Monday, January 31, 2011

Romanian poets -- Cassian and Barbu

Born in 1924, in Galati, Romania, Nina Cassian has published over fifty books -- besides poetry, she has works of fiction and books for children. Since 1985 she has lived in exile in the United States. Among those Cassian credits with strong influences on her poetry is mathematician / poet Dan Barbilian / Ion Barbu (1895-1961).  This poem by Cassian illustrates those mathematical influences:

     The Inclined Plane     by Nina Cassian    (tr. Naomi Lazard)

     Up, up, with an as yet undefined movement
     probably called translation—have you ever seen
     the infinite procession of slaves carrying enormous blocks
     which, for their part, will for all time
     bear the majestic name of pyramids?
     Down, down, have you ever felt the first breath
     of the avalanche, the delicate slivers and dust,
     barely moving, ingenuous, putting forth a gesture
                                                    of destruction
     and beginning to shake the world’s foundations?
     A single plane, inclined—toward what?
     Toward the x-axis,
     toward the y-axis,
     and all the other conventions,
     toward something rising and something falling;
     the slope alone—you can clamber up or slide down.

     Do you remember gliding on a gray tongue of concrete
     toward the green glottis of the sea?
     Do you remember touching the surface of that sea,
                                                    and breaking it,
     going down through it, feeling a perpetual slope,
                                                    an inclined plane?
     It takes a long time to crawl back up and break the surface
     because time, there in the depths, has no orifices,
                                                    no nostrils, no pores:
     it is an obdurate time—a kind of eternity.

     Slides, chutes, inclined planes, oh, tragedies—
     for tragedies are not obligatory; they are tragic
     precisely because they could have been avoided—
     so neither the vertical nor the horizontal really exists—
     only a great inclined plane.

     Have you ever struggled to get up with your fingers
     clenched in the mud that lies between you
                                                    and the horizon above?
     You looked at that pure, cold, cutting skyline
     and quickly at the earth in front of your mouth,
     then again at the horizon, and at the short blades of grass
     that spring between the fingers clenched in that mud.
     You fell and struggled again on that treacherous slope
     without any other point of support but your own elbows,
     kneecaps, heels, and your own forehead
     soiled with earth mysteriously like an old manuscript.
     The great plane rocks back and forth,
     at one end a king, at the other a boar,
     at one end a huge block of salt and at the other a book,
     at one end a house, on the other a river,
     and finally the great plane
     rocks with old people and snowfalls,
     padlocks, watches, blue leaves, melodic scepters,
     horses and ships swinging, death’s temples rocking, rocking,
     quiet alcohols reeling, balancing.

     I stand crucified on a plank, aware
                                                    of the continual flow of life.
     And here I am, incapable of stepping twice
                                                    into the same stream.
     I myself am beginning to put forth like a spring,
                                                    my hands prolonging themselves
     my hair, the tail of my eye, flowing down,
     then up onto an inclined plane,
     my whole being in a procession of ovoid cells, pulsating,
     existing, not existing, ending briskly, continuing smoothly—
     have you ever seen a floating cross?
     It is a bird flying obliquely
     over the oblique axis of the globe.
     I rest my head in my left palm,
     slightly inclined, contemplating, contemplating
     The Great Inclined Plane.

"The Inclined Plane" is from Life Sentence:  Selected Poems (W.W. Norton, 1975).   

Here next is an English translation of a poem, "Ut Algebra Poesis," by Ion Barbu that is dedicated to Nina Cassian.  This translation (by Sarah Glaz and me) of Barbu's poem appeared in a blilingual presentation in the November 2006 issue of the American Mathematical Monthly.  Barbu's original Romanian, as well as a German translation by Alexander Mehlmann, is available online here.  Two mathematicians are mentioned in the poem -- Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) and Amalie "Emmy" Noether (1882-1935).  More information about Noether follows the poem.

     Ut Algebra Poesis
                                   [for Nina Cassian]
                                                                  by Ion Barbu

     In my young days I strolled the lanes of Gottingen—
     Where Gauss, beneath arched canopies of leaves,
     Sealed once for all the vaults of higher geometries—
     And curved a poem toward its last quatrain.

     For easy Eden I scorned the learned muse
     And nights without restraint unraveled me
     As they drew forth a hook-nosed, exposed Eve
     With hobbling gait and writing style abstruse.

     I failed to see the transience of genius. The guilt is mine . . .
     But for the Second Coming I watch and am prepared
     To turn the magic helmet against my fevered head.
     And algebraist Emmy, both common and divine,
     Whose priest and standard-bearer I would dare emerge,
     Surpasses Nina—transcendental and indescribably fair!

                          translated by Sarah Glaz and JoAnne Growney (2005)

NotesIon Barbu is the literary pseudonym of Dan Barbilian (1895-1961), a Romanian mathematician and professor at the University of Bucharest who made important contributions to the fields of geometry, algebra and number theory and developed an axiomatization of the geometry of projective rings.   Barbu’s poetry is popular in Romania but is known for its difficulty and has not been widely translated into English.  The title of the poem, Ut Algebra Poesis, is a Latin phrase meaning “As algebra, so poetry.”  The algebraist Emmy in Barbu’s poem is Amalie “Emmy” Noëther (1882-1935), a contemporary of Barbu when he studied in Germany in the 1920s.  In 1933, Noëther emigrated to the United States, fleeing the Nazi regime.  Noether has been featured in earlier blog postings --  6 December 2010 and 23 March 2010 (my initial posting) which offers a poem I wrote to honor this outstanding mathematician. Other work by Romanian poets may be found on 4 October 2010 (Marin Sorescu) and 22 July 2010 (Nichita Stanescu).

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