:: Article

Memory Glyphs

By Travis Jeppesen.


Radu Andriescu, Iustin Panţa and Cristian Popescu, Memory Glyphs, Twisted Spoon Press, 2009

The prose poem is one of the least popular literary genres because it is one of the most difficult to digest. A hybrid form, its most distinguishable practitioners make maximum efficacy of its inherent formlessness. You could say that the prose poem is largely a European tradition; one tends to think largely of the French – Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé. But obscure forms often tend to flower in obscure places. A recent anthology, Memory Glyphs, makes a strong case for Romania’s contribution to the evolution of the prose poem in the last few decades.

The slim volume is essentially the project of Adam J. Sorkin, who is widely regarded as the most important American translator of Romanian letters. Sorkin has narrowed his focus down to three representative poets of prose – Radu Andriescu, Iustin Panţa, and Cristian Popescu.

From a formal perspective, Panţa is the most interesting of the three. His penchant for interspersing his line-broken verse with thick chunks of prose allows him to set up situational dichotomies that are simultaneously broken down. In ‘Magda,’ for instance, the author wistfully reminisces on an early love, interrupting those thoughts with the description of a funeral, before returning to his original subject.

Popescu’s major project was the development of a prolonged self-mythology. He took the raw facts of his life and his immediate family as a departure point for spinning wild, linguistically anarchic yarns in the form of short prose allegories. He’s at his best, though, when he’s at his dreamiest:

At night, if you drop a seashell into the telephone at the corner instead of a coin, a small, white, unchipped seashell gathered from the beach in summer, instead of a dial tone you’ll hear the wondrous sound of the waves. Then you can dial any number and the liquid voice of a siren will answer, summoning you by name.

(‘The Telephone at the Corner,’ p. 36)

As one of the more existentially burdensome professions, poets tend to lead short lives. Of the three, all of whom were born in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s, only Andriescu has made it past the age of forty; he continues to write and teach British and American literature at Alexandru Ioan Cuza University in Iaşi. As such, I would say he’s the only one of the three writing under the shadow of much of the postmodern discourse that arrived much later in Eastern Europe than it did in the West. This is not always successful; one occasionally gets the feeling that Andriescu is employing pomo gimmickry for no other reason than to mark his work with a sign of contemporaneity (such as throwing in e-mail templates.) Andriescu is at his best when he simply lets himself go and allows for a direct transmission of thought across the pages; the poem ‘Ultima Thule’ is a prime example of this.

In its diffuse nature, the prose poem demands both a poem and a theory of poetry. The three poets in Memory Glyphs may have little in common besides their Romanian heritage and the fact that they have individually mastered a form that few others have been brave enough to take on. For this reason, Memory Glyphs serves as an important addition to international poetics.

Travis Jeppesen is author of the novels Victims (2003) and Wolf at the Door (2007), the poetry collections Poems I Wrote While Watching TV (2006) and Dicklung & Others (2009) and collected criticism as Disorientations (2008).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 20th, 2009.