“Don’t you hear that horrible screaming all around you?
That screaming men call silence?”
I cannot help but think of this quote from the opening of Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser when reflecting on Stella Vinitchi Radulescu’s A Cry in the Snow (Seagull Books, 2018), elegantly translated by Luke Hankins from its original French.
In this strikingly beautiful and incredibly deep collection of poetry, Radulescu explores the haunting void humans experience in the silence between language, when words only offer so much, exposing us to the vast empty space found within the human experience.
Radulescu appears to be well versed in the power and failure of language. According to Hankins Translator’s Note, Radulescu was born in Romania and began writing early in life. She left Romania during the rule of the Ceauçescu Communist regime, where we can only imagine any form of creative writing would be suppressed.
“Writing poetry was risky,” Radulescu explains in the Translator’s Note. “It could have been seen as “a political manifesto” against the regim[e…] but it was also a refuge.”
We see an emphasis on the snow, the earth, and the jarring elements of nature.
Radulescu sought political asylum in Rome, eventually emigrating from Italy to the United States where she began writing poetry in English. Radulescu became fluent in not only Romanian and English but French; French was always “la langue de la poésie” for her and the language where A Cry in the Snow (Un cri dans la neige) also emigrated from.
I stand in awe of Radulescu as a former French … eight years and I can only half string along a conversation. But these studies, along with my family’s own Eastern European emigration tale, helped me to feel very much at home in Radulescu’s writing. The soft yet punching vocabulary, the delicate balance of the sound of language and the sound of nothing in between, and the interwoven feeling of shaking to death in the cold are somehow very familiar.
According to Hankins, Radulescu’s poetry “dwells in spaces of paradox, seeking out the words, metaphors, and images that capture both the peaceful stillness of snow and the desperate cry of the human experience.” This is very much true, particularly in the first section of translated poems called “A Cry in the Snow” (later sections of translated works entitled “Journal with Eyes Closed” and “Fragments of Life and Death” also touch on this balance). We see such an emphasis on the snow, the earth, and the jarring elements of nature that intertwine with human experience so elegantly:
“… as I advance and step into daylight
I see form expanding
in the mirror of the hours
: the men who set out at sunrise to meet
“… I stretch out on the beach
no wave carries me away as the day
we’re still talking about
Radulescu’s poems ask these questions often found within silence, the “who am I?” and the “why am I here?”
However, what I love most about Radulescu’s poetry is this cultivation of nature and how it is interwoven in our use of language. The sigh, the breath, the words … all reflected in stunning depictions that allow nature, especially the snow, to exist side-by-side with our words. Radulescu’s writing explores the space between nature and our words, or perhaps the place where Herzog’s silent screams exist. Radulescu’s poetry tries to make sense of this space, and she does so with such beauty and grace:
“the fires in the garden have died down
cities of the past
I was afraid of vowels their paleness
beneath the moon
the nighthorses moving away
at a trot
it’s not a word not yet this vapour
escaping the mouth”
– “adagio” (6)
The last major element I walked away from A Cry in the Snow with is Radulescu’s focus on the ultimate underlying question of human existence: who am I? Knowing that Radulescu has a background of growing up under Communist rule and that she has three distinct bodies of work in three different languages, I cannot help but feel a search happening in her poems- a search for an identity, both on a nationalistic level and a human level. I feel this in the precision of her words; this tying of our different environments and how we attempt to communicate in it. Radulescu’s poems ask these questions often found within silence, the “who am I?” and the “why am I here?”:
story of us
history in ashes”
“Winter, I have to wake up…
The first things that reach my ears,
fragments of conversation,
unfinished phrases. I lie down again.
I forget the beginnings of sentences…
Find yourself back in your body, fall… There is no other way.
I cover myself in words.”
– “Journal with Eyes Closed”
I highly recommend Stella Vinitchi Radulescu’s A Cry in the Snow not only for any poetry student but for anyone wishing to explore the beauty and depth that can come from translation. It is heavy and it is deep, but the strength found within these words—and the silence in between—is nothing short of astounding.