‘One of the best books of poetry I’ve read this year is Maria Stadnicka’s extraordinarily vivid collection, Somnia.’ (Ian Seed, writer and academic, author of New York Hotel, a TSL Book of the Year)
Included in the best books to read in pandemic by The Telegraph arts critics: ‘Dark, surreal fables, often set in war-torn or oppressive states, from a poet who has won 12 national prizes for poetry in Romania. If you like Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic and the weirder poems of Charles Simic, then buy this at once.’ (Tristram Fane Saunders, The Telegraph)
‘Stadnicka’s poetics is one of craftmanship, wherein she carefully walks the tightrope of surreal poetic metaphor and the gritty realism of investigative journalism and broadcasting. Drawing on her experiences in both, Stadnicka’s writing culminates into a distinctly inventive literary landscape. […] Stadnicka guides the reader into a freefall in which she bears witness again and again to a group of people who experience a crime when coming out of a cinema. Here, the author’s journalist approach curates a community, held together in both an instance of trauma and throughout the poetic text that follows.’ (Briony Hughes, Stride Magazine, Oct. 2019. The full review is available here.)
‘First and foremost, this is a wonderful collection: every poem is an evocative and moving vignette of personal/persona observation at its most poignant as well as uncertain. As readers we cross over surprises to arrive at others – the spaces between are landscapes of everywhere we have and haven’t been, transient like some memories, and as fixed as recurring dreams.
As an entity – the poems so often reveal their menace in pervasive rather than direct ways. they work in partnership by a different kind of sharing: obviously, the poetic which is the richly imaginative connections across and within the poems [the superb impact of all], and then there are the forces beyond individual control where our lives are determined by a common dissembling of what we thought was free-will and personal, decisive experience – and this is what we consistently read in them.
Somnia is consistently alluring and enigmatic in its poetic voice. What compels isn’t just the draw into many mysteries, but also Stadnicka’s calm creativity in conveying, for example, the horrors and/or abstractions of these – her poetic voice completely comfortable in its suggestiveness: inventive, provoking, highly visual.’ (Mike Ferguson, International Times, Sep. 2019. The full review is available here.)
“Somnia” by Maria Stadnicka, pub. KFS. 74pp. £10.00
Maria Stadnicka was an established poet in Romania before moving to the UK and gaining a reputation as an English-language poet. This collection is therefore resonant with European and modernist echoes; the text references Camus, Symborska and Emil Cioran, among others, and the influence of surrealism is evident throughout the collection. The poems are written in the plainest language, without much rhetorical embellishment; and yet, as in the best poetry, the meanings are hard to pin down and the poems have a depth of field which stays with the reader after the book has been put down. The poems address war and dislocation in an unnamed land which could be many places, but reminds the reader of the Balkans conflict of the 1990s. The encounter between everyday life and shock of conflict is presented in a dead-pan tone:
On both sides of the frontline,
People buy and sell goods,
occupy central squares…
Business as usual.
Gunshots, grenades, mortars.
(from “Landscape with Buses”)
Everyday scenes have a sinister air, enhanced by surreal imagery:
I went to town and took pictures
of people in queue at the shopping mall…
The sun kept in its corner and watched
the autumn busking indoors
when a beggar stopped, asking everyone
for directions to the nearest abattoir.
The poems are clearly ‘about’ something; the encounter between warfare and everyday, often banal scenes from normal life, and the trauma of flight and dislocation. But this is not plain reportage, and whatever political message it carries is delivered with a lightness of touch that doesn’t propagandise or browbeat the reader. On the contrary, these poems are understated and retain an air of mystery; they give us insights into lives and experiences that couldn’t be delivered in any other way except in poetry. They also encompass the guilt and powerlessness of those viewing events from a distance:
…to become responsible
for a bullet wound, though we have
no memory of ever using a gun,
in the name of each person wishing to be free.
(from “The Gift’s Legacy”)
Many contemporary poetry books have a ‘theme’ – maybe it’s something suggested in creative writing classes – and so often the theme becomes more important than the poetry, leading to predictable and programmatic writing. That’s not the case with “Somnia”. The poetry remains poetry, its light lyricism and pleasure in words defeating attempts at literal interpretation. Here’s the complete poem “Mundane Evil”:
There was a wake going on
in a floor crack. So much old wood
talked back in mother’s tongue
through the opening that I thought
to wait longer for the right moment
and then a close friend pointed out
the rupture took shape, got wider.
My womb coughed out pieces of rubble.
This is a strange poem. The last line could be seen as a metaphor for the perpetuation of violence from one generation to the next, but that’s only one interpretation, and in fact the line, and the whole poem, is elusive and mysterious and strangely compelling. The remarkable thing about this collection is that it tackles the very specific issues of violence, dislocation and trauma in language that is as elusive as that in the poem above. It is poetry rather than documentary.
Stadnicka is not a native English speaker, and it’s interesting to speculate on the properties of poetry written in a second language. In an email to the reviewer, Stadnicka had the following to say in this subject:
“I suppose … my poetry is ‘other than British.’ The metaphoric range is different, the feel might be different, even though I use the English language when I shape my poems.”
What might “other than British” mean? One thing already mentioned is the influence of European modernism and of surrealism, that latter being a movement that never really took firm hold in British culture (the poetry of David Gascoyne notwithstanding). Another feature might be the quality of the language. The flat tone and plain expression make the description of the subject matter that much more powerful and lacking in any sensationalism. There are no poeticisms, and that may be one of the benefits of coming to the language afresh, from a different linguistic basis. It’s hard to imagine someone raised in the UK having written poetry like this. In the same email, Stadnicka says:
“It is impossible to discuss my writing without considering the impact oppression and dictatorship had on me as an individual. Once you experienced life in an orphanage with children dying of AIDS, or you are woken up at midnight to take part in a practice drill for an eventual nuclear attack, once you experienced dictatorship, there is no turning back when writing.”
This is outside the experience of most UK-raised poets; it inevitably affects the poetry, and therefore adds something new to British poetry in addition to the cultural influences mentioned above.
The poems are short and have individual titles, but the collection has a broader architecture; it’s divided into four ‘movements in F minor’ and has an epilogue and a prologue. The overall book is dedicated “to Cain and Abel, and all their neighbours”. The prologue is in the form a witness testimony, and the epilogue is also addressed to “your Honour”. So the book – to put it grandly – is putting humanity on trial. The four movements have distinctive features. The first movement, allegro, introduces us to world of dislocation and conflict, in which “the bullet hits the edge of my book / then sinks into earth like a poem”. The second movement, largo, slows the pace down and shows us a more personal side to these experiences: “When I collected my father’s ashes… I thought to keep them hidden in a pencil case”. The third movement, scherzo, addresses the ways in which art confronts the experience of war; there is a poem called “Kafka”, and another, “Lieder for Two Pianos” in which “half-swallowed lullabies found you / growing hazel-eyed whispers inside my body”. The last section is called “finale” and deals with consequences:
Orphans but free, the cloth says
then keeps talking to me
about the people I once loved,
who vanished during a blast
as if they had never existed.
If the description of the four movements above makes the collection seem formulaic, this is certainly not the case. This poetry is mysterious, and individual poems can have an almost spiritual effect, like Zen koans or proverbs. In the last movement, the title poem “Somnia” gives us an executioner falling asleep “with his back against a sharp blade”. In this poem, the violence comes from sleep and dream, and therefore from the human sub-conscious. The poems throughout the collection have a dream-like quality, and despite their directness and plain-speaking – or maybe because of it – offer a sense of mystery, and psychological insight. (Alan Baker, Litter Magazine, 1 March 2020) Review available here.
‘There is such a quiet bravery to this brilliant and powerful collection by Maria Stadnicka. It’s a beautiful, potent book.’ (Anna Saunders, March 2020, CEO Cheltenham Poetry Festival)
Billed as ‘Four Movements in F Minor’, Somnia is split into parts, ‘Allegro’, ‘Largo’, ‘Scherzo’ and ‘Finale’. The poems explore living through terrorism and fear, although these themes could be metaphorical or literal since the poems’ concerns focus on the effects on people living through these times. From ‘Allegro’, ‘Witness’ takes place a supermarket where ropes are on sale and shoppers talk about the pending hurricane,
Across the isle, a women looks out.
Trains deliver milk and morning newspapers;
at the end of his shift, a night watchman
lights a cigarette watching umbrellas running
to shelter. He has nowhere else. His children
sent him a blank telegram. Monochrome winds,
he thinks. Time to repair, to build.
The house he was born in no longer exists.
The punch of the last line carries a heft in contrast to the seemingly mundane routine of everyday lives. As others are hurrying home to shelter from adverse weather, the watchman has no one else to be concerned about him. In ‘Defence Mechanism’ from ‘Largo’, a questions throws a person,
across the chess table
unsure of what bishops,
rooks, pawns are for
in this game.
Would you kill a bird?
the angel asks.
A stone grows
in my mouth.
Between my flesh
and my heart,
The poet is Romanian and lived through a political regime of a dictator, secret police and general paranoia where neighbour reported neighbour to save themselves form arrest. The question isn’t necessarily about a bird, but could you kill to save yourself? Can you do what it takes to survive?
Somnia is accomplished and timely, built on acute observation and drawn without judgement. The poems focus on the darker sides of humanity, the intrusion on every day lives by the political forces and show solidarity with those simply trying to protect family and survive.
(The Journal, 29 June 2020)
‘The Unmoving is a dark and delicious exploration of post war landscape. Maria Stadnicka’s beautifully crafted lines cut like a knife, her poems come to the page like water from a deep well, only the well has been poisoned. Masterfully succinct and shrouded in Stadnicka’s trademark sense of mystery, The Unmoving is as vivid a poetry chapbook as you’re ever likely to read’ (Broken Sleep Books, 2018).
The Unmoving, Maria Stadnicka (32pp, £5/$7, Broken Sleep Books)
‘Maria Stadnicka’s pieces from The Unmoving are exceptionally accomplished, puzzling, rich, linguistically aware yet full of dark emotional stuff: ‘A chill sliced through the city / awoken stone rolled over the main road / as if that slippery thought / / crossed my wrist’ (Steve Spence, 2019, Litter Magazine).
“A chisel, a hammer, a lyre; reportage, intimate feelings, quips and criticisms. Maria Stadnicka’s poems are clusters of consciousness, graphic, material images of our world. Her language assaults, bends, cajoles, thrusts a saber into the darkness of the very language she employs to explore death, degradation, the non-recognition of the human individual, war, urban violence, in short, the all-too-present context of our daily lives. Is there an element of grace, a lyrical thread, an invocation of human beauty? Yes, if one can continue to believe in this beauty while contemplating the profound alienation and marginalization that characterizes contemporary Western societies.
Although Stadnicka writes in English, her native language, Romanian, is always close to the surface of the words, forging and sculpting the associations that create the poems’ presence. Her language mirrors the human mind, elliptical at times, obsessional from time to time, fragile and reflective when the moments present themselves. ‘A moon of salt unravels / the shadow between years, / unfolding a passage / grey chapter about mortality’ offers a lyrical entrance to the book. The reader moves swiftly into the core of Stadnicka’s vision, ‘the wounds of freedom’.
One of the most beautiful poems in the book is ‘Restitutio’. Transformation of thought and body occurs as the voice of the poem articulates the ars poetica, an incendiary gesture born out of an already-condemned historical contex:
I covered my face with black ink
rounded all my possessions up
set fire to everything.
The gods hid in a poem
with a fresh loaf.
Just us now slicing away
to the end of my days.
What concerns Maria Stadnicka? How do these strangely forced collages that are hermetic and yet entirely exposed allow the reader entrance to her world? She is speaking about the discontinuity of personal space and the intrusion of economic and political forces in an individual’s life that leads to fragmentation and, ultimately, to the dissolution of one’s reality. The chance for the existence of a future or even the future is removed. Literature becomes the communication and solidarity that permit the step towards wholeness. In Stadnicka’s poems social, personal, and literary landscapes are fused and at times must be forcibly dislocated, both repositioned and torn apart, so that one can continue. The reader is drawn to the quote from Czeslaw Milosz that frames the book: ‘So much guilt behind them and such beauty!’
The title poem, ‘The Unmoving’, dislocates the predictability of images and pulls together the motifs of Stadnicka’s poetry. A book slips, the world is seen as ‘a time-capsule sent flying into space’, a missile wakes the ‘half-dreaming’ narrator, someone is walking down the motorway, people materialize with a dog for sale, ‘The music absorbed what was left of Rana Plaza’ and the reader is once again confronted with the Savor Building collapse that killed 1,134 people in Bangladesh. The narrator is displaced and ‘The ground settled between reference points.’
In a sense, The Unmoving is a defense of the marginalized, the poor, the displaced and disabled. The poems create a sense of urgency and mystery. The only escape from the imposed absolute of non-being is resolution to go forward illogically and irrationally free. ‘For the first time, I / walked. Blind, absent. / I became tomorrow’ (Andrea Morehead, Osiris, 2018).
‘These are poignant and pertinent poems – and they do move, by the way – from Maria Stadnicka and are in another fine Broken Sleep Book publication you can get.’ (Mike Ferguson, writer [The full review, here.])
‘I’m not sure whether English is Maria Stadnicka’s second or third language (her country of origin is Romania) but what she accomplishes in these mainly minimalist texts is something quite special.
There’s an underlying sense of ‘exile’ which permeates the whole collection and a quality of empathy with suffering, particularly related to those who are alienated within an environment, for whatever reasons. Her mixing of narrative snippets (the syntax and grammar are straightforward) with experimental jousts and fragmentary dislocation are central tenets here, which tend to make the reader focus in on every line and its relation to those around it.
There’s certainly a sculptural quality to this writing, a combining of a hint of a lyric voice which is enveloped in a darkly surreal context, or series of contexts. ‘Meaning’ is evasive, suggested and to be ‘worried over’, in the sense that these are not easy poems to assimilate but the difficulty is part of their success and engaging with them is well worth the effort, stimulating, thought-provoking and at times quite shocking. They are not exactly impenetrable but the sense of alienation you may experience in attempting a reading is probably analogous to that of ‘the protagonists’ and the ‘I’ of the narrative voice where it exists.
The overall ‘mood’ is one of distance/dislocation and while the images are often direct and full of impact – ‘Back home from the cinema / I stumbled over a man in a pool of blood’ (from ‘Eyewitness 73) – there remains a sort of penumbral ‘out-of-focus’ quality which is quite unnerving. (…) There is certainly a sense of the ‘dark beauty’ of Czeslaw Milosz in this poetry and it’s no surprise to see him referred to in the prefacing quotations'(Steve Spence, writer, Litter Magazine). [Full review here.]
‘Maria Stadnicka’s poetry is the most exciting I have read for some time. Her particular experience in Romania means that the political is not an option: she embraces it. Her work is on the frontline, also underscored by her background in journalism and broadcasting. But the genius of her poetry is to take the literal beyond itself into memorable and surreal flights of metaphor, while remaining firmly anchored at the same time. For English readers, her poetry is ‘other’; and I welcome that at a time when poetry needs to wake up to the contribution it can make at this time of transition and transparency. Our task as poets is to ‘see’: to divine a deeper reality. Her truth-gaze is unswerving‘ (Jay Ramsay, writer, editor).
“Spare and honed, and full of lyrical power, Maria’s poetry packs a punch.” (Anna Saunders, writer, CEO and founder of Cheltenham Poetry Festival)
“The simple grey and black cover of this book –texture perhaps taken from a tree or wall, with a white crack or line separating author’s name and book title – is in many ways apt for what the reader find inside: a collection of beguiling, uneasy poems that probe ideas of love, politics and human experience.
The work reminds me of Charles Simic’s and Yannis Ritsos’ poetry (I don’t mean it is derivative), and also the gentler end of Vaska Popa’s work. There is the same clarity of images and voice with little metaphor or allusion. Instead a kind of surrealism is at work in the direction the narratives take, in the thought processes being evidenced with their jumps and asides, their sometimes awkward and surprising conclusions. In ‘Settlement’ the narrator has ‘no further questions’ for God, so instead offers him a ham sandwich; in ‘Bad Luck’ the poem moves from a fall through Googled medical self-assessment to burns and then self-immolation, but even as the house burns a neighbour pops in to talk about the weather and running out of tea bags. In Good Bye Then Clara’s giggle melted in a slice of bread.
As Jay Ramsay points out in his back cover blurb, in many ways this poetry is ‘other’. This may be because of Stadnicka’s experiences growing up in Romania, the effect on her of the Cold War, a slight awkwardness in the details of English (e.g. ‘Good Bye Then’ or ‘it stopped me / understand the real life’) or simply her poetics. Whatever, Stadnicka has now found a home in Stroud, in language, and clings on to a hope that underpins the poems, even if this is belied by poems like ‘The Calais Sea’, where
After weeks and weeks of travels,
for the last time, I put my bags down.
I am done with hope.
The lingering tragedy
of what I could be if
we had the right words for tomorrow.
Elsewhere, in a world of inevitable death, madness, broken families, soldiers, barbaric politics and dehumanization, even when there are ‘no other survivors’, ‘even without a language’, Stadnicka defiantly demands that she ‘go on / being allowed to hope’. And does.
This an exciting and urgent first book of poems, that gives me hope for contemporary poetry. I look forward to the next instalment of Maria Stadnicka’s questionings, rememberings and imaginings.” (Rupert Loydell, writer and editor Stride and International Times)
“Wonderful book. Not an easy read, but a slow and developed meditation of what it means to be living in a century which isn’t going as well as we’d had reason to hope. Imperfect, indeed. (And also about how things ‘used to be’ in the grammatical sense of ‘imperfect’.) The blend of multiple shades of English is powerfully employed” (Philip Rush, writer, editor, director Yew Tree Press).
“Transformative. I listened to ‘Imperfect’ and it was icily, flaringly clear….the words heard with the inner ear (some call it the ear of god). When listened to so, do penetrate and stir to a clarity of upheaving perception” (Rick Vick, poet).
“Maria Stadnicka’s latest collection of poetry ‘Imperfect’ provides touching snapshots of ordinary life, whilst also serving as an expression of her experience during the Cold War. (…) I am deeply moved. The England she hints at is far more faceted than the one I see on the news. Her poetry, whether exploring her experience here or in Europe, makes me see my country – with all its pockets of tender and mournful instances – with fresh eyes” (Anna Bailey, journalist, Good on Paper).
“Maria’s poems are restrained and precisely crafted miniatures: enigmatic narratives shot through with dark humour and surreal detail, they are eminently political, but rarely tackle Politics (with a capital P) head on. In all of these respects, they put me in mind of the work of Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, yet there also seem to me to be echoes of Kafka: the poems record fragile surface realities, beneath which lurk the symptoms of violence and oppression. This is a poetry of unease, and all the more honest for that, but also ultimately a poetry of hope, recording the struggle of the subject to maintain its integrity in troubled times” (David Clarke, editor, poet, author of The Europeans, Nine Arches Press).