Poetry and the Language of Oppression: Essays on Politics and Poetics
by Carmen Bugan
(Oxford University Press, 2021, 224 pp. $25)
Poetry, in the title of Carmen Bugan’s beautiful and intensely scrupulous book, at first glance positions itself forthrightly and steadfastly in opposition to the Language of Oppression. Yet the equally vigilant placing of and then of serves to remind us that Language can cut both ways: poetry as the transmutation of tyranny into verse and “poetry” as propaganda for the state. This kind of hyper-linguistic alertness comes second nature to Bugan’s art. Surveillance, too, is an unwavering form of vigilance. In the Communist Romania where Bugan grew up, and under whose subjugation her heroic, activist father endured imprisonment and torture, her family was kept under constant watch. (What Bugan calls her “archival identity” includes 4,500 pages from 2010 to 2013—“incomplete as it is.”) Oppression, repression, expression is how Bugan succinctly describes the fluent arc of the five essays in her book, the rhymes asserting their polysyllabic authority in English, her adopted language. By ending on expression, Bugan’s triple rhyme conveys both the rejuvenating freedom of poetry that is her theme and the reverberations of oppression and repression, the echo chamber that haunts her.
Throughout the book, Bugan’s own highly regarded poetry serves to distill the essence of her far-ranging political and cultural analysis and to reenact it in verse that strikes close to home—home that for her stricken family was a target of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s fascist regime. Here are the opening stanzas from her poem, “In Silent Country,” which comes in the final essay, “Writing in Turbulent Times.” It is a typical example of Bugan’s gift for translating the tense, household particulars of her harrowing Romanian experience into an exquisitely lucid, plainspoken, compelling poem in English:
When the hens climbed the tree to sleep and the dog was let loose in the yard,
When the children went to bed, she covered the windows
In the doors with towels and hung the yellow blanket over the curtain rod.
He went outside, around the farthest corner of the house, dug the typewriter
From its hole, then from the garage brought a stack of papers hidden
Behind tools in a box. They locked the room.
Both sat at the large oak table and put on gloves to hide the fingerprints.
Each night, one by one, hundreds of pages darkened with communal demands:
Hot water, electricity, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom to
Their arms smelled of fresh ink and the room was the sound of struck keys
Between two breaths. Not one star looked inside, but the wind joined the hush
Of shuffled paper. Before the rooster broke the news of dawn, he put the
Into its white crate and buried it in the ground at the back of the house.
As the opening stanza shows, each cherished, childhood observation details the breathless-with-anticipation atmosphere of clandestine activity. Yet the ample, endearing, unhurried, anapestic cadences remind us that it’s also just the usual nightly routine in her parents’ house. As evening commences, and as befits a book that cites Jack London as one of its trustworthy guides, the rhythm of the poem draws its down-to-earth music from loving attention to the natural world—whose rhythms just as naturally extend to life inside the house. (“When the hens climbed the tree to sleep and the dog was let loose in the yard, / When the children went to bed, she covered the windows / In the doors with towels and hung the yellow blanket over the curtain rod.”) Up out of the ground that it shares with the hens and dogs the father’s typewriter emerges (the typewriter that is the genius loci of Bugan’s earlier writing). Then out of the labor of the night come “hundreds of pages darkened with communal demands,” as the hush that comes over the house is one of childhood awe: “Not one star looked inside, but the wind joined the hush / Of shuffled paper.” It is only when the rooster crows that the doughty typewriter returns to its underground hibernation. In this faithful record of her diligent, undaunted, activist parents (“Hot water, electricity, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom to assemble”) the poet finds her own voice in the tempo of repressed trauma, the lyricism of childhood wonder, the obdurate exactitude of observation. Yeats says that “a poem comes right with a click like a closing box,” but Bugan’s opening stanza closes with a stricter sound: “They locked the room.” The turning of the key carries an ominous, proleptic echo of the prison cell that awaits her father, Ion Bugan.
The uniqueness of Bugan’s poetry is best expressed in her own unfussy appraisal: “to my knowledge no one [from repressive regimes] has transformed state surveillance records into poetry, and, to date, I am not aware of an account of the artistic process as it brings that particular history into the language of literature and makes it part of a critical conversation.” Records, date, account, artistic process, particular history, critical conversation…the nuts and bolts by which she will disassemble the juggernaut.
Here is a transcription of the surveillance order dated January 9, 1988, the hidden recording brought into the light of day by way of Bugan’s English translation:
It is worth mentioning that during this period old friends and acquaintances ceased to visit the house and as far as Sofica and Stela are concerned, these are the neighbours and therefore not in the informing network.
The information from our monitoring devices T.O. and S. reveals that she doesn’t maintain connections/friendships with people from other villages/towns, she spends her time knitting clothes which she sells to make money to feed her children.
During the month of November 1987 we received a note from U.M. 0632/5-A by which we were informed that the objective and her daughter Carmen communicate with foreign people.
Christopher Ricks, in his beautiful essay in appreciation of Bugan’s writing and her father’s winning endurance, “Ion Bugan on the Iron Curtain”, connects the hard-wired language of the listening devices to the brilliant recoil of Bugan’s creative transformations:
The most degrading moments in Burying the Typewriter and in the poems uncoil from what the secret police hear (and say), thanks to their microphones; what they record and transcribe; then succeeded by a further uncoiling of what Bugan herself now has come to hear and to say, to record and to transcribe—better, to translate from Romanian to English and to transpose it all from the grey inhumanity of the documents to the deep colors of her art.
(Along Heroic Lines, Oxford University Press, 2021, p. 285)
Bugan translates the house of listening into this family portrait from “We are museums”:
The dog was poisoned by informers and the child was recorded
On a tape, when the electricity was on. The end of the girl’s first love,
Her angry letters have rooms of their own, furnished with her mother’s
Sympathy: maybe they were kept to indict us for having had feelings?
There are records of us eating our soup and polenta, drinking linden tea,
Mother knitting at two in the morning to exchange for eggs
And flour; you will find her sitting on the bed “alone by herself
Talking to no one for many hours,” framed forever in the state archives.
“It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without,” says Wallace Stevens. “It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.” (The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words, Vintage Press, 1951, p. 36). For Bugan, it is the surveillance from within that protects her from the surveillance without, at least in so far as being observed will later become the materia poetica of her ever-resourceful, self-reflective art of deflection. Note the way each line observes itself being observed in the act of excellent writing, the pressure on the versification pushing back against the pressures of the oppression. The only direct quotation among the many direct observations is registered as: “alone by herself / Talking to no one for many hours.” Alone by herself, the self in extremis under surveillance. The line break displays a witty ear for irony (in ever-present earshot of the listening devices, she is neither “alone by herself” nor “talking to no one”), the kind of ambiguity that is beyond detection by the coarse machinations of the police state. The quoted particulars also pick up a syntactical poignancy of sharp, more deeply felt ambivalence that here, too, passes the censors, but not the poet: is her mother, irrespective of the eavesdroppers, “alone by herself” and talking to “no one”, as in keeping silent for “many hours;” or talking to herself, alone by herself, for many hours? “Talking”—the heart of this book and the heartlessness of the official record— receives its capital letter by virtue of the fact that the crucial word is carefully set down in the first foot of the line. Time and again the constancy and humanity of Bugan’s verse-line observing itself in the act of recording the act of being constantly observed. “Yet if the secret police callously exploit ‘listening devices’, then poets compassionately do so.” (Ricks, Ibid. 240) As such, “framed forever in the state archives” can be taken as lodged for good in a poem of lasting power.
“The power of political language lies in its ability to remain vague, while it hints at narratives that often give people a false sense of security,” writes Bugan. But for one living under surveillance there’s no sense of security at all, although there can be a sixth sense for what Seamus Heaney calls “the government of the tongue.” As a George Orwell Prize fellow, she quotes this sentence from Politics and the English Language as if it was a maxim handed down to her from her father: “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Ion Bugan languished in “one of the most horrifying prisons in my country.” Here are some stanzas from her poem “The demonstration,” in which her father brandishes placards that will lead to his arrest. Against the power of propaganda in its capacity to remain vague, the voice of sheer earnestness that cuts through the fascist fog: “We Demand the Trial of the Ceaușescu Family / For Crimes Against Humanity, Usury and Economic Downfall.”
In Bucharest he placed the placards on the front and back of the car.
He drove through traffic on the main street.
People came out of the stores shouting.
Buses and trams stopped, emptied, let him pass.
He threw leaflets with the left hand, drove with the right hand.
Ah, it was glorious! The flag of his country draped round his chest.
The portrait of the dictator decorated with black ribbons.
As eloquently engagé as Bugan’s poetry is, its triumph is in its refusal to accept the limitations of a purely “dissident” poetry. Strict observation of fact thwarts any temptation to political tract. (“In Bucharest he placed the placards…”) Yet temperance of tone can sometimes turn exclamatory, albeit tempered with humor. The “Ah! It was glorious!” is an acknowledgment of the valiant deed of her dear paterfamilias, but also, perhaps, a way of conveying how preposterous his action was. If the macabre image on the placard, “The portrait of the dictator decorated with black ribbons,” is evidence of the father’s sardonic wit, it is the black humor of his intrepid daughter that delivers the decisive phrase, “dictator decorated”—as though the near anagrammatic chime was pinned with relish on President Nicolae Ceaușescu’s swelling chest. (“Exiled Thucydides knew / All that a speech can say / About Democracy / And what dictators do” sings Auden, through the gritted alliterating teeth of the “d” sounds in “Democracy” and “dictators,” followed by the locked jaw of contraction in “do.”)
Bugan’s gift for equanimity is at its steadfast best when the writing is trembling with feeling and adjectives are superfluous. The poem ends:
Thousands saw him being pulled from the car.
Watched him between armed soldiers.
None of his countrymen said a word.
“Saw him…watched him.” Those “thousands” of silent compatriots held, for a moment, in the documentary lens of the poem’s judicious surveillance.
Bugan draws on Geoffrey Hill as a purifying source: “From the depths of the self we rise to a concurrence with that which is not-self.” Concurrence. As in surveillance tapes and reeling lives. As in the daughter-poet singing the menace that her father faced: the two of them incising concurrent lines into the cement floor of his blood-bespattered cell:
The guards do not give the prisoner-scribe a pen: that would
Turn the scribe into a man. He is left alone with the walls.
But what riches those walls, the souls of others spilled
Out on their cement face, their ghosts dancing in the shadows
Of the scribe’s mind, material for books, four canvases wide open!
And forty-five kilograms of chains to turn into writing instruments:
The rust, the dried blood, here’s the ink. He chooses the wall
By the invisible window and begins to write with the links of the chains
Moving his body around, etching the letters into the cement,
Until the first line comes out: ‘Our Father who art in Heaven!’
Imprisoned witness. Witness Geoffrey Hill’s great poem on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom, as the flares of the allied bombers (‘Christmas Trees’) illuminate the German Lutheran pastor’s sublime locus and logos of prayer and privation:
Bonhoeffer in his skylit cell
bleached by the flares’ candescent fall,
pacing out his own citadel,
restores the broken themes of praise,
encourages our borrowed days,
by logic of his sacrifice.
Against wild reasons of the state
his words are quiet but not too quiet.
We hear too late or not too late.
Surveillance, too, is quiet but not too quiet. Carmen Bugan read the transcribed recordings too late to know just who the collaborators had been, and just how much had been borrowed from her childhood days, but not too late to turn the poisonous knowledge into the lyric poetry of a just reckoning, “against wild reasons of the state”.
The Captive Mind, by Czeslaw Miłosz, is a text that Bugan, focused on her father and other incarcerated activists like him, is captivated by:
…he shows how the tyrannical regimes in Europe had the power to enslave people with ideas, and how his own cry for intellectual freedom led him to what he called “the worst of all misfortunes”, exile. Explaining his own choice as a poet who was directly confronted with the Leninist-Stalinist doctrine in Poland in 1945, he acknowledged that, if he had chosen to join the intellectual orchestra of oppression, he “the poet” would have had his place marked out for him with “the first violins.”
As magisterial as Miłosz is in his scholarly analysis of the totalitarian state, it’s the poet’s indomitable well-springs of feeling that transfixes Bugan: the gut-check that forced him to make his ultimate break with the Communist Party. Fundamentally, the matter was a question of taste, and of visceral recalcitrance—“a revolt in the stomach.”
The resistance for him happened at an emotional, instinctual level, which I think is absolutely crucial in bringing oppression and freedom onto the deeper ground of our feelings. He writes: “My own decision proceeded, not from the functioning of the reasoning mind, but from a revolt in the stomach…the growing influence of the doctrine on my way of thinking came up against the resistance of my own nature.”
His grand Polish equal in the art, Zbigniew Herbert, concurs.
It did not take any great character
our refusal dissent and persistence
we had a scrap of necessary courage
but essentially it was a matter of taste
which has fibers of soul the gristle of conscience
(“The Power of Taste,” tr. Alissa Valles)
For Miłosz, “An unnamed need for rhythm, for order, for form, which three words are opposed to chaos and nothingness. (Unattainable Earth. Ecco, 1986, p.141) For Carmen Bugan, those three crucial words, stated at the start of this review, interlocked and equipollent: oppression, repression, expression. Yet expression, of its own express volition, may sometimes turn into a pure song of praise (in prose, no less). Here is Bugan’s celebration of her grandmother’s kitchen—its air so redolent with warmth and nourishment that the menace of the listening devices momentarily vanishes into the hospitable woodwork:
There was a prayer for everything and for every day of the week…my grandmother’s kitchen with its large oak table on which there was always small dishes of salt and pepper, and left-over polenta covered in white cloth on a wooden cutting board; the cupboard with the plates neatly stacked; buttermilk in a clay jug; the icons and the vase with flowers from our garden. Sun through the blue-framed window. […] The need for simplicity and clarity in my poems, the rejection of obscurity and opacity originated in the childhood prayer where everything and everyone had its place. In almost all of my work there is an attempt to restore things to their places: parents to the family, memories to their country, language to its experience. (pp.176-77)
The daily, almost liturgical, uplifting rhythms of life in these sentences (“to restore…to their places…to the family…to the country”) provide an intimate glimpse of the traditional rituals and customs that steadied Bugan through dark times and kept her from succumbing to cynicism and despair. In “Bypassing Rue Descartes,” Miłosz affirms his faith in the candle-lit village rituals of his Lithuanian childhood, set against the dark upheavals of the twentieth century:
There is no capital of the world, neither here nor anywhere else,
And the abolished customs are restored to their small fame
And now I know that the time of human generations is not like the time of the earth.
When Bugan sings: “‘The earth will remember you’, my grandparents said,” the voices of her elders carry, carry the ancestral Romanian saying into a beautiful line of English blank verse: The earth will remember you, my grandparents said. (“Visiting the country of my birth.”)
Carmen Bugan’s central essay, “Resettling in the English Language.” is rife with deeply unsettling aesthetic reservations and ethical vexations. Most worrisome is her fear that her immigrant poems might not make sense in their new language without including the Romanian baggage that comes with them. As if “the whole history of the country needed to be told” for the lines to ring true. She need not fret. Her poems in English tell her people’s history through the singular presence of Ion Bugan:
Before they brought him to the courtroom, they gave him
Three apples: “Your wife sent you these.”
He cradled each apple in the cup of his hands,
The smoothness of their skin became the cheeks of each child.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.