Helen O’Brien Reviews Christopher Kelen

25 January 2010

God preserve me from those who want what's best for me: Homage to the Romanian poets by Christopher Kelen
Picaro Press, 2009

The very first word of the title of Christopher Kelen's latest book – taken from a section from within the collection entitled ‘after Dinescu' – poses a question: is Kelen referring to God the omnipotent deity, or god as an exclamation or damnation? The title is probably written with those thoughts in equal measure as we discover oblique references to Christianity and also to the Roman novel, The Golden Ass. More importantly, the title is an exasperated cry against censorship. Mircea Dinescu, like many of the Romanian poets that Kelen refers to, was subject to censorship or house arrest under the oppressive regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu. These references are not without well-considered connection, as Dinescu has since founded the journal Plai cu boi (The Land of Oxen/The Land of Idiots) which in turn refers to the literary trope of the jackass.

The sadness of Romania's authoritarian Communist period is expressed in ‘Nation lost to the map' which begins with a missive of ethical, political and spiritual desolation:

rough stars
smooth axe
and the cold light land
these things have no conscience.

Throughout the text there is a juxtaposition between that which is truly absurd and that which is deeply distressing, hence the oscillation between various tropes, laughable and lugubrious. In Kelen's words, censorship or more properly the result which is propaganda, is plainly expressed: ‘law is what stands between / a good time for some / and grim truth for all.'

Initially, and maybe as a mark of my Generation X status, I assumed that the images of Ceauşescu being executed and those of abandoned babes in Romanian orphanages would be firmly embedded in our collective consciousness – but perhaps not. Younger readers may have seen images of the Berlin Wall being dismantled in that event's 20th anniversary last year, but the grimness of Romania and its despot, although recent history, is not something that to my knowledge that has seen widespread continued discussion (at least in Australia). Likewise, the halcyon days of Communist conquest, no better illustrated than in the 1976 Olympic talents of gymnast Nadia Comaneci, demonstrate the fallacy of perverse outward perfection of idolatry. Kelen gives an ironic account of Ceauşescu's execution in ‘against the wall' and it suffices to say that it opens with the conjuring of Scheherazade and her self-preservation – a ‘wanker' meets his match.

The diversion into politics and propaganda is enlightening especially in relation to Kelen's tome. The strict enforcement of population policy resulted in many unwanted children, who in turn in their misery were equally used as propaganda in post-Ceauşescu Romania. As Australia is being railed into internet filters (‘filters' being a rather the benign euphemism for censorship) and Google is protesting infiltration of its security system, there remains a menacing area at the heart of the relationship of censorship to propaganda. As Kelen implies, it is safer to remain ignorant: ‘The simple minded / Are long lived.'

The hallmark of this collection is its seeming simplicity. ‘After them' begins the series with a warning that accounts of atrocity and censorship cannot be countered after death unless testament is made through contemporaneous words:

write poems
to the dead
who won't answer back
words will never fail us.

But words do fail us as revisionist histories so often reveal. As much as the writer or his readers would wish, the simplicity of the word is not absolute and is always open to corruption and misinterpretation. Throughout this collection, the poets, writers, commentators and dissidents are described in their various states of martyrdom, but some live to tell the tale. The ultimate payback joke – death – eventually meets the oppressor. If anything the themes presented remind us only too well that our complacency can ironically turn to unintended self-destruction.

The most substantial section of this collection is ‘After Sorescu'. Marin Sorescu's style, such as found in Shakespeare Created the World in Seven Days, is serious observation through simple allusion. In many ways Kelen replicates this incisive simplicity. For example, the loss of national Romanian identity is addressed in a forlorn, almost monosyllabic, despair:

no point worrying about that
go on
how a people makes itself sad.

Each poem individually comments about an aspect of this time of censorship and sorrow: loss of freedoms (‘I was framed'), the ironies of oligarchies and their laws (‘at the trial of the ironist') and the seeming futility of life and death in such circumstances (‘eskat-singing').

In ‘anthem' there is a sense of self-preservation in singing for the flag, the only catch is that the much-maligned writer needs to attain a dutiful death to be seen as genuinely accepting the lies. ‘Not waving but drowning' alludes to Kelen's Australian connections: seas of waving wheat and survival far away from the horrors of Romania. But occasionally there are light-hearted asides such as in ‘Transylvania' – ‘Bela Lugosi had too much hair gel' – and even a reflection that perhaps Vlad the Impaler is capable of finding redemption.

The complications of reviewing Kelen's work are not so much the words but the allusions which are dense and often obscured by unusual rhythms. These rhythms – although this remains thoroughly conjectural – may reflect something of an East European musical heritage: changing metres, abrupt caesuras, enjambments that obliterate a linear ease of understanding. All this makes the initial reading a misleading experience. There is much knowledge and empathy for the ideas and language of those poets to whom Kelen commits this homage. There is much to gain from his aphoristic approach to poetry and the implications of ignorance in the face of political grandiosity that seeks to destroy criticism.

This is definitely a collection that deserves considered reading. It is not always immediate in appeal with regard to its use of poetic devices; however, the sentiments and opinions are both compelling and provocative.

Helen O'Brien is a professional musician and writer. She has a website.

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