Ruxandra Ceserenu’s Crusader-Woman Poems, Reviewed by Dan Cuddy

Crusader-Woman Poems by Ruxandra Cesereanu translated by Adam J. Sorkin, Claudia Litvinchievici and Madalina Mudure  Black Widow Books 2008 ISBN 13 978-0-9795137 -5-6 124 pages $18.95

What I want now is to play my guitar like a teenager,
Without any consideration for the world,
Just I, not awakened from my crazy mood.
Hello mother and father not exposed here.
Hello friends staring at me like the crows of a shaman.
Hello red love and red death of one dollar,
My internal chemistry is alien, but I like it, hah!
It is said that the Devil is God’s monkey.
But I am sure now that the poet is the Devil’s monkey,
So he is closer to God than the Devil. I feel like a schoolgirl writing here.
About the many fences and walls I want to break,
About bruises and scars we can see on the windows
When all is impossible to cherish and love.
In this big hotel which is the world
There are cocoons and sailors and octopuses,
Businessmen and drunkards, psychoanalysts and monks,
Whores and beggars, wasps and saints.
What I want is a Russian ice tea
And the music of some gypsies dancing like hell.

—-from Letter to American poets pp18-19

The above is a fair introduction to Ruxandra Cesereanu, considered to be one of the five most important Romanian contemporary poets. However, this poem is written by her in English, not her native Romanian. The elements in this fragment of a 29-page introductory poem to her book Crusader-Woman states or hints at the many facets of her mind and work. Perhaps for symmetry, perhaps just a coincidence of fate, the book also closes with a 29-page poem, Crusader-Woman. That poem is an epic of faith, blood, doubt, desire, sexual exploitation of women, and the fighting back of a savage feminism. The later poem delves into Jungian psychology and drips a few arcane English words every now and then: archon, taiga, rhetor. Of course, the question comes up—-is this the translator’s work or the poet’s? Given the poet’s wide learning and fierce imagination, I’d doubt that those words are arbitrary.

The English-language poem written to American poets often has a vernacular tone and is winning for that. The point of this is that Ruxandra is a complex poet who tends toward the epic, the large.

The opening lines of the book are:

A panther is writing you, American poets,
Men and women with knives and trees in your heart,
Red teeth and violet tongues telling poems
About disemboweled solitude,
Smoky days and Saturnian nights,
Leaves and peppered harbors.
You are there, in the fountain of ashes.
I am here in the highway of my brain,
Trying to enter your heads through a warm surface,
Playing the guitar and singing with my tobacco voice,
Taking you near the moon in a game of hide and seek.
You have amnesia, I have amnesia,
We are both old flying through membranes and disasters,
While purple angels play trumpets
And the Apocalypse arrives sweet as a forgotten breeze.

The epic gestures capture the imaginative reader, but the poetry is so different than the average American poem which is usually conceived William Carlos Williams immediate. Americans are often solipsistic, even when well-intentioned. American poems are usually short lyrics, sometimes fashioned in the strictures of received forms, sometimes just thrown from the hip, no order but the shape of the words themselves in American speech. This Romanian poet has larger designs. The everyday contemporary image is often noted or invoked but there is a Jungian archetype that provides a shadow. Ruxandra is a maximalist, not a minimalist. She is a panther of the imagination, not a cute kitty cat or scruffy alley cat.

Ruxandra Cesereanu’s work is not an easy read. It isn’t a self-contained anecdote or a descriptive sketch. Sometimes the allusions and metaphors and symbols are difficult for an American to pin down, though poetry is usually expansive, not reductive. Prose is the language of explication. Poetry is the suggestive dance of emotion, and even if clothed with intellect, it is still the beating heart that matters, not the well-balanced brain.

Knowing a little Romanian history, and/or pulling up images of Cluj Napoca may help ground the reader to the poem “Crusader-Woman.” It doesn’t hurt to know what St. Michael’s church in Cluj looks like or to see the actual statue of Matei Corvin outside the church in the public square. Of course, that is a somewhat superficial vision. The true vision of a poem consists of the words that compose it. Ruxandra’s poems demand rereading. A glancing read is like knocking into a stranger on the street. The reader has to apologize, introduce themselves, and hope the poem reciprocates. Alan Britt, a teacher at Towson University, a Loch Raven Review editor, and a widely published and respected poet often says that the reader must use non-linear thinking in capturing a poem’s essence. What does that mean? It means to, first of all, enter into the sensuousness of words and be attentive to the cognitive and emotional suggestions of the words as they appear in the contexts of a poem. Is there an ambiguity suggested? Does one image lead to another, as if the word or phrase is waving to the reader to follow a particular line of thought. Sometimes the reader’s unfamiliarity with a word, concept, or image leads to confusion. A Romanian and an American could talk past each other, even if using one of their native languages, not realizing they aren’t communicating. On one level a poem “hits” the reader or doesn’t. If the reader doesn’t get something the first time, reread it. “Crusader-Woman” has a Key to the poem—-numbered notes about places, people, myths. It is helpful.

Here are a few comments that Ruxandra passed on to me answering my questions. The color “violet”, which appears often in her work “does not only mean death or decay, but also alchemical twilight, transformation, search.” Throughout “Crusader-Woman” many of the churches in the very real city of Cluj are mentioned, alluded to. The poet says this “I was more interested in a religious and cultural syncretism, not a typological panorama of the churches in my city. The idea was and is that I saw in my city a small center of the world. Stylistically, I was interested in composing a video of this poem.”

On the Crusader-Woman as a religious poem she writes: “it is not, as you understand, a religious poem, but a quest, an interior search for a sort of a center. It is also an alchemical poem, in a free way of thinking.”.

Cesereanu is a very complex poet. The reader can feel in her work the underground quaking of her inspiration, her spiritual and psychological searches. I wonder how the reader trained and accustomed to Tennyson felt when confronted with “The Wasteland.” Certainly, a seismic reaction to all the customary artifices of the time.

Between the two bookend poems, there are a number of shorter lyrics. I find some of them expressively thrilling. Cognitively I may be on a raft, not sure where I am in the wide ocean. I have some bearings. I see certain common images like Polaris, but I’m not sure of latitude and longitude. My cultural compass is either broken or I don’t have the skill to read it. However, I do feel the pulse of the ocean. Occasionally I am slapped in the face by a poetic wave. I sense the power on which my mind floats. A skeptic could say “you are drowning in incomprehension.” An optimist could say “you are alive in the poetry. You are along for the ride of your life. You are breathing heavy, powerful, life-giving air.” Which opinion expresses my location and my condition as a reader, as a human? The only way to determine this is to present an example of the literary art in question. The poem “The Immaculate Woman” which opens the second section of the book, is a shorter, expressive power-packed lyric Here is the whole poem so its full effect can be felt and appreciated.

The Immaculate Woman

Inside you, woman,
Your body is a stained-glass window.
Oh, untouched night!
Mules, mimes astride their backs, ride into the station.
The skulls of violet prelates
Line up at your feet and harmonize.
Far in the distance, the basilica is a ghost.
The wind from the steeple and the strumming guitars
Spread everywhere on the island.
Woman, your white spine is a lighthouse,
Tall and tearful, you tower
In night’s cream-thick glow.
O. tiny mother of a single son,
Always on the surface of time, venerated
By seven thousand unholy, lonely men.
Your wolfram thighs
Seem scissors for the unbelieving.
Writing of you, scribes clench their jaw in horror.
Your turgid scars balloon,
Tired pilgrims scramble inside you,
And the moon whistles, the moon whistles.
Lacemaker you are, Mary,
Dressmaker of saints.
Your deaf thighs jingle-jangle
In the ears of the much too worldly,
Your womb of fog is a famous killer.
You saunter by, sinuous in a head nurse’s uniform,
The scent of sleep lingering in your tracks.
White serpent,
You shed your sallow skin
As if slapping the winner’s face
With the loser’s banner.
It’s you who becomes the prize trophy
When the hunting horn sounds,
A deluxe rabbit, soft and plump,
Seven ova adorning your womb.
We catch your scent as you really are,
Like a silver-haired pensioner in a jar of spirits at the museum.
You sleep in chloroform, Mary.
And I wait and wait for the elevator to take me up to Jesus.

Let me offer some thoughts on this very unconventional poem. The Angelica’s of the conventional world would be aghast if they read this supposedly irreverent poem. I think this is a study of the persona Mary has become in the conventional eye. Mary is the ideal woman in Christian culture, but how much do we think of her as ideal, and how much do we relate her to real women, even the most ideal of them? The poem is critical, but not of a person but the centuries-old image that Mary has become. The poet attempts to put the impossible woman in her place as a not-so-desirable or even conscious person. If you give Mary reality in your imagination, you come across a real woman, physical (which also means biological), emotional, historical. The Mary of myth is as vacuous as any celebrity’s persona. The reality is more down-to-earth, free from sin or not.

From here I am going to delve into many of the individual lines of the poem as a rational sleuth, offering my thoughts on what the words and images may mean. It may be that the poet writes in a superior stream of consciousness and the images reflect or cause reflections of sensory reality and emotions but the ideas remain beyond rational comprehension, or that I as an average American reader am not up to deciphering the fast and furious puzzle that is this imaginative work of art. The general contours of the poem can be followed but the particulars don’t reveal themselves to rational linear discourse. I know this seems an insane and humiliating thing for a critic to say, but I feel the power, the expanse of the poem, her at times miracle-producing language. I attempt to make sense of the imagery to the best of my intuitive ability. What else can one do, but wait for a more informed and comprehending mind? I believe in the work of Ruxandra Cesereanu. Right now, it is in the shadows of America’s experience. Let us bring her to prominence. I want to read more of her work. I want the brilliance of her expressiveness to enter and illuminate my consciousness. I know of no other way to encounter a mystery but grapple with it. I know I’m wrong-headed about individual details of this and other poems, but, like I said above, I feel the pulse of her ocean.

The second line of the poem contains an image that I find superb—-“your body is a stained-glass window.” I just sit and marvel over the expressiveness of that. I think it is very understandable and illuminating in a metaphoric way.

The imagery of mules (donkeys). The station? A train station? The stations of the cross? Mimes? Christmas pageants perhaps. And don’t forget Christ riding in triumph into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

The skulls of violet prelates. Remember what “violet” means or could mean. The image, whether intended or not, reminds me of Francis Bacon’s painting of the screaming Pope Innocent. The image also reminds me of the obsessive morbid imagery of the Catholic Church, whole catacombs fashioned out of skulls and other bones. A very chilling and distasteful facet of the imperial Church.

Far in the distance, the basilica is a ghost. I see the shape of the Sacre Coeur in Paris. Other basilicas may come to mind to other readers.

Wind and strumming guitars—-the guitars have a deep meaning to our poet. It represents here, perhaps, the ritual of daily Mass. Island? The Isle de Paris which contains the Notre Dame or perhaps some site in Cluj or Romania in general—-that I don’t know, but the island in Paris would fit the bill.

White spine is a light house—-a magnificent image in itself. Spine connotes strength, perseverance. Also, I see the picture of an x-ray of a spine. Maybe that is an idiosyncratic idea.

Cream-thick glow—-magnificent image. Just saying the words do so much—-for me, at least. I wonder if it has the same effect in Romanian.

O tiny mother of a single son—-in contrast to the tall and tearful woman, tower. This line gets down to the basic humility which is often overshadowed by the impossible ideal majesty of the myth. Also, in a religious sense, you could say the holy Mother of All is the mother of one single son—-physically just one.

The surface of time—-the ideal playing against reality. 

Seven thousand unholy, lonely men—-the crux of the Catholic Church’s medieval neurosis. Christianity eschews women, real flesh and blood women. Sexual desire often has difficulty being sublimated. The Church scandals are created by a distorted and repressive view of natural sex, biology. And when vows are taken—-the flames of hell glowing in the quiet chambers of thought, what misery does the inhuman, unnatural ideal present?

Wolfram thighs? The Free Dictionary states  “See tungsten. [German Wolfram, wolframite, tungsten, from earlier, a mineral (possibly wolframite) with a sooty appearance that when present in tin ore made the extraction of tin more difficult: Wolf, wolf (because the mineral seemed to eat up tin as a wolf eats a sheep) (from Middle High German, from Old High German; see”  I’m at a loss with this adjective. Thomas Dorsett, an accomplished poet and somewhat a scholar of German literature, suggested “Could “Wolfram” be a reference to Wolfram von Eschenbach, a poet surely known to literary residents of Cluj.”

Maybe “wolfram” could be thought of as a combo of “wolf” and “ram” —-imagine the connotations of those animals and combine them somehow into picturing the thighs.

Scissors for the unbelieving—-sex—-cutting—-I haven’t pinpointed it but I have a negative and ironic feeling about it…

Turgid scars balloon? Scars of childbirth perhaps? The ideal Mary is being contrasted with the real Mary, a woman, rather than the celebrity of mythic proportions?

Tired pilgrims scramble inside you,
And the moon whistles, the moon whistles

Mysterious imagery. Perhaps the tired pilgrims don’t question but accept the ideal which is also contained in the edifice of a church and they go literally and figuratively into the house and ritual of worship. 

The moon whistling? The dead world of the moon? A wolf whistle? Whistling just as a tune? I don’t know but the image is intriguing. Diana or Artemis is the goddess who is the protector of young girls, virgins. Artemis was one of the goddesses of childbirth and midwifery. Didn’t Mary also assume such a role in Medieval society?

Lacemaker. Dressmaker of saints. Ordinary women, their biology, their imperfections are covered by the sanctity the myth weaves.

Your deaf thighs jingle-jangle—-Women don’t always realize the seductiveness of their thighs. Or is jingle-jangle something different than seductiveness? Is it the jingle-jangle of money—prostitution or just commercialism?

Your womb of fog is a famous killer—-a poem titled “The Killer” follows this poem. Check it out for possible illumination of its meaning. I’m not sure how this fits. Maybe it has something to do with the menstrual cycle and the biological elimination of an ova, but then again…

You saunter by in a head nurse’s uniform. An effective image, but how it exactly fits Mary? Saunter connotes relaxed, casual. Mary is seen as a head nurse but as one who is casual about pain and suffering. Has the habitual cliché of Mary as an intercessor made her too professional as the caretaker of the poor, the needy?

White serpent, you shed your sallow skin as if slapping the winner’s face with the loser’s banner.

White Serpent? The woman Eve in Eden could be called the White Serpent. Mary is now the new first mother of humanity. White because she is angelic, immaculate, sinless. Maybe it means that the humble win life’s contest for heaven. Those who aren’t beautiful and gifted have a better chance for Heaven’s love. Think of the parable of the rich man. Maybe, but maybe something else entirely. Check Wikipedia for the White Snake and the German Fairy Tae collected by the Brothers Grimm.

The seven ova? The number seven is God’s special number, for it signifies spiritual perfection and completion. The Bible mentions it more than any other number. Man considers it as a lucky number seven, but with God, there is no such thing as luck. It is all precision and perfection.

The last couple of lines are anybody’s speculation about Chloroform? A silver-haired pensioner in a jar of spirits at the museum?

These last images are odd. What do they have to do with the Mary, Mother of God story? Mary has gotten old through the centuries. She sleepwalks through her role as head nurse.  It has relevant meaning but what? Mary collects tickets for the elevator as a matron would as a volunteer or an employee at a museum. What is a jar of spirits? Certainly not whiskey.  Some kind of container like those that contain a genie? Some type of burial preparation? The emotional strength of the image is apparent in the words of this line. The literal relevance comes into question, but maybe a matron taking tickets for an elevator ride is well-known and a common sight in Romania.

The average American is not privy to all the symbolism of the poem. Perhaps there are scholars that could interpret the poem fully. I’ve only offered what I see and some of that interpretation is wrong. Perhaps it isn’t the emotional or symbolical meaning of a particular image, but the literal reality of it that is a problem. There were elevator operators in American department stores decades ago. Now almost all elevators are customer-operated. Is a mature woman collecting a small fee for the use of an elevator a common site in Romanian public buildings? I don’t know.

The average reader should be able to feel the power of the words and images. A perfect understanding on first reading can’t necessarily be expected. The first readers of Eliot’s Wasteland were scratching their heads. The literary cognoscenti had to come to the commoners’ aid.

Ruxandra Cesereanu’s poetry is original, speaks to the reader through bold, imaginative images. I recommend this book of poetry, but you have to be patient with it. It is like a jigsaw puzzle. You have to work at seeing how all the pieces fit but don’t stifle the subconscious mind’s reaction by over-analyzing with the rational mind. Experience the poems. There is nothing else like them.  

© Ruxandra Ceseranu and Dan Cuddy

Ruxandra Cesereanu is a Romanian poet, novelist, essayist, short story writer, and literary critic. Three of her books of poetry have been translated into English: Crusader-Woman; Lunacies; Schizoid Ocean. Cesereanu’s body of work ranges from her exploration of femininity and eroticism in her prose and poetry to an engagement with Romania’s communist legacy in her essays and journalism. (from World Literature Today)

Dan Cuddy is currently an editor of the Loch Raven Review. Most recently he has had poems published in the End of 83, Broadkill Review, Welter, the Twisted Vine Literary Journal, the Pangolin Review, Madness Muse Press, Horror Sleaze Trash, the Rats’s Ass Review, Roanoke Review.

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