesting because I have occasionally engaged in discussions on other people's websites - in fact women's websites - where the questions have been gingerly hinted at, usually in the context of women winning or not winning competitions, the assumption being that male judges (and maybe even female judges, it sometimes turns out) undervalue female experience.
I should say that male writers outnumbered female writers 3:1 at Neptun. One woman whispered to me at the prize giving that all the big Ovidius prize winners were men. These are countries of old men, I reply. But they are passing and the next wave of poets in Romania is female: Denisa Comanescu, Carmen Firan, Liliana Ursu, Ioana Ieronim. All fine important poets. We shall see.