This is a beautifully produced book with superb page layout and illustrations from Antonia Glucksman. The subject matter relates to growing up in Romania in the post WW2 years and the subjects of the Cold War and the Ceausescu regime are never out of the picture. How much of this is directly autobiographical or family related is unsure but much of the text relates to the lives of children growing up in an orphanage and the mix of government statistics, bureaucratic pronouncements (propaganda) and diary notes from the viewpoint of the children is intriguing. There is satire relating to partial erasure of official jargon to suggest censorship (and self-censorship) and the ensuing complexity created by this mixing is quite something. There is also an obsession with chess. Stadnicka’s very European style of Surrealism feels very appropriate as a way of mediating absurdity, horror and confusion and I was reminded at various point of the similar strategy utilised in the film Pan’s Labyrinth where a gothic fairy tale dream world becomes an antidote to a harsh and brutal authoritarian reality. Politically, I feel the text is usefully complex because it doesn’t work in black and white cold war stereotypes but hints at partial understanding through the voices of young adults dealing with the day to day reality. Stadnicka’s poetry always has this complexity which isn’t easy to engage with all the time but it’s certainly rewarding and stimulating in a variety of ways if you persevere. There’s a chronology of related world events at the end of the book which helps to give you a way in if you’re unsure of the history. This is a short review and I’ll just give the reader a few selected extracts to give a flavour of the actual writing. I could say a lot more about this but feel the texts should work for themselves:
Our dorm is in the Sputnik Wing for
irrecoverables, which Father visits mor often.
Though I’m Stupid, I know there are lots of
sins to confess here, that’s why it takes him
agez to get back to hiz office, redfaced, tired.
So much to talk about that sometimes he haz
to work extra nightshifts.
I wonders what Kasparov would fink about
this. Remember Rules! Castling is the best
defence strategy when everyfin else failz,
though comin to fink of it, rules are already
decided for uz and comez with invisible
chainreactionz. It aint bothers me; I pulled
my first toof out and dint hurt that much.
There’s humour here, of the dark variety and a mix of sophistication and innocence which is curiously moving.
SISTER’S NIGHT SHIFT
The restless orphans call my name
and the bell ringing above my desk
is a wolf’s howl, lost in a snow storm.
Naked heads wake in a crowded pit,
strapped to their cots.
The moon holds them tight
and the walls narrow and stretch
upwards as the morphine vapours seep
through pillows. Fog settles on each cradle.
Outside the treatment room sleet is knee-deep.
My fingers chant hallelujah, rolling tobacco.
The dorm is a tomb. God’s teeth
are falling over the courtyard.
The world shut its gates for the night.
Here we have a different perspective and I’m reminded (as often with Stadnicka’s writing) of paintings which conjure often jarring imagery and yet feel weirdly comforting at the same time.
“God’s teeth / are falling over the courtyard.’ is a fantastic speculation, mixing the oddly abstract and conflicting with the physical reality of the weather. I’m never quite sure where I am with her imagery and its darkness but this is writing which is hard to ignore and it’s well worth the effort to engage.
Copyright © Steve Spence, 2022