Shape of a Key, of a Dog, of a Letter

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Cassian’s strongest poems–and there are many of them in Continuum–function in this way, where the initially familiar becomes a catalyst for something pleasurably disorienting as she subverts the expectations that she initially led us to have.

Continuum, the latest collection of poetry by Romanian-American author Nina Cassian, is a sort of literary curiosity cabinet, which seems appropriate for an octogenarian author whose work is so varied and abundant. Exiled from her native Romania in 1985, Cassian has been a film critic, journalist, and translator, as well as having written over fifty books of poetry, fiction, memoir and stories for children. Continuum, recently released by Norton, contains poems that, according to the Author’s Note, were written as early as 1947 and as late as 2007; some originally in Romanian and translated by the author, and others written directly in English. As the title indicates, this book is concerned less with “stylistic continuity, but rather (with) a creative urge spanning six decades” as well as a variety of locales and languages.

There is both pleasure and frustration for the reader in this book, and sometimes both occur in the same moment. The book’s structure itself particularly evokes this double response since, although, in the philosophical sense, it is difficult to quibble with the idea of watching a creative mind unfold over the decades, the book lacks chronological markers to demarcate those decade and so the reader is denied the specific pleasure of discovering the logistics of how and when Cassian’s style has evolved. This frustration, however, seems in keeping with the fluidity of Cassian’s voice and her aversion to having her work categorized or pinned down by the lepidopterists of the imagination. Instead, the poems are organized thematically into six sections, each with their own concerns huddled under the umbrella of each section’s individual title (Remember, Creatures from Inner Space, Travelogue, Homage, Love’s Boomerang, and Finale). Rather than being allowed to fixate on attempting to discern if Cassian’s use of rhyme is a remnant of a younger poet’s allegiance to older forms or a sign of a more recent transplant’s delight in the sounds of a new language, readers must instead direct their attention to each poem as a separate entity within the stylistic variations of the themed section. This allows individual pleasures to unfold (to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the strength of each poem) but precludes a linear view of how her poetry as a whole has developed.

There are a number of extraordinary poems in Continuum and, unfortunately, there are also stretches of the book that feel familiar and predictable, particularly those where she consistently deploys a formal rhyming pattern. “Origins” for example, is a solidly conventional poem that directly addresses a river and contains moments such as “and beyond, a splendor not to miss / the new grass was waiting for your kiss.” Luckily, however, the book contains far more gold than dross and even in the midst of Cassian’s less interesting poems, certain startling and beautifully strange lines arise. Even when she describes, the summer air as “hovering over me like a blessing” (“Summer X-Rays”), Cassian is still–in the same poem–capable of also giving her readers an image like “ That’s why I swim so far out, / willing prisoner / inside the sea’s immense green magnifying glass.”

Indeed, many of the poems that initially seem to rely on tired poetic forms instead end up taking their readers down unfamiliar paths through a series of striking images and ideas. The poem “Moon,” for example, is written as a direct address to the moon–a fairly shopworn poetic trope–however it rapidly leaps from the familiar into the strikingly new as the speaker begins by saying,

I saw you, moon,
the very same,
rising from the sea
like the red snout of a leech

and continues on to shift the narrative from a logical linear progression into the strange dreamlike wonder of:

All the events that took place
between you and me,
in the shape of a key, of a dog, of a letter,
they all mix when you rise from the sea,
they mingle and sound, for a moment,
with the sound of a key, of a dog, of a letter,
until the sand shivers and shudders
and cold hands emerge
from the water’s surface.

Cassian’s strongest poems–and there are many of them in Continuum–function in this way, where the initially familiar becomes a catalyst for something pleasurably disorienting as she subverts the expectations that she initially led us to have. Even in the section of her book that focuses on love, “Love’s Boomerang,” the most effective of the group is “Letters,” a longer poem where the refrain of “I don’t love you” that ends each section begins to, paradoxically and inevitably, serve as a declaration of abiding romantic love, thus upending what the overall trajectory of the poem purports to do. Continuum is not a perfect book, but it is a consistently interesting one, where even the poems with facile rhymes or stale conventions offer dazzlingly strange and beautiful moments.

Kate Angus is an editor at Augury Books and the Creative Writing Advisory Board Member for The Mayapple Center for Arts and Humanities. Her work has appeared in Indiana Review, Subtropics, Best New Poets 2010, The Awl, and Verse Daily. She is the recipient of A Room of Her Own Foundation’s “Orlando” Prize for Creative Nonfiction, The Southeast Review’s creative nonfiction prize, and an artists residency on the Wildfjords trail in Iceland. More from this author →