“A must-read from start to finish, this is a story of lives under dictatorship in Romania. It has universal lessons for us all. Documents and illustrations are juxtaposed with the individual voices of protagonists. The language is astonishingly powerful throughout.” (Ian Seed, writer)
@ Peter Riley in ‘Poetry Notes’, The Fortnightly Review, July 2021:
‘I THINK THAT the form of intellection implied by Buried Gods Metal Prophets is a startling compound of telling detail and width of understanding, in handling severe political and social harm of kinds which might feel remote from our (“western”) experience (but are not).
The author is Romanian now living in UK, and the central concern of the book is with the enforcement of excessive social and economic control under the communist regime there. Among the results of this which were acknowledged after the revolution of 1989, were an epidemic of AIDS among children under four, and the notorious conditions of Romanian orphanages, which became a news item all over the world. In the central narrative, Stadnicka faces this double-headed monster through the experiences of a girl born in 1977 who was both institutionally orphaned and an “AIDS child”, and this is done so convincingly that it is tempting to wonder if she is not herself this child, who has somehow escaped it all and fled to England, and has written these books. We can’t of course know and it is better if we don’t — though one sentence in her acknowledgements list refers to her having gained “…the courage to approach and explore my experiences during the Cold War”. The writing could not be more authentic than it is, as the story of simply “the child”, who isn’t named except as “dog”, which is how most people referred to her, and “Bed 27”, which was the name given her on entry to St Joseph’s Home.
The ground is covered in various ways during the course of the book, but principally and most memorably through the individual experiences of the child in the orphanage: memories of hurts, moments of incomprehension, false hopes, momentary escapes… mostly told in a faulty learner’s English whether spoken or written, lineated or prose —
I figures out from what others say that I needs to avoid playin by the swings, in case I gets cuts, and bleeds over others. The same, I cannot use knivez-nd-forgz; for soup and such likes…
Why this child language is in English is not explained; it is taken for granted as necessary for transmission of the conditions the children had to live through. In the central narrative of the book, it occupies short items of poetry or prose very sharply grasping the felt contradictions and abuses of her imprisonment in anecdotal glimpses, but also pushing the writing towards the seriousness of poetry as it follows her life before and after the orphanage. The main point is that there is only her personal testimony; everything is seen through her eyes and felt by her body.
Her language is itself referred to in a catalogue of her defects as seen by the sister who announces to the class that she has AIDS:
Medical charts told her I’ve got a defect; head too big, eyes too wide, hands grip wrinkled words, build foggy stories out of brother’s muteness. A beast, not a girl. She repeats to the class, Beast.
This simple reporting, present or past tenses, readily slides into non-rational formulations (“hands grip wrinkled words”) which have not been crafted for the purpose but seem a natural resource of her limited repertoires; it may be a poetry-derived mode but the vocabulary, strong in physical terms, conveys what is meant unambiguously, and the clipped unelaborated manner identifies the speaker and it conveys exactly the experience of routine hurt. She calls it “long conversations between old and young wounds”. The naivety and apparent fidelity of the self-account empower the language towards abstraction or possibly a tense kind of symbolism, when it comes into contact with the wider world. But at its most serious the tone is allowed to develop towards the comedy of innocent misunderstanding which is inherent in the entire chosen mode, as in this exchange of gossip with her special friends (“Bed 28”)—
At the Showers, Bed 28 whispers to me she overheard Father Michael sayin to Sis’ Loretta we’ll have foreinayd soon. We ought to be clean, best behaved, in case foreignayd-people take pictures of us for the papers. What’s foreinayd? Dunno, she replies, it must be somefin good cause the kitchen floors got dizinfected.
Inserted into this storytelling of imprisoned children are quoted items of documentation which represent the whole political and bureaucratic exterior — the world, itself damned, which is responsible. Many of them appear to be state decrees which I’m sure are genuine, such as the banning of abortions (1966), and instructions to doctors never to diagnose HIV/AIDS, the existence of which is an official secret, its actual identity replaced by “occasional vascular dystonia” which is virtually meaningless.
There are also scattered through the book letters and documents, both public and private, with words blocked out by censors, representing the eyes of authority always trained on you. There are authorial interventions, especially as time passes, which look beyond the orphanage walls without delivering any actual hope, such as the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986, and Garry Kaspanov, the world chess champion from 1985, evidently a hero of hers (“I hopes that one day I gets better at chess and takes Kasparov’s place…”) who fails to retain the title in 2005 for reasons treated in the final text of the book as existential (realising that you are alone). There are also various diagrams, shapes, or pictures all probably classed as “illustrations” that punctuate the text throughout, mostly either very simple, like a blank square, or very complex.
Always the condition of the orphan child informs the expressive scope of the writing, which gains in strength both before and after the central orphanage section, without losing its grip on the pathos and absurdity of the writing. Sometimes the tension bursts out into techniques associated with the current Anglophone avant-garde, such as poems with about half the words blocked out in grey, though the effect is more of struggling to reach a working conveyance than of trying to avoid it.
All this forms an anti-context to the child’s life which is followed intermittently from birth (a failed abortion) to some sense of adulthood as the speaking voice of the poems (not all of which can be taken to be authorial) sheds its childhood tones and bears responsibility for the discourse. At both of these sites, before and after the orphanage, real poems become possible, free of the exceptionality (actually typical but concealed) which determines the anecdotal miniatures.
It is obvious, then, that as a book of poetry Buried Gods includes within its function a strong documentary responsibility, to reveal, or remind us, of the acts of one of the most disastrous national European policies of the cold war period, but almost entirely focused on the orphan child’s story. To a large extent this is delivered in damaged language, especially in the very touching struggle with English of the orphans, but this doesn’t class the poetry as “experimental” because there the damage is intended by the author as, among other things, a masking of and mystification of a coveted reality, and here it is a product of the conditions themselves. The quoted documents from Bucharest, meticulously correct in English, also use damaged language because they are intended to deceive and falsify, and to destabilize the concept of truth. At its wildest the language in Buried Gods has nothing to do with the wilful obscurantism and authorial claims of much “experimental” poetry.
The evidence against the regime piles up behind the life we are being shown, but does not transgress into other contemporary matters, such as the Soviet space programmes. We get to Chernobyl because, like the revolution, it did impinge on the child’s life in terms of suddenly disappeared persons. We don’t get any open denunciations of “communism” because the poetry refuses to quit the focus on particulars, including the locality, which is the strength of the whole project. An advantage of this closed scenario is that it is more difficult, when it comes at you in a show of pathos and courageous resource, to dismiss it as a finite issue. Bound to particularities, it steers clear of parallels. We are not referred to Mexican children torn from their families at the “wall”, we are not reminded of recent discoveries in the grounds of Irish Catholic orphanages. Such connections remain possible on the strength of the very uncluttered and specific nature of Stadnicka’s account but beyond that it is up to the reader.
This narrative cannot have a settled conclusion. Once you have been through the central crisis it is always with you. The final text in the book is an elegant retrospective centred on Kasparov, the former world chess champion, playing on without realising that the game ended some time ago, and suddenly noticing he is alone. This opens, as her writing sometimes does, into an Apocalyptic declaration—
I drink to my demolished house. My killer instinct plays the harp behind curtains. I am a dog reaching its hermit age. Shaped bones chase after me in the playground with rusty swings. Father, we don’t end up in paradise. We keep moving… I stop halfway across a bridge to witness the birth of new cities…
But this dynamic tension is not simply climactic. One of the finest moments is the second poem of the book, which is one of the few glimpses of her pre-orphanage life and is a simple scene with complex implications. I quote it entire —
Father’s Dog On the way home, we walk through a building site with half-bricked houses. My shadow hops alongside his, fireflies light up the top of a church. Look, the clouds, little girl playing mummy and daddy between metal cranes; she hums lullabies, her dolls float in the sky. Let’s take her with us, she’s barefoot. Father hurries ahead. His boots drag the field’s mud. His work-tools in a satchel over my shoulder. Let’s bloody leave it and go, he says. Let’s climb up, give her some fudge; she might be hungry. Father hurries ahead: Come along, dog, it’s dark.
Before and long after the orphanage, she is still “dog”. Every detail of this poem stands there in its own significance and at the same time stretches its mental inquiry into the far reaches of our lives though the story of Bed 27. I’m surely justified in finding this unity of lyrical and dramatic skill exceptional.
© Peter Riley, The Fortnightly Review, July 2021.
“Welcome to the “Sputnik Wing for irrecoverables”, St. Joseph’s Orphanage, Romania, where the state is doing all it can to cover up the true nature of the “irrecoverable” children’s condition. Between 1987-1991, at least 10,000 in Romania’s overcrowded orphanages were infected with HIV, believed to be caused by dirty needles used in vaccinations. In the poems of Buried Gods Metal Prophets, we witness this tragedy mainly through the eyes of two young children known only as “Bed 27” and “Bed 28”.
Between 1987-1991, at least 10,000 in Romania’s overcrowded orphanages were infected with HIV, believed to be caused by dirty needles used in vaccinations. In the poems of Buried Gods Metal Prophets, we witness this tragedy mainly through the eyes of two young children known only as “Bed 27” and “Bed 28”. Born in the late 1970s, like the author, they are part of the decretei, the generation of children born after the Communist government’s decree 770 placed severe restrictions on abortions and contraception. Everything they read and write is censored, even their Christmas letters to “Dear Comrade St. Nikolai.”
For these children the HIV epidemic is an accepted part of life, like the gas masks they are taught to use in ‘Morning Drill’, or their nocturnal abuse by Father Michael, or the forms they are given to fill in before Confession (“Tick committed sins, as appropriate”). And then there is bullying, the same the world over: one girl is teased, “Bed 28 is a boy’s name.” In extremis, the poems’ speakers still keep a sense of humour: “Frostbite overlooks me when it comes / nearby. I’m not that handsome./ Brother, you’ve got the looks.”
To write these poems, the UK-based Romanian poet Maria Stadnicka drew on a range of first-hand experiences – her siblings’ childhood in an orphanage, her own years working in one, and her interviews with women who carried out illegal abortions. That research shows through in the detail and the small rituals of these benighted lives – “We call them Soldiers, / Butts picked off at bus stations; lit / behind the canteen.”
Though the often have a tone of bruising directness, it would be wrong to cast these as straightforward accounts. Like Emily Dickinson, Stadnicka tells is slant. She juxtaposes poems in phonetic dialogue (“I cannot uze knives-and-forgz”) with reproductions of maps, censored documents and doctored reports (illustrated by Antonia Glücksman). These techniques recall the Peter Reading’s unsentimental, socially conscious cut-ups in Perduta Gente, but to them Stadnicka adds a tough surrealism that is all her own. When she creates dreamlike images, her tight diction gives them the bite of reality: “A stone grows in my mouth, / Between my flesh / and my heart, / rust.”
© Tristram Fane Saunders, The Telegraph, 2021
“Stadnicka’s fourth collection is inspired by the experiences of her siblings who lived in a Romanian children’s home during the time (1967-1989) when the Communist Party banned contraception and abortion. Around 12 million illegal abortions took place and over 250,000 children were placed in care homes and orphanages. The collection also draws on Stadnicka’s experiences as a teacher with HIV-positive children at a Romanian orphanage, and on interviews with women who performed illegal abortions. The book explores the effects of trauma and state oppression, as well as the realities of social, political and historical crises.
Stadnicka’s writing has a disquieting quality, which may be due in part to its difficult subject matter as well as the author’s own lived experience. The language is precise and austere, often relating shocking detail in a deadpan tone. ‘Radioactive milk’ relates how ‘One night / the curse shoots out of her womb / and starts walking. / For some reason / the newly born survives’. The book explores the tragic voices of both staff and abandoned children at the orphanages. One poem, written from the perspective of a child with AIDS, ends heartbreakingly, ‘I feel rather proud. / Someone has given me a name other than dog’. Forms include historical documents, short lyric poems, diary entries and textual experimentation. Keenly observed details add touches of surrealism: ‘The moon falls asleep / above your head’; an angel who ‘stops to light a cigarette’.
Maria Stadnicka is a Romano- British writer, editor and journalist based in Gloucestershire. Previous collections include Somnia and The Geometric Kingdom. Stadnicka is a PhD researcher at the University of the West of England, researching trauma and migration. Recognition for her Romanian work includes the Porni Luceafarul, Convorbiri Literare and T Arghezi awards.
A compelling collection from an independent press. The book is beautifully made and designed with haunting illustrations by Antonia Glückman, which enhance its atmosphere of darkness and tragedy.”
© Jennifer Lee Tsai, Mslexia, No. 89, March – May 2021
” There are many voices in these poems about degradation, fight, resilience and defeat. There is defiance, and some ‘needs-must’ wry humour, but in the regular resignation – a kind of strength when that is all you can produce – it is deeply despairing. That the collection begins with Radioactive Milk, a poem which births the horrors of both its (and the whole book’s) reality and symbolism, it is not surprising there’s a dark portrayal of suffering and, at best, some kind of basic survival.
The other ‘voice’ – one that works with and against the poetic – is contained in the documents and notes and reports and diagrams and other similar that set the scene/s of orphanage, alienation, abuse, doctors/medical, government, history and so on. Stadnicka’s poetry has such a startling ability to move into the expanse beyond this – where it needs to be exploring in and around the actual – that these other reminders are anchors to what should be an extraordinary context, but is in human history a bleak norm.
There are so many threads I would like to follow and unravel here, but I have only just finished a complete read and know I will want but also have to return to begin tying these together. I don’t mean that’s a necessity to be engaged and moved by the full narrative of these memorable poems. I mean that is what I want to do, because I am so engaged. To share a few impressions: the child Stupid (as so-called, though clearly not as the observations reveal) talks of pulling teeth – having to pull out one’s own teeth – and so when this reference point appears again in a poem like Sister’s Night Shift, it resonates in its differing reveal,
are falling over the courtyard’
This is a line among others that are both stark, bleak but also beautiful-haunting, like so much in these poems,
‘…the bell ringing above my desk
is a wolf’s howl, lost in a snow storm’
One further ‘teeth’ reference is found later in the poem Homología,
‘Sister knows which lie sounds better
at regular check-ups – Eat your fruit –
but I find baby teeth buried
in each apple. One bite, and seeds fall
on my breast, swell like a season’
Although I have returned to the text to confirm and quote these, this is the kind of poetic thread that pervades in the reading because of the quality of its writing. One other to mention in this brief visit, is a line that sparkled on a first read, from the poem Leftovers, a poem where we learn why Stupid was given that name, and it is swelled with a tenderness and a spurt of imagery (you’ll see it when you read) that illustrates the power of these poems to portray its darkness and the acceptances, but also kindnesses, that make life bearable,
‘The day she turns eight, I give her a biscuit
I kept for ages under the mattress. She kisses
my hand, breaks the cookie in small pieces,
eats only half. Stupid says the smell
of fresh bread makes the yard spin green stars
and my eyes burst into crumbs’
All the voices speak their experiences and truths through Stadnicka’s poetic representation, but they also clearly speak through the poet’s personal wisdom. This is conveyed without any sense of polemic and yet is potent as reflection on something that has actually happened. And it is potent in the assured poet’s voice, as in these closing and moving three stanzas from the poem Brotherhood,
‘You bring the worst fear of all:
hope, which doesn’t say anything,
only sleeps in salt lumps
between layers of ageing bones.
It follows life at St. Joseph’s home.
My hands rise to cradle a baby
whose face bears the bruise of law.
If you find my mother, buy her
flowers, tell her violence is not
the worst that can happen.
I drift away following water drops
deep into the well’s mouth;
hope shines there below zero.
In descent, my eyes meet the stare
of the mute god of metal. Home.’
© Mike Ferguson, 2021
“UK-based Romanian poet Maria Stadnicka’s forthcoming Buried Gods Metal Prophets, published by Guillemot Press, is an astonishing collection of poems, and a testament to the tens of thousands of children who grew up in Romanian orphanages under Nicolae Ceaușescu. Bringing together historical documents of the era, lines of other authors with her “censoring” interventions, and Stadnicka’s own moving poetry, this is the poet’s fourth collection both written and published in English.
Drawing from her own experiences as a teacher at an orphanage in the eastern Romanian town of Botoșani, as well as from interviews with women performing illegal abortions, and her own siblings, who lived in an orphanage before they started school, Stadnicka says this book “cements her personal interest in reopening the subject of the trauma lived by the decreței” — the generation of Romanians born between 1967 and 1989, following Ceaușescu’s abortion ban. While the number of abandoned children surged over those 23 years, a parallel phenomenon also took place: working parents lacking the funds, childcare facilities, or relatives, to look after their offspring, often sent their children away to be raised in orphanages. Indeed, this was the case of the HIV-positive children Stadnicka worked with in the Botoșani orphanage. Her own parents toiled in three different shifts at factories, with no remaining time for their five children. “I was raised by my grandparents and other relatives, while my siblings were raised by the state,” she says.
© Paula Erizanu, The Calvert Journal, 2021
‘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)
Somnia was included among the best books to read during 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, May 2020)
‘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). 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). 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.
(Emma Lee, 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).