Poems from communist prisons
Within this booklet are a few poems originally written in Romanian, chosen from a large collection, POEZII DIN INCHISORI, edited by Zahu Pana, published by CUVANTUL ROMANESC, 1982
They were written or rather composed by political prisoners who had no paper on which to write. They were memorized by those who survived, and finally spirited out to the free West. Remarkable in that they are true poetry of the soul, they express various emotions of those unjustly imprisoned by the Communist Party, for the crime of independent thought. None of these poets were criminals. They were philosophers, theologians (lay or clergy), generals, intellectuals of all sorts, factory workmen and tillers of the soil. Women and even children shared the same fate.
Not being a poet I have not been able to make the translation rhyme, but have tried to convey the thoughts and as far as possible the rhythm. My aim has been to bring forth a picture of the suffering and courage of these Romanians, feeling that neither they nor their martyrdom should be passed over.
These poems should not be read too quickly for their meaning may be difficult at first sight to comprehend. There is much symbolism in them and however bitter in parts, they are full of Christian fortitude and forgiveness. They express also a great love for the land and nation, which we exiles share.
The poems have not been put together according to the authors because what I have sought to bring out is the remarkable spiritual growth in the thinking of our political prisoners. They passed from revolt and despair to faith and serenity. I have tried to render understandable the whole scale of their emotional experience, from hatred and despair, to final serenity, forgiveness and even hope.
I trust these poems will speak better than I ever can for my country’s pain, despair and faith. I pray that they will not remain “voices crying in the wilderness”, but will awaken understanding and compassion in the hearts of men.
To set the true spiritual tone of these pages we will start with the poem “GLORY” which is really about suffering, as indeed is the whole book. Suffering in its most intense form physically and morally in which there was no logical reason for hope – yet hope survived and faith and finally love.
The suffering is real so it belongs here to explain the final strength to forgive”
Blessed be suffering
which brings man out of a flat groove –
swift sling hurled at a Goliath,
tree in which knowledge is born.
Blessed be suffering.
Without it, good earth would be clay,
the heart would not catch the murmur of a tear
and sin would not know what contrition is.
Blessed be suffering.
If there were not death, would there be love?
Value is given to all by separation,
fruit in the hidden furrow of the passing rays.
Blessed be suffering,
its breast a resting place, a caress upon the brow,
the strong altar screen of the sense let it be,
archway through which alone desire passes.
Blessed be suffering
fruit of the hidden furrow of a passing ray
soul with large embracing arms
like an all enveloping mantle.
Our life often lies hidden
in a humble corner of paradise,
in letters which were never sent us
by a hand that never wrote them.
We know not what we’d have the pages say,
what unwritten love song
but the hand which does not write us,
at all times we hold in a dream.
And the phrases that do not come,
in memory’s eye become ever dearer
and that hand which gave me light
as blossom upon my heart I hold.
And thus through the door crack,
we watch with unquenchable longing
for letters that were never sent
by a hand that did not write them.
For your birthday
I don’t know what
To bring you as a gift.
Bruised upon my bones
My skin only do I have.
Since I have pulled in harness,
Since I have sighed in yoke,
All that was plenteous
Has melted away as snow.
The owls hoot,
the darkness deepens;
The nails on my hands
Grow long for retribution…
My timid voice,
Grow as a djinn,
Grow as a great bird;
Gather in your flight
And bring to the assailant
The crying of orphans,
The suffocating voice of mothers
Drowned in tears, the mourning of the homeless.
Hate of the whole country
Rise up, now!
Master your curses,
Doom this day!
Curse it with fire and brimstone
For the savage beast
That is bore,
Over the horizon to rise
And with his horns
The world to overthrow.
O my mild voice,
Grow strong, little by little,
As a spring grows
In volume, increasing,
As down the mountains it falls.
Become a sickle;upon his brown
Bludgeon the beast!
O my voice, grow! From the forest swell
Out of the felled woods,
Out of the deserted villages,
Out of the dried-up oil-wells,
Grow out of golden grain
That is taken over the foreign roads,
Grow out of the ruins,
Sound from the depths of prison dungeons,
There where rots in chains
All that stands firm in the land
And is about to die…
Out of gaunt and livid beings
Arise, open eagle’s wings;
Soar over the foe –
Fly over frontiers
Which have not yet been stolen,
Pass cities and villages
Where in the dead of night
Whispered Christian prayers
Can still be heard
Cross as best you can
The endless steppes
And the sad waters;
Over forests and towns
Look for and follow paths
Traced through mud.
Fly as the genii in the legends
Until you come to
Without royal faces,
Rise, O myvoice,
Upon wings of fire
In heavenly heat,
And fall back as a tunderbolt!
Blast the citadel
of the beast’s den!
Seed of his seed destroy!
In the land and in eternity,
A word of execration
Let his name be!
Let perish in the mold
All which he stole!
His dust and ashes
Let the earth swallow!
May my unbounded hate
Burn up Satan,
Thunder blast him!
In scum putrify him!
On his birthday,
Satan’s birthday –
Ana’s* brother –
What offering have you
Sent him, John Doe?
*Ana – Ana Pauker , born in Romania, lived in Russia , an intimate friend of Stalin, an all-powerful one in Romania until the postumous fall of Stalin.
It is not astonishing that those who can and dare express their feelings in verse burst forth in indignation. Although the language of these poems is often archaic and full of symbolism, the picture they make is a true one. As in Birthday Wishes, for example, people were really put into harness and pulled in yokes. In fact, these were the lucky ones, for there were those in concentration camps who pulled trucks, replacing mechanical traction with human power, and the cables bit deep into the flesh of their bare hands. A brilliant young lawyer in one of these camps has written:”My highest ideal of comfort today is to be allowed to wear a yoke.” Maybe such things are less prevalent today but the prisons are still there and just as cruel.
A once rich and plentiful land has been reduced to misery and poverty. Seventy-five percent of all its products go to the USSR.
In these poems we hear the cry of a desperate people voicing their woes, their misery, their revolt and hatred of their oppressors with an intensity that is startling. The Romanians are, by nature, a gentle, kindly people, long-suffering and patient, a people used, through much occupation by foreign armies, to bend their heads but never give in.
They, who after 700 years of Magyar oppression and 3-400 years of Turkish suzeranity, kept their language, their national dress, their customs and their faith, are faced today as never before in their history with an extermination of all these things held dear for centuries.
Birthday Wishes (which can be compared to Psalms 58 and 109) is in the old popular ballad style of the country. Such songs have been sung for generations but never before have they expressed such violence, such vehement hatred, such desperation.
Since these lines were written in Circa 1950 the situation has in no way changed, rather it has worsened.
Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, Monday
Neutral days without form,
Like a great fog
Over the landscape
Good morning, prison cell!
Good night, prison bars!
I’d smash you as a mastiff in his fangs
I’d rend you with my teeth, O Cell!
I stand in Time terribly naked
With my soul planted in liquid eternity,
Like an atoll in an ocean
Beaten by torrid winds…
Dungeon, dungeon, mad fortress,
How my hate would set fire to you!
Life, life outside,
How dare you dance in my dreams like a puppet!
Tuesday,Wednesday,Friday – what day is it?
the week is a dead amassment;
My months pass through no calendar,
My island is on no map.
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday – The devil take you!
Stinking days – Stagnant days,
Here in the jaws of eternity
Who shall count your dark hundreds?
In DAYS is found all the loneliness, the isolation of the man behind iron bars who has still kept the integrity of his soul – who can speak through what hunger and torture?
If ever I was a cluster of grapes,
today I am residue left by the press.
Into the fathomless hunger in me
pour some drop of juice.
I feel how my body is melting away,
a soup of amaranth would warm it.
If touched by a blade of grass
in a flash I’d be green.
At least let my phantom arm
pick an apple from a tree.
It will fill my mouth with aroma
and I would truly live.
In the country of sheep folds and bread
I dream of mushroom soup.
Let me shelter with the dogs
near the heaven of a bowl of terci.*
On the depth of my hunger
blind deserts open up.
When the last spoonful is eaten
I drop over my bowl and spoon.
O God, You Who
out of two fishes and five loaves
made mountains of food
and satisfied thousands of poor
Repeat the miracle, O Good One,
and satisfy thousands of mouths.
Listen also to my prayer,
Give me the basket of crumbs.
* terci – a thin gruel often given to dogs
Hunger (apart from other forms – tortures, beatings etc.) was and probably still is perhaps the No.1 torture all political prisoners had to suffer. They received three starvation meals a day: A small portion of bread and a thin gruel in the morning called “teci”. At noon and in the evening they were served a slop with a few cabbage leaves or a handful of cereal. Once a week they were given so called meat, consisting of unwashed entrails, all but impossible to swallow. Hunger became an obsession, gave them hallucinations; it was a specter that haunted them by day and by night – never letting go.
JESUS IN THE NIGHT
This night Jesus entered my cell.
O how sad, how tall was Christ!
The moon followed Him into my cell
And made Him taller, sadder still.
He sat by me upon my mat;
“Put your hand upon my wounds.”
On His ankle there were scars from sores and rust
As if He too had worn chains once…
His hands were like lilies upon a grave,
His eyes as deep as forests;
His garments whitened by the moon,
Silvering in His hands old wounds.
Sighing, He stretched His weary bones
Upon my lousy mat;
In His sleep He shone forth, but the heavy bars
Lengthened upon Him like rods.
I rose from beneath my gray blanket.
“Lord, from whence come you? Out of which eternity?”
Jesus put His finger to His lips
And signed me to be still.
My cell seemed like a mountain peak;
Rats and roaches swarmed around;
I felt my head fall heavy upon my hand
And I slept, a thousand years…
When I awoke from my heavy trance
The straw smelled of roses;
I was in my cell and there was moonlight
But Jesus was nowhere.
“Where are you, Lord?” I cried between the bars.
Across the moon came drifts of mist…
I touched myself, and found upon my palms
The sign of His nails.
JESUS IN THE NIGHT presents a different picture – that of a sufferer resigned to his pain, to injustice and torture, who seeks no redress in hatred, does not revolt or curse. Lost in a world of pain, seemingly without redress in his lifetime, he expresses the beautiful, tender spirit of the Romanian people. He was vouchsafed a vision, the authenticity of which we dare not doubt. He realizes that his pain was shared once by Another, and knows that he is part of the Body of Christ and the Communion of Saints. Through pain they have become for him reality. This man does not cling to faith but is one with it, thus transcending all time.
The exhausted wind froze
like a bow on a cracked violin.
Last night an angel knocked in my door,
his voice weak, his tread tired.
I don’t know if he came from heaven
or some earthly cross
but he looked at me with wounded eyes,
trembling with cold when I welcomed him.
In his eyes of strange god
it was as if some grave illness battled
and he gazed at me with blood-filled eyes
and all that night he wept upon my breast.
In the morning I found him no more.
vestiges of red footprints faded from my door.
Far away in the sky on a cracked violin
the wind fell like a broken bow.
The trials of mans’ sojourn on earth are many and his temptations legion. When abandoned, falsely accused, he battles alone with despair and he looks perhaps for comfort where no comfort is. It is then that the strange visitor comes; from heaven or from hell the prisoner does not know. The angel brings no strength but weakness, grief becomes all-embracing, there is no light left, no string of hope sounds.