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Hell is Other People

Lunacies (Meeting Eyes Bindery, 51 pages]
by Ruxandra Cesereanu 

Translated by Adam J. Sorkin and the poet,
with Claudia Litvinchievici

Reviewed by Allyson K. Boggess

In an essay entitled "Prison Theatricality in the Romanian Gulag," the Romanian writer Ruxandra Cesereanu describes a living environment of torture and repressive conditioning in the post-World War II gulag -- a "living" environment that was hardly alive: It was a hell on earth. She notes the prison guards -- torturers -- strived to break the prisoners' backbones of faith by desecrating Christian holidays and holy symbols. Cesereanu explains the relationship between the prison guards and the prisoners as "a confrontation between Christians and those possessed by Satan." Perseverance in the face of this hell, despite the complete opposition expressed through physical and emotional abuse, is the underlying subject of Cesereanu's latest book of poetry, aptly titled, Lunacies.

Even before opening this book, one can predict the ominous tone of the text from the collage on the front cover. A gothic window frame encloses the image of the author as a young child cradling a doll in her arms. Her feet dangle from the bed on which she is perched. She appears to be only slightly larger than the doll, calling to mind the trials of forced maturation at an early age. An eyeball hovers at the apex of the frame. Its eyelashes have been cut off; no tear ducts remain to indicate any other emotion except terror.

"I believe it was an old, old twilight," Cesereanu begins, "where blind men blundered and groped, / the eye of their mouths a puzzled scream." Here the pitch of her work is set from the very beginning at an octave that is rarely comfortable but unquestionably strong. Translated into English primarily by Adam J. Sorkin and the poet, along with Claudia Litvinchievici, the book revels in the internal world of the "I," where the horrors are expressed and the anxieties are released with absolute necessity.

One cannot help but notice the epic qualities of the title poem, "Lunacies," the longest work in the book. The narrator of the poem invokes herself as the muse and introduces the scene: "I was restless like the fire-sorrow of the fading sun." There is no doubt of her restlessness and no doubt of the vividness of color -- both warm and putrid. She is unafraid of seeing beauty in the grotesque. The narrator ends the first section with a rhymed couplet, also reminiscent of epic form:

And now, here in my womb, the angel-homunculus.
List, list: the owl whoo-whoos her lament. I am delirious.

From the front cover image of premature maternity to the confessional poem, "The Womb. Letters" at the back of the book, Cesereanu's poems often deal with issues related to the female sex.

The state of the human mind becomes the foundation for Cesereanu's poems. The back cover poses the question, "What are lunacies?" Readers with a general knowledge of human psychology recognize the word "lunacy" as an archaic term for mental instability. Poems in Lunacies all feature a prominent, vocal narrator, and it is clear that we are taking on her skin, observing the actions of the world through her eyes. As readers, we are constantly aware of her mind's unrest:

Fleshless night, without touch --
the room feels as if it will crush me, all her objects alive.

The language, surreal and saturated with wild energy, confirm the narrator's internal struggle. The intensity of Cesereanu's language makes the poems difficult to swallow at times, yet I doubt the author ever intended the work as a lozenge. She writes:
Oh, my brain, deformed by melancholy:
inside you, the moon is mute and guzzles the blood of stars.

The lines are heavy with action verbs, dense with imagery.

Without background knowledge of Romanian history or previous exposure to Romanian poetry, this book may cause exhaustion in some readers. The poems are so incredibly intense, from cover to cover, that one might feel distanced by the passion of the experience. With an understanding of the trauma endured by the Romanians after World War II, it becomes clear that the poetry reveals the beauty of human resilience and the fragility of our own mental ecosystems. As the back cover describes, Ruxandra Cesereanu as "Her heart and mind all out of breath," we, as readers, are gloriously winded and unafraid.

Allyson K. Boggess graduated from Hope College in 2001 with a B.A. in English and psychology. She recently relocated to Somerville, Massachusetts and works at the Harvard Extension School. Her poems have appeared in Mind Purge and Uno: A Poetry Anthology published in 2001 by Comrades Press (


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