Category: Romanian

Cristina Savin on Vasile Baghiu’s poetic chimerism

Hello poets and readers,

Welcome to our guest blogpost by Cristina Savin:-

At the heart of Baghiu’s poetry and process there exists a concept coined by the poet himself, chimerism. The concept encapsulates a tendency to escape everyday realities and to create a parallel universe, a counter-reality in which the poet lives. Baghiu remembers the defining moment where it all began. On 21 August 1988, a day that changed his life, he was working as a nurse in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Romania. He was smoking, enjoying Chinese tea and reading Flaubert’s The Art of Travel. In the background, a radio station was broadcasting in Italian. A foreign voice insinuated into his, a voice that seized his throat and his vocal chords making him talk about things he had never lived or seen. The world around him came to a standstill. He was overcome with a sense of tranquillity, inner peace and detachment from everyone and everything. He likes to call it ataraxia, some sort of poetic trance.

He came to the realisation that, instead of living isolated in the sanatorium, surrounded by dying people, he could be someone else, someone residing in Palermo for example, or in any other city, and he could write from that person’s perspective.And so he began to write.Through poetry he became someone else. Baghiu created an imaginary world, a parallel reality, in which his poems materialised.

Based on Jules de Gaultier’s philosophical system, chimerism is a cross between bovarysme and literature that brings together four defining elements: imaginary journey, transfiguration, disease and science. Each element was born out of a sense of despair and contributed to the creation of a new identity. Imaginary journey was a way of escaping the socio-political constraints and the cultural provincialism in which the poet lived during the totalitarian regime of the 1980s. This escapism led to the invention of a universal citizen, a stateless person – Himerus Alter – able to freely travel through space and time. Himerus Alter is thus central to chimeric poetry. A stateless character who lives in a parallel reality and travels around the world and throughout history, he is some sort of ghost, “the ghost of the sanatorium” as described in his collection of poems Gustul înstrăinării [The taste of alienation]. His presence is testament to the fact that chimerism brings back the fantasy and magic that postmodernism had taken from Romanian writers. Disease, influenced by his work as a nurse,represented a reality devoid of superficiality and flippancy; the poems are imbued with disease and the patient is the true measure of lyricism. As the poet confesses, every collection of poems is infused with an obsession for illness. The sanatorium, which is a rare occurrence in Romanian literature, became a literary theme, for without it the imaginary journey would be reduced to a meaningless pilgrimage. For the chimeric poet, the sanatorium is the general setting, the place of departure and return, the scene of separation and reconnection. Transfiguration was a way of creating new experiences by forcing the poet to become someone else; through this process, poetry becomes an expression of estrangement. Finally, science was the poetic adventure in a space that has rarely been explored, through poetic means, in the Romanian literary milieu. Baghiu takes the view that there is significant resistance to incorporating other fields, particularly science, within the literary realm. While most poets tend to reject and, to a large extent, despise science, Baghiu advocates a blend of poetic mystery and science. He encourages authors to infuse their poems with positrons, quarks, DNA, molecules, chemical elements, theorems, electromagnetic fields, hematomas, and not just as signifiers, but also within their substance. A poet who writes chimeric poetry should include at least some of these elements.

In the process of creating Himerus Alter and devising his persona, which resulted in his first collection of poems The taste of alienation, Baghiu often wondered whether the attempt to escape his own condition through an imaginary journey would in fact be seen as a ‘fake reality’ and would betray the poetic act. When Himerus Alter began to materialise, the general view was of poetry as the embodiment of real, rather than imaginary, journeys and experiences. Taking the leap of faith from real to imaginary was admittedly one of the most difficult things for Baghiu. As soon as he broke free from such prejudice, he realised that the imaginary journey around which chimerism gradually formedwas in fact as intense and as powerful as the real journey.

Baghiu remembers a moment from his early chimeric days, when Rome featured prominently in his imagination as a place that stirred his desire to travel. He imagined and re-imagined Rome at the local library, flicking though books, art collections, travel diaries or tourist leaflets. The concept of globalisation was foreign to him and in any case, Romanians were forbidden to travel abroad during the totalitarian days of the 1980s. In some way, chimerism was the precursor of these adventures. A few days in the library, imagining himself in Rome and listening to its sounds, were followed by creative endeavours in which he aimed to re-create the Eternal City the way he saw it with his mind’s eye:

 That Day in Rome
  
 That day in Rome the obsequies of a great poet
 proceeded under a merciless sun, flowers and
 delicate scents.
 We could not cross the street for an hour or so.
 We watched the slow procession.
 Up in the balconies, on the blue sky, the lemon
 tree blossomed
 and your hair was undone in the wind,
 undulating
 against the backdrop of a dense crowd
 accompanying the stately corpse. * 

In one of our conversations Baghiu remarked that the poems depicting the Arab world were influenced by Lawrence Durrell’s celebrated tetralogy The Alexandria Quartet. Geo, a journal that portrayed people from Tana Toraja in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, was the inspiration for another poem, Death was a wooden doll. In the same fashion, ideas and thoughts from travel diaries, memoirs or even random texts invaded poems. This occurred during the imaginary stage of his chimeric adventures.

Over the last 15 years however, during his travels, Baghiu’s poems have become a way to contemplate his ‘lived’ experiences. As the poet confesses, this is, paradoxically, a return toward his inner self, toward an individual reality which he previously neglected. While travelling, the poet tends to reflect upon the destination; but as soon as he reaches that destination, he devotes time to ponder his poetic self. This is because technically, the destination, seen as the geographical realm where “poetic circumstances” occurs, is no longer important; what matters is the process of contemplation. For example, a trip to Berlin resulted in a poem that made references to the Mark Hotel in which he stayed and which afforded him an opportunity to identify with Himerus Alter, his alter-ego. Up until then, the poet regarded Himerus Alter as an individual with a unique, distinct identity. From a poetic perspective, however, this change in attitude engendered a new type of detachment, which could be construed as “mellowness”, a new way of perceiving the world – more compassionate and serene, ultimately a poetic improvement. Baghiu is no longer afflicted by the travel anxiety and the obsession to record every detail that shaped his early poetic years. His poetic mission is to rediscover and perhaps reinvent the inner self, particularly in relation to the world he had previously dreamed of and that is now his reality. He is no longer on a quest for imagined tourist destinations; instead, his poetry “speaks” of places that he sees with his own eyes in his travels. The chimeric fiction is no longer relegated only to written poetry, but to “lived” poetry as well, which brings a protean type of wisdom to new levels of the poetic equation. As Baghiu aptly describes it, this process is similar to a “reversed spyglass”. In more practical terms, reconciling imagination with reality gives his poems the power to reclaim an identity that had been lost in the chimeric maelstrom of youth.

The poem below, On the sideline,is a felicitous blend of imaginary journey, transfiguration, disease and science, that encapsulates the concept of chimerism.

 On the sideline
  
 I saw death fluttering like an invasion of cormorants
 On the Ballestas Islands, and the squawk of this bird 
 That Peruvians affectionately call El Niño echoed my own voice 
 Repressed by some sort of inner censorship
 That never went above thirty-eight degrees, 
 A way to live on, lukewarm,
 Some sort of troubled stroll, with my hair undone in the wind, and my cane, 
 On the shores white with guano,
 Remembering the ingress into Bahia of Joao, 
 the prince regent of Lusitania,
 Chased by Napoleon,
 Gaping at the collectors of excrement
 Filling up their bags, in the roar of the sea 
 And, seemingly, laughing at me, the accidental meanderer. 
 I don't know if a flutter of the heart is an impasse,
 A contemplative moment
 Or a discreet warning, like a breeze
 Tousling a few hairs at the back of your head,
 Announcing the tornado.
 Death is perhaps this constant clatter of the blinds,
 The darkness inside the house in the middle of the day,
 The cellar where an asthma attack, caused by humidity
 Or perhaps by fear
 Swayed us towards silence.
 The past is a ghost I see even today
 As I look at the white walls of the sanatorium in the forest,
 on the road passing Vaduri,
 It's some kind of diminished death,
 A metallic ghost by the name of Mustafa Kemal
 Constantly reminding the people of Chabiukarahiazar of a mysterious dread,
 I am the past, wearing these second-hand clothes,
 And the future also, maybe, seen here from afar,
 Just like the Aghtamar cathedral on the shore of a sombre Lake Van,
 The future with its share of uncertainty
 That makes astrologists wealthy,
 A Chinese song fluttering through vernal plains,
 That you too would like to sing,
 But you cannot understand the words.
 I'm not afraid, a bed redone with canvas under the sheets 
 Is still proof that ours is the best of all worlds,
 Because it's not for everyone
 To overindulge in illness as if in a carnival
 Fooling around with tambourines, a unique reference point 
 In a myriad of colours and shiny skins,
 Beneath the statue of Christ on the Corcovado peak.
 I see the dead, happy, with tears in their eyes, 
 And I feel as if I'm one of them,
 Yet somehow flippant
 Only because I stroll, hands clasped behind my back
 Through the University Square, in Bucharest,
 An eclectic place of dazzling charm. 
 But I turn off the headlights, 
 I'm on the sideline and I write no more, I only breathe
 With love and devotion, for the dramatic effect
 Of artificial lungs, compressing and expanding,
 When I hesitate, timidly and warily, 
 Disguised on the steps of the morgue, hat in my hands,
 Disguised as the one I wanted to be,
 the one I am, Himerus Alter,
 From whom I borrowed the overcoat
 And this silly hat that entertains
 The children in Zona Norte, when I get off the taxi
 After launching Les égarements de Madame Bovary,
 Just for a moment, ignoring the warnings from the taxi driver
 Who spoke French:
 "C'est très dangereux, Monsieur Alter!"
 As in a reverie, I hear him between two whispers of the harmonica, 
 Abandoning my hand into your restless hands, 
 On the edge of the table on wheels
 Pushed noisily last night along the corridors 
 By kids admitted to hospital with minor injuries
 While everyone else gathered for a chat over coffee.
 I'm neither dying nor pretending to be a victim,
 I'm simply collecting data for a thesis
 Forced onto me by those who still believe in me,
 And I keep forgetting, sadly, who hit the false notes,
 When we played the piano four hands
 Practicing pieces that can be heard in rehearsal rooms,
 Especially when pupils leave a window open,
 And I, returned from Sydney after an exhausting stopover
 In Bangkok, remain beneath the window sobbing softly,
 Squatting by the dirty wall.
 It is not autumn yet and I am now eluding
 All sorts of nostalgia-filled ripostes,
 Some sort of dust on the riverbank,
 And the streets misbehave with me,
 When I roller skate, exquisitely,
 Up on the surgical table,
 Child with one leg in a cast
 And the future held up in texts where the content attempts
 To overtake the form, the way it happens in life, naturally,
 Rolling into the valley without regrets, without sorrow, with love.  

Notes

This essay was adapted from the Manifestos of Chimerism, originally published in Romanian, and from communication with Vasile Baghiu. The translation is all mine, unless otherwise stated.

* ‘That Day in Rome’ first published in The AALITRA Review:

Vasile Baghiu is a Romanian poet and novelist. He has published eight collections of poems, three novels, a collection of short stories and a number of essays. Baghiu is well-known in the Romanian literary milieu for coining the concept of chimerism, a cross between bovarysme and literature, defined as a tendency to escape everyday realities and to create a parallel universe, a counter-reality in which one lives. The concept, which began to take shape during his life and work under the totalitarian regime in Romania, was developed and explained in his four Manifestos of Chimerism published between 1998 and 2010. Baghiu works as a teacher in his native Romania. 

Cristina Savin holds a Master of Translation Studies from Monash University. She is currently undertaking a PhD in Translation Studies at the same university. Cristina is the translator into English of two novels by French author Marie Lion, a book chapter by French philosopher Marcel Gauchet and an article on the French explorer Nicolas Baudin. She also translates Romanian literature into English. Her work has been published in The French Australian ReviewThe Cordite Poetry Review and The AALITRA Review. 

Vasile Baghiu – Bibliography

Gustul înstrăinării (The Taste of Alienation), Timpul, Iași, 1994

Rătăcirile doamnei Bovary (Madame Bovary’s Wanderings) Eminescu, Bucharest, 1996

Febra (The Fever), Panteon, Piatra Neamț, 1996

Maniera (The Manner), Pontica, Bucharest, 1998

Himerus Alter în Rheinland (Himerus Alter in Rheinland), Vinea, Bucharest, 2003

Cât de departe am mers (How Far We Have Gone), Limes, Cluj, 2008

Depresie (Depression), Limes, Cluj, 2012

Metode simple de încetinire a timpului  (Simple Methods to Slow Down Time), Eikon, Bucharest, 2019

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