Vol 5 (14) / 2014
Romanian poets’ literary interest in Gypsiness emerged at the beginning of the nineteenth century with the singular epic poem entitled The Gypsiad, by Ion Budai-Deleanu. Determined or not by socio-political circumstances, a number of other Romanian poets have been inspired by the ethno-racial particularities of the Gypsies ever since. Recent research shows that the image of the Gypsy in Romanian literature in general has differed from that in Western literature. This article explores a selection of poems related to Gypsiness, whose substance and subject vary significantly from one epoch to another, and argues that the early twentieth century focus on ethnicity and race diminished during the communist regime, because of its rather assimilationist cultural politics, to eventually reach a budding plurality after 1989. More specifically, it examines the roles of poetry in blurring the colour line [i] between Gypsy and Romanian subjectivities and in reconfiguring Roma / Gypsy or mixed identities through poetry over the last decades of democratic regimes.
Keywords: Romanian poetry, Gypsy or Roma identity and culture
1. Recent comparative studies on the image of the Gypsy in Romanian and in European literature show that the Romanian literary discourse has been slightly different from the Western one. While the West has produced two perspectives on the Gypsy character – one connected with marginality and one related to the exotic –, in Romanian literature marginality dominates the discourse. While the Western range of Gypsy characters often includes idealized figures, the characters in Romanian high literature and folklore are more realistic and constructed on the binary opposition familiar/strange[ii]. Indeed, although the attitude of the Romanian elite has been to ignore or to develop an ambivalent stance regarding Gypsiness, the discrepancy between the history of social exclusion and the presence of Gypsy characters, culture and spirituality in the aesthetic domain has not been as high as in the West. More than eight hundred years of cohabitation between the local traditional communities and the migratory Gypsy tribes in Eastern Europe have created such a tight relationship, that Gypsiness is too close to be considered exotic and most fictional characters are often similar to the real Gypsies, whose social status has varied from one regime to another. In the context of balkanization [iii] – understood as a specific and local form of cultural hybridity – romanianization and gypsization have been socio-cultural processes that have gone hand in hand, yet in different manners and proportions and with different effects on each side. Although cultural hybridity should be based on mutuality and a third space of negotiation, it often lacks balance and the neutrality of the third space remains just an ideal. While many excellent works by Romanian authors tackle subjects connected with Gypsiness, the number of Gypsy authors – or Roma, if we consider the Roma social activism of the last two decades – is very small in Romania for numerous reasons such as: the mainly oral character of Romani language before 1989, which, however, has changed lately due to the introduction of new academic programmes; the relative lack of education among the Roma population, in spite of assiduous affirmative campaigns; the preference of many educated Roma from mixed marriages to draw a veil over their ancestry; the rather transnational character of the current Roma literary canon; the difficulty of assuming an identity which is frequently demonized by mass media and public opinion etc.
2. Taking such contextual details into account, this essay explores the role of poetry as an aesthetic mirror in dealing with socio-cultural matters, in projecting modern views on otherness and identity and in reconsidering the nature of the national literary canon. In particular, it discusses the modes in which a number of Romanian poets interpret the cultural politics regarding the Roma / Gypsy, characteristic to different historical epochs. It reviews a range of attitudes to Gypsy culture, several possible causes and effects, plus their social, cultural and ethnologic meaning. It starts from The Gypsiad (1800) by Ion Budai-Deleanu, continues with several poetic productions from the twentieth century and ends with post-1989 poems by Roma and non-Roma authors.
3. Long before poet Mihai Eminescu composed his masterpieces, the son of a countryside priest from Transylvania, Ion Budai-Deleanu, wrote the epic poem The Gypsiad (1800), yet not published before his death in 1820. Discovered only after about half a century, the manuscript began to attract its first literary critics. Budai- Deleanu was a writer very aware of the post-French Revolution social, political and cultural context and he had the intuition and the talent to design such “a toy”[iv] – as he called his work – that approaches significant issues related to cultural identity and otherness. In line with future Romanticism, he did not ignore folklore, especially that type concerning the relationship between Romanians and Gypsies. However, most our contemporary historians and literary critics agree that the political conditions of Transylvania in the first half of the nineteenth century constitute the main reason why Budai- Deleanu’s work would have meant too much for the Romanian elite. His socio-political, ethno-cultural satire would have been unbearable for the local boyars and equivalent to a cultural revolution in one of the provinces of the Austrian Empire[v]. Nonetheless, following the classic moralist Western fashion and drawing on Homer, Budai-Deleanu conceived a world described as “the white Gypsihood”. Thus, from a socio-cultural perspective, he attempted to reveal Gypsies’ humanity and heroism and, simultaneously, to criticize the local clergy’s mentality and lifestyle.
4. The critical reception of The Gypsiad has varied from one epoch to another. Critics often judged Budai-Deleanu’s fictional Gypsies by comparing them with the real ones or even ignored their positive Gypsiness, being preponderantly interested in the aesthetics of the work itself and less ready to admit its cultural, social and political implications. For example, Cornel Regman (1939) praised the “realism, power of portrayal and satirical observation in depicting the Gypsy people”, while commenting upon “the hugely grotesque idea of asking the Gypsies to conceive their own country”[vi]. His remarks, made just a few years before the concentration camps, reflect the interwar gap between ethics and aesthetics related to the presence of the Gypsy in Romanian literature. Nicolae Manolescu (2008) argues that The Gypsiad is a baroque work on the theme of human condition, similar to the epic poems of the Italian Renaissance and to Don Quijote, rather than simply a comic epic poem, as some critics considered before 1989. He also rejects its merely ethnic character, previously invoked by the literary critic George Călinescu. However, like Călinescu, Manolescu appreciates more its aesthetics rather than its ethical content, considering it “an epic poem of literature itself rather than one about Gypsies”, because, indeed, its complex structure displays a large number of literary techniques. Yet, there are some critics, such as Ovidiu Pecican[vii], who claim that Budai-Deleanu’s work is “a socio-political manifest whose radicalism surpasses any plan or political strategy of the epoch” and “a political pamphlet under the guise of a fable”. Other commentators point out its underlying mysticism and occultism, masonic symbolism and folk magic, which make sense as a set of subversive ideas in the context of the Habsburgic despotism and as a form of survival[viii]. Insisting on the values of democracy, the postcommunist transitional regimes made possible no less than three “translations” from the Romanian language of the nineteenth century into the language of the contemporary reader. The best of them, signed by Traian Ștef, is a prose rewriting of The Gypsiad and, unlike the other two versions, preserves the dialogic meaning of the footnotes. Traian Ștef denies too that The Gypsiad is simply a comic piece of writing and describes it as “that folly of foundation which makes us shudder”[ix].
5. Taking all these perspectives into consideration, The Gypsiad emerges as a unique visionary epic poem, which combines elements of interest to cultural studies and promotes universalist, humanist values, and does not exclude the idea of failure, as a condition for progress. Although the title implies a series of adventures in which mainly Gypsies are involved, the overall picture is carnivalesque and centered on a concealing type of cultural hybridity rather than on revealing Gypsies’ real socio-political situation at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a trend which has continued over the decades, up to the present.
6. In the twentieth century, there were several poets who wrote about Gypsiness and its relationship with the majority: some authors adopted ethnic and anthropologic perspectives (Octavian Goga, Tudor Arghezi, Rady Gyr, Nichita Stănescu etc.), while others preferred a more abstract or syncretic poetic style (Nichita Stănescu, Gellu Naum, Gabriela Melinescu etc.). While the former perspective is more essentialist and is specific to the first part of the twentieth century, the latter is rather universalist and accompanies the assimilationist cultural policy specific to the communist epoch. None of these authors were of Gypsy origin.
7. Among other symbolic figures of the countryside, such as the ploughmen, the teachers or the socmen, whom the Transylvanian poet Octavian Goga (1905) evokes in his debut volume, the locally famous old fiddler Laie plays a special role. Laie is both an endearing name that comes from Nicolaie and a word that designates a Gypsy camp or family. The poet describes the art of the fiddler and his empathic capacity, reveals his significant influence in the community and his bond with the natural environment. A poem about Laie’s death, entitled “He died…” captures the mourning atmosphere in his family. The scene in which his wife Blackberry and their son sit beside the dead is supplemented by details that speak about poverty, sorrow and survival. It is one of the not many poems in which a Gypsy woman’s thoughts are formulated. In another poem – “By Laie’s Grave” – the poet expresses two aspects related to the ideas of community and nation. Laie’s death is compared with a journey to better countries, while his musical skill is characterized as able to unite people. Octavian Goga imagines what might have happened with Laie’s destiny in an ideal world, ruled by Christian figures: he believes Laie’s songs can make God cry, which could change people’s destinies.
8. In the years before, during and after the Second World War, there have been four collections designed on Gypsy themes. Although they have the picturesque Gypsy ethos in common, locating the characters in a marginal social position, the four collections show different poetic styles. Mildew Flowers (1931) by Tudor Arghezi – a volume inspired by his years spent in prison, due to political reasons – includes an ars poetica, which dwells on the uncanny:
“When my celestial nail was worn blunt and low
I wanted to let it grow
And it never grew back in place –
Or maybe I did not recognize its face.”
9. The poem ends with a confession that might be interpreted as the poet’s affinity for the left-wing cultural politics of inclusion:
“It was dark. In the distance, outside, I could hear the rain.
And my hand felt like a claw through the pain,
Incapable to extend,
So I forced myself to write with the nails of my left hand[x]“
10. The collection contains poems about Gypsy women as sexually attractive in two hypostases. Firstly, “Tinca”, a shortening for Catherine, is portrayed as a florist, with a “deceiving sigh”, who falls prey to the jealous Năstase, a former prisoner who eventually kills her. The poem tells the rhymed story of a woman’s failing attempt to transgress class boundaries and alludes to the character of the tragic mulatta existing in American literature. Secondly, “Rada” is the description of a virgin dancer, unaware she was chosen to be the poet’s muse. The play upon voices here shows a progressive glide from the poet’s descriptive voice to the voice of a young Gypsy man in love with the dancer. The two voices share the poem, but unfortunately the woman’s voice is not heard at all.
11. Apart from these titles, which rather objectify the figure of the Gypsy woman, two other poems about Gypsy men envisage voiceless characters too. “Lache” is one first name, incidentally meaning “shiftless” and “passive homosexual” in Romanian slang. He has “a mute hammer”, “all his tools are unripe” and his deeds are essentially hybrid, a mishmash of skills and actions. Because of these reasons, he has been “imprisoned for one year and four months”. A second one is, in fact, a nickname: “The Saint”. The poet depicts a disabled man called Hialmar – a name with Indian resonance – whose crippled body is carried in a wheelbarrow by an old woman, and underlines the generic misunderstood silence of the Roma ethnic group: “In his tongueless voice / He mumbles the Word of the beginning”. The end of the poem marks a huge emotional distance between the viewer and the man described: “A fly was sucking the tear of his lids”. It is at least curious why Arghezi chose to depict a crippled man in the interwar years, when some of the Gypsy intellectuals gained a certain social status and public visibility. In a bitter and critical tone, he bluntly and bitterly motivates his choice in the poem itself: “Because he was born deaf-mute / Something had to be done out of him”. Other poems in the same collection focus on the general nostalgia of the lost nomadic lifestyle, the forced urbanization and the subsequent imprisonment of the nomads, for whom a serenade has become synonymous with death.
12. Three other collections followed Arghezi’s breakthrough: Miron Radu Paraschivescu’s Gypsy Songs (1941), Radu Gyr’s Ballads (1943) and, after the war, Nichita Stănescu’s Slangy or Hold Up Songs (1955). Paraschivescu’s poems are interlaced stories of love and betrayal, superfluous idylls about tenderness and jealousy, which insist on a spirit of vicinity, on interracial bonds, real or just imagined, and on continuous introspection, one of the main traits of the interwar modernist Romanian literature. Such songs are inspired by Federico García Lorca’s work and by local fiddlers’ songs, urban interethnic dramas or folklore[xi]. One poem entitled “Wedding Song”, subtitled “a shukar[xii] story”, chronicles the account of a crazy white young boyar who falls in love with a Gypsy slave, who serves the guests, and spoils his own wedding with a boyar’s daughter. The poet suggests it is not comfortable to retell such unbridled passions and what is needed is empathy and patience. Opposite situations in terms of gender and race are also taken into account. Because of the socially forbidden love for a blue-eyed girl, a Gypsy man longs for a coffin to bury his own feelings. In a similar poem – “Dead Man’s Unhappy Life” – a Gypsy man does the apology of life by imagining he could see the grief and trouble produced to his lover, while he is in his coffin. “Love Curse” portrays a pregnant Gypsy young woman who does anything she can, so that her blond lover should return to her. In the poem “Prayer”, a fiddler prays to the Virgin Mary, whom he humorously admonishes on grounds connected with social and economic inequalities. Another anti-hero is “Rică” or “the masher of Death”, a proud womanizer, a braggart whom nobody can compare with, a brave man and yet unaware of any social risks. In these poems, Paraschivescu uses the category of humour, rather in contrast with sorrow than in connection with morality. The effect is melodramatic, vaudevillian and characters appear as marionettes. Apart from the urban settings described, the collection includes a few titles related to the nomadic lifestyle. The poem “Viana” illustrates a woman’s restlessness when her man does not return to the tribe: she calms down by dancing at night surrounded only by nature. Another poem called “Posse Song” approaches the idea of marginality and of a Gypsy land as a “broken paradise”, in which their usual songs and merry making are interrupted by soldiers who persecute them. Although Ana Dobre (2011), Paraschivescu’s biographer, notes that his father was “dark skinned”, she does not draw any conclusions regarding his ethnic background. Dobre clearly describes his uneasy relationship with the Romanian communist regime of the 1950s: he initially supported its leftist cause, but eventually realized it was heading in a dangerous direction.
13. In Radu Gyr’s ballads, Gypsies are often represented as witnesses to old tragedies. Although the poet does not mention the names of Brâncoveanu’s family, decapitated by the Ottomans in 1714, he imagines the power of a Gypsy old woman to predict the massacre, in the poem “The Cowry’s Ballad of Death in Tsarigrad”. After the tragedy, she is considered a manipulator, a mad woman and is summoned to throw away her cowry. A similar position of the Gypsy character is found in “The Ballad of the Forest of No Haidouks”, in which haidouk Iancu addresses the “baragladinas” or the “pharaohs”, as Gypsies used to be dubbed, claiming he is not afraid of being hanged. The poem evokes the haidouk’s disappointment when he sees that the people he was fighting for – slaves and serfs – are those who fit the loose on his neck, which hints at the difficulties encountered by those who dreamt of a better life for the wretched. In a ballad which captures the moral decay of the local boyars – “The Ballad of a Winter Night” – a Gypsy coachman gradually witnesses a boyar’s jealousy and eventual crime against his own wife. The Gypsy man is not speechless, as it occurs in other ballads, but he is curious to learn about the boyar’s grief and tries to calm him down, in spite of being treated quite badly: he is called “worthless servant”, “mean coachman” and “thick-lipped pharaoh”. The poem reveals the Gypsy man is caught between being a good servant and obeying his master’s terrible orders, on the one hand, and his own moral sense and spiritual awakening, when being asked to take part in the crime, on the other hand. The poem “The Lady’s Lake” reminds us of the story of a Gypsy man’s attempt to save a young white woman from being taken by spahis. Unluckily, they cannot escape but find their death in the waters of a lake. The ballad as a poetic genre constitutes Radu Gyr’s best choice in dealing with undocumented stories, transmitted mostly orally. What is remarkable in his ballads is that he constructed an arsenal of poetic techniques to chronicle such stories from nameless heroes’ point of view, which otherwise might have remained completely unknown.
14. In 1955, Nichita Stănescu made his debut with Slangy or Holdup Songs, a collection of poems that partially defied the realist-cultural politics of the epoch, according to which an apolitical poet was considered to be against the Communist Party. The famous newspaper Scînteia (The Sparkle) had criticized the haidouk-like and botanic tendencies of poetry in the 1950s. Many of his first poems were published only posthumously. The acceptable ones appeared in the cultural newspapers of the time. In the poem “Holdup Song”, the main character, a poetic alter ego, is portrayed as a tomcat “with one green eye and one brown eye”, a sign of hybridity, a mask used by Stănescu to write about the racially, ethnically and culturally hybrid society he had been born into. The poem captures the tragic destiny of those who attempt to transgress social and cultural boundaries. The tomcat’s desire to be something he could not – a flourishing hybrid breed – is dwarfed by public scorn: seven women throw stones at and curse him; he is humiliated, becomes penniless and walks aimlessly. The poem ends in irony, with the tomcat’s death in a local “dump”, accompanied by “a drunken fiddler”, a character who warns: leaving the patriarchal nomadic Gypsy life is similar to ignoring traditional order. Stănescu selects his characters from the slums of Ploiești and Bucharest. The women of the periphery are either morally sick, betrayers of their lovers, witches, experts in superstitions and spells, or fit to be speechless muses. On the other hand, men are haidouks, too young at heart to be able to cope with social maladjustment, wise fiddlers, yet not enough educated to be considered real artists, or drunkards, outlaws and losers. Time itself is compared with a “doddering old beggar”. On the other hand, they are described as very sensitive, as men in love, meditative and self-reflective. Strikingly, the poet identifies himself with all these categories. For example, the poem “In Malastropu’s Pub” describes a decaying atmosphere, in which customers “wear their houses / in bottles kept in their pockets”, flies “die on the counter” or “in a wine spit on the floor” and the walls are “freckled with flies”. Charmed by the music of a cymbal, the poet feels “ferociously weakened / like a razor’s edge”, a context in which writing verse is as necessary as “peeing”, as the poet concludes in “Ars poetica”. In another poem – “Anti Ars Poetica” – he associates the small dirty universe of periphery with the immensity of cosmos in a memorable metaphor: “dogs wearing galaxies on their tails”. In “Song of Disgust”, poetry itself is personified and interpellated: “you, slattern of words”. There are several symbols connected with racial difference such as the cricket or the crow and the more abstract colours black, brown and coppery. In “Silent Song”, a poem based on the symbol of the caravan, the poet describes “the crickets of the slow wagons / hidden in shafts that gnaw and gnaw”. The presence of the scarecrow in the poem “Evening at the Outskirts of Ploiești” shows the symbol does not have any power, as it is compared with a sloppy woman, “disgusted by so much chattering”. In Stănescu’s debut volume, one can identify several types of language hybridization: the mixture of the new communist administrative language and bawdy insinuations, the colorful language of periphery and folklore is mingled with the poet’s own budding style, while slandering and cursing go hand in hand with philosophical wisdom. All these produce both humour and sadness, a tragicomic literary outcome.
15. In the postwar decades, the role of poetry in tackling aspects related to Gypsiness was taken over by prose and other forms of artistic production. However, poets continued to embark on matters connected with race, colour, ethnicity and power relations in a more subtle and abstract manner, in the socio-political circumstances of ethnic assimilation. More concerned with style, poets such as Nichita Stănescu, Gabriela Melinescu or Gellu Naum, to name some of the greatest, have transfigured these matters and adopted what is called lateral thinking.
16. In “The Ninth Elegy”, a poem published first in 1966, Nichita Stănescu identifies himself with an emerging subjectivity within “a black egg”, an expression of the infinite universe, a valorisation of the “great darkness” and blackness in general and an identification with the unborn as well as with never-ending birth[xiii]:
“From sleep only
can everyone wake up –
from life’s husk, nobody
17. Cultural and ethnic assimilation during communism was sometimes complemented by linguistic syncretism and dreamlike subjectivities. In a poem entitled “Zimzum” from 1974, the surrealist poet Gellu Naum combines Hebrew cabbalistic wisdom, references to the Gypsy lifestyle and a complex art of metaphor and surrealist style, to imagine what he calls “the hour of exemplary love”, a possible label for Romanian balkanization as a socio-cultural process. The voice of the poem addresses a potential Eve of the natural world:
“look at the convoy its dowry of alveoli
everyone wears three bodies under furs of bear
the syntax of the pyre and the ceremonial remembrance of oblivion […]
three wings for everyone and their complicated nomad mechanics”
18. The poet advocates the Hebrew meaning of zimzum, according to which the physical universe conceals the spiritual nature of creation. This results in a conceptual space, where the physical universe and free will can co-exist. I would identify such a space with the metaphor of “the silent ball”, understood as a noiseless and painless mixture of different subjectivities: “uneasiness has deserted us for a silent ball / her hay mask pasted on her cheeks”.
19. In her poems from the 1960s, Gabriela Melinescu combines ethnic details with her own abstract and rhyming style. “Dudești Avenue” and “Eufemia” are two illustrative texts about a distinct ethnically hybrid atmosphere at the outskirts of Bucharest. The first poem depicts the wedding of Ilinca, “white flower of Dudești”, and a groom whose identity is not mentioned, but whose possible Gypsiness is suggested by the presence of the diligent florists, the fiddlers and the “crazy Gypsy horas”. In contrast with the positive atmosphere of the wedding, a symbol of public approval of an interethnic marriage, the poem “Eufemia” captures a disturbing spirit of intimate interethnic incongruence. It is the mysterious story of a double suicide: the proud Eufemia, described as “a sweet snake in a black veil”, poisons herself, while colonel Ozun hangs himself. Both tragedies take place for reasons unmentioned. Fragments of the possibly tragic puzzling story are discovered by children in the attic, which casts an innocent light on a serious private affair, laden with guilt and conflict.
Gypsy skin awoke
lying on her soul, waving like oil
in rooms coiling the touch of wood.
Fear has a waxen beak,
someone taloned its jugular,
when the parents sleep downstairs,
laying bare, white teeth unaware.”
20. Two other poems from the 1970s show a higher level of surrealism and a departure from the ethnic approach. In “The Ravens”, from The Illness of Divine Origin (1972), Melinescu contrasts a field covered in snow and a flock of ravens, brought by destiny’s hand above the field, “where, even bodiless, somebody was trying to be”. Such proximity does not remain without effect, but it produces difference within what is believed to be whole, intact, untouched and pure:
“The field separated from its own self.
A strong animal began to grow
underneath the white cap
the snow has swelled up ready to burst.
At night too something has moved
a muscle of the air, a ghostly smell
when suddenly they came
apparently kept by a hand above us
the ravens were throwing
shadows of people on the field.”
21. Whereas the snow field becomes pregnant, the hovering of the ravens brings spiritual consistency. The distinction between “us” and “them”, however, suits the distinction between groups of different origins and breeds. A strikingly similar poem – “Winter Landscape” – from Against the Loved One (1975) transforms the collective problematic of the previous poem into a one-to-one experience:
“I was walking by crying
and not wishing to meet anyone.
A black bird saw me, it was graceful,
one of those the gardeners
chase away with stones,
it seemed to me as black as
the unlit milk
confined within the soft flesh of a mother.
There were white knives and nails
scattered on its body.
But it did not bleed at all.
What short ears
and eyes it had, like a fish’s!
I grabbed a piece of wood
to punish it and out of fear too,
when it just rose
like a palace on two rods of brass.
And its wing beat pulled my hair
and blew it away, like a parachute”
22. The poem places the self and the black bird in antithesis, to render the tension between identity and alterity visible. The comparison of the bird’s blackness to “the unlit milk / confined within the soft flesh of a mother” transforms the uncanny of alterity into a more familiar construction. The description of the black bird’s body cancels any sign of violence history may have registered and evokes its apparent maternal silence or muteness. The black bird’s presence simultaneously inspires excitement, fury and fear.
23. Immediately after the fall of the communist regime, Mircea Cărtărescu published The Levant (1990), a postmodern epic poem written in the late 1980s, which intertextually draws on a variety of Romanian poets, from Ienăchiţă Văcărescu to Nichita Stănescu, to tell the story of an Oriental quest for poetry itself. Echoing The Gypsiad, “The Eighth Song” of it refers to a Gypsy tribe, led by one of the characters, the young Greek Zotalis, the son of pirate Iurta. Iurta unexpectedly meets his son, who was supposed to be studying in Cambridge, but gave up in favour of a nomad life among Gypsies. Zotalis becomes their bulibasha “by artifice”, by luring them with an invented dream about “a happy Wallachia”, an imaginary land of abundance and prosperity, where “the street drains / gurgle with Pepsi and Coca-Cola” and where, “if they wished, they all could stay forever”. Using stereotypes, Gypsy women are depicted in their plurality – “Radas, Stancas” – as sexually attractive, readily available for men’s pleasure, able to dance, sing and foretell the future, while Gypsy men are portrayed as being afraid when facing strangers, as speaking another language that needs translation, ready “to make good spoons and to repair wheels”, in order to negotiate their place on earth. Interestingly, the temporary location of the tribe is the place where father and son, non-Gypsies, reveal their purpose in life: the former would do anything (kill, steal and sell his soul) to see his son studying science in “Englitera”; the later, convinced that “neither perihelion nor equinox / can bring polenta”, chooses a Byronic lifestyle, travelling as a nomad in the Balkans. Their dialogue emphasizes the tension between the role of Western and Balkanic values, reinforcing a rather exotic view on Gypsiness. Regrettably, the epic poem leaves the experience of the Romanian Gypsies during communism unspoken and subject to further stereotypes, generated and perpetuated by the dominant, elitist culture.
24. The post-1989 decades have known a return to expressing the awareness of ethnic difference among both non-Roma and Roma poets. While many try to make sense of it and to use poetry in order to build a subjective third space, the role of ethnic agency proves to have a higher relevance among Roma poets. While non-Roma poets tend to manifest their social attachment to Roma ethos, Roma writers’ poems display a rather introspective attitude, rooted not in the immediate reality and experience, but in imagination and a surreal approach to knowledge. Three examples for each group follow.
25. In a volume of prose poems from 2003, Doina Ioanid evokes the figure of an old Gypsy woman. Meeting Tinkergypsy at her place stands for an attempt to understand her condition. A reflection on colours alludes to the importance of essentialism in operating with ethnic and racial matters, emphasized by the rapport between the speaking first person and the evoked third person:
“Once again I walk into the rape field. Green and yellow by turns. Out of yellow and green you get khaki, but this is no place for mixing up things. Tinkergypsy then gives me a nicely crisped pig ear. As we munch on, me with my strong teeth, she with her nearly black stumps, the world comes into balance[xiv].”
26. However, the binary strength / weakness and its association with eating and balance can be read as an indirect reference to aspects of cultural assimilation and further need to explore the effects of it and its possible alternatives.
27. The first person is also adopted by Elena Vlădăreanu in “product description” from private space (2009), a poem in which she explores the profile of a young Roma woman as it appears in the mass media:
“I am a Roma ethnic.
I am 25. I have no job. I have no house. I have no studies.
I can read. I can sign my name.
I am clinically healthy.
I declare on my own account I have never practised prostitution.
I declare on my own account I have never consumed forbidden substances.
I do not steal. I have never stolen anything. […]
What frightens me most are the hidden camera and the butcheries.”
28. The conceptual undertaking, with its disinterest in linguistic creativity, may fit some battles against stereotypes, because it invites readers to think about the idea of the work, rather than read the poem, but it may also reinforce them. Only the final line shatters them by possibly suggesting the uncanny nature of objectification, implied by the title of the poem, too.
29. In “Cutting ’em out”[xv], a poem by Mihail Gălățanu, a nameless Gypsy woman’s charm – especially her voice epitomized by her “lip-prints / left on glasses” – becomes the object of the poet’s desire. The invocation of her lips – a source of curses and kisses, protests and healing, a reason to commit suicide, but also of endless longing – may constitute both a challenge addressed to Roma women writers and evidence of a new stage regarding the interethnic literary dialogue. The poem abounds in endearing appelatives disguised in offensive nouns such as “good-for-nothing”, “fatty”, “magrao”, in parallel with more neutral ones such as “bride”. It takes over the flavour of Federico García Lorca’s poems, via Miron Radu Paraschivescu, with a touch of Balkanic ethos and personal confession of an inescapable desire.
30. The post-1989 years have seen the emergence of a few poets of Roma ethnicity – Luminița Cioabă, Gelu Măgureanu, Mircea Lăcătuș, for example – as one of the effects of recent activism, educational and mass media programmes dedicated to Roma, and of the more general and global multicultural trend, perceived as an asset of democracy[xvi].
31. In Poems of Yesterday and Today (2007), Luminița Cioabă draws on the Gypsy wisdom according to which – to paraphrase Emily Dickinson’s line – the world is wider than the sky. The style of her poetry is incantatory, nostalgic and imbued with pantheist spirituality and it only sometimes focuses on ethnic essence. The poet imagines “Gypsy Angels”[xvii] who “offer you their wing / wiping away your tear / with a violin’s string”, in line with the general perception that music is one of the Gypsies’ assets. Their location between the sky and the earth may be an echo of the Trishanku’s heaven, a middle ground between one’s current state and one’s current desires, existing in the Sanskrit epic Ramayana. The poet is nostalgic about nomadic life, called “travel”, as she compares Gypsies roaming from people to people with the way cosmos is organized. Her poetry reminds us there is a certain degree of the unexpected in the world and one should always be ready for that. Cioabă’s poetry often attempts to transform misfortune into spiritual balance and to cast a certain level of mystery on interethnic bonds by references to the natural world, not at all considered inferiour to civilization, but resourceful and reliable: “If you do not wish to be lost in the world / Choose a friend for yourself / A tree / Since it cannot ever touch you / With a word or sorrow”. For her, eternity is equivalent to a return to the nature, as in the poem “When We’ll Be Trees”. Written in Romanian, some of her poems have been translated into Romani, English and German.
32. Roma poet Gelu Măgureanu was an active player in the post-communist process of Roma inclusion, but regrettably he died too soon in 2009. His first and last collection, The Window of Beyond (2005), has a confessive, introspective tonality and is addressed to a generic brother, with a mixed identity, similar to Baudelaire’s “mon frère, mon semblable”. Writing from an ethnic perspective, often critical, his collection shows a tension between a surrealist vision and historical truth, between collective and personal memory. Addressing the generic brother, both an alter ego and an other, Măgureanu writes as if in response to Arghezi’s Mildew Flowers: “if you could scratch the walls of the carbonized hand / my nothingness would become your light”. These lines remind us of the Hindu ritual of the funeral pyre, of holocaust, of radical blackness. The poet subtly explains that to choose between being a nomad and belonging to a certain land might not be easy. The struggle to turn collective loss into an artistic asset is most evident:
“out of my own memory you made
food for the lid inside the nest
in return you left me the fields shrunken
by a humble wish to go with the caravans”
33. Another fragment describing the tension mentioned above reveals a clear absorption of the idea of alterity, while the symbol of the horse is reassessed as precious inheritance:
“with the risk of being rejected by both worlds
I wander along the walls and wells away from home
and I feel the stalks pushing through my chest
as if I were within the ribs of a horse”
34. In his debut volume, sculptor Mircea Lăcătuș (2009) celebrates his ethnic background by drawing on personal memory, family relations and intergenerational bonds. The poem “I Was Building a Borough Around My Parents” – the book bears the same title – is constructed around the symbols of the house and the apricot-tree, meant to build a rather rooted than routed subjectivity, in which nomadism is assimilated as a spiritual and artistic domain:
“my parents built a house
used to work all day long forgetting about me
they built it around an old apricot-tree
which my father did not wish to cut down […]
under the apricot-tree I built ramparts
around my parents wall after wall
only the apricot-tree pretended it did not get it
while very big blue flowers were snowing over me”
35. Allowing for these fragments of the vast body of Romanian poetry, I have attempted with this article to outline several significant moments when poets contributed to the literary corpus centered on Gypsiness. Before 1989, the colour line in terms of poetry was a reality: if Gypsy poets existed, they were rather invisible, outcast, not accepted as such. Only further biographic research and literary historiography might challenge such a view.
36. A century and a half ago, a notorious line from the Romantic drama Răzvan și Vidra (1867) by Bogdan Petriceicu Hașdeu cast a negative light on the capacity of a Gypsy to be a poet, in spite of the gift of singing, usually associated with Gypsiness. Bailiff Bașotă, the one who arrests Răzvan, because he composed verses against the oppressive regime, is in two minds about his creative skills: “A Gypsy man writes poems, I wouldn’t have believed it… / I reckon his face shows us he is quite shrewd and smart”. Echoing the rise and fall of a freed Gypsy slave, the play itself ends with Răzvan’s death, while he fights against his political enemies. Written in a very nationalist epoch, the ending subtly emphasizes the author’s ultimate distrust of significant otherness and, in particular, his now outdated view that a Gypsy lacks the capacity of endurance and possible victory.
37. However, with more or less sensitivity to difference, Romanian poets have included Gypsy culture in their works and more often than not they have displayed empathic perspectives regarding a marginalized population, but their literary productions have only very slowly transcended the page, to have an impact on society and mentality. The selection above indicates that hybrid literary constructions have been rarely celebrated per se, for their very hybridity. Moreover, cases valorizing the essence of the Roma / Gypsy life through poetry are very infrequent and placed out of the national literary canon.
38. What is crucial nowadays is that poetry has become a lifestyle for a number of authors of Roma / Gypsy origin, who have taken poetry seriously and are eager to play with its transformative power in order to reconfigure cutting-edge, more adequate approaches to the contemporary multicultural identities. Only by encouraging creativity and by promoting self-confidence among younger generations of Roma / Gypsy authors, can “the risk of being rejected by both worlds” and the simplistic, stereotyping identifications be diminished, overcome and eventually replaced by a sense of authenticity, credibility, multiple belonging, mediation and cultural maturity.
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[i] In sociology, the concept of colour line designates the social separation of racial groups within a community, an abstract discriminatory barrier created by custom, economic different background or law. It is used here only in relation to poetry and poetry authorship
[ii] See two recent doctoral theses by Pavel Cristian Suciu (2010) and by Laura Popescu (2010).
[iii] Călin Crăciun (2013) has shown that Romanian literature and criticism has been too Western so far and argued that the archaic and Balkanic spiritual strands have played equally important roles.
[iv] Except when mentioned, the translation of the Romanian texts was made by the author of this article.
[v] As the contemporary Romanian historian Sorin Mitu (1997) shows, the Romanian discourse on national identity in the nineteenth century was constructed through a specific type of comparison to other ethnic groups: the comparison of the Romanians to the Gypsies had a double meaning. Whereas for Timotei Cipariu, one of the fathers of Romanian philology, being compared to the Gypsies meant the worst that could have happened, Simion Bărnuțiu, one of the main organizers of the 1848 Revolution, made the comparison in order to say that Romanians were as oppressed and discriminated as the Gypsies. Both trends generated mainly negative self-images among the Romanian elite, because the Gypsies’ cultural identity involved a high degree of transnationality, which did not suit the national ideal of the nineteenth century. The shame of being Romanian was thus projected on the Gypsies.
[vi] See the collection of essays coordinated by Irina Petraș (2010).
[viii] For instance, Radu Cernătescu (2010) reminds us that at that time all masons considered themselves “symbolic slaves” (Ro. robi), in order to cast a Christian dimension to their ideals of egalitarianism and freedom. The resurrection of Parpangel as a modern local folkloric hero dwells on a type of syncretism that combines several symbolic threads and a “‘fraternal’ discourse” based on the Masonic discourse of the Enlightenment.
[ix] However, what is a little intriguing in his foreword to the translation is that he reiterates the negative stereotype that Gypsies are inferiour, which I think is alarming and not in line with the current multicultural policy of integration. For example, he invokes Budai-Deleanu’s subtlety in crafting the majority of the Gypsies’ names using roots related to plants, animals or physical disabilities. In Traian Ștef’s view, these names suggest “the idea of an inferiour, vegetative world”, which raises questions related to language functions, the nature/logos dichotomy and the multi-linguistic aspects of our world. In contrast to Ștef’s ideas, Radu Cernătescu indicates that the sufixes of some of the Gypsies’ names are hybrids between the Romani root -del, meaning “god”, and the Hebrew root -el, meaning “god” too (as in Corcodel, Guladel, Aordel, Jundadel etc.), while the main character’s name, Parpanghel, would be a dissimulation of an Archangel, the leader of all these “angels”. A more honest and balanced interpretation of the names Budai-Deleanu used would be to consider Mikhail Bakhtin’s category of the carnivalesque, which considers inferiority and superiority as two equally important sides of the same larger phenomenon and is in line with the symbol of the wheel specific to Roma culture.
[x] Translated from Romanian by Lori Tiron-Pandit at: http://www.loritironpandit.com/written/mildew-flowers-flori-de-mucigai-by-tudor-arghezi/
[xi] As Arthur Silvestri (2012) implies, Paraschivescu’s poems represent the urban degradation of the local Creole subjectivity, seen as foreign, imported, Western and obliterating the positive sides of outlawry. There is no typology similar to Robin Hood in M. R. Paraschivescu’s collection.
[xii] In the Romani language, shukar means “beautiful”, while in the Romanian slang, it can also mean “scandalous”.
[xiii] In Romanian culture, black is traditionally associated with death.
[xiv] Translated from Romanian by Florin Bican at: http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poem/item/19377
[xv] The whole poem is available at: http://editura.mttlc.ro/carti/Vianu-Romanian-PEN-Club-Anthology.pdf.
[xvi] Part of the collections taken into account debunk stereotypes such as the idealized and exoticized portrayals of Roma / Gypsy characters and the general nomadic character of Gypsiness or the myth of placelessness, as if sedentarism and the need to belong do not constitute a reality among Roma.
[xvii] Translation from Romanian by Adam J. Sorkin and Cristina Cîrstea. The poem is available at: http://www.transnational-perspectives.org/transnational/articles/article276.pdf.
Manolachi, Monica.“The Hour of Exemplary Love”: Gypsiness and Romanian Poetry”, HyperCultura, Vol 5 (14)/2014, Online since 15 December 2015,
Monica MANOLACHI has been a junior lecturer at the University of Bucharest since 2005, where she defended her doctoral thesis Performative Identities in Contemporary Caribbean British Poetry in September 2011. She spent the academic year 2009 / 2010 as a research associate at Oxford Brookes University, United Kingdom. She has done research on African American literature, contemporary British literature and culture, Caribbean identity and culture, postcolonial studies and contemporary Romanian literature. She is a literary translator and a poet.