Luke Hankins

A Second Experience:

A Review of Two Books by Stella Vinitchi Radulescu

Stella Vinitchi Radulescu:
Insomnia in Flowers. Plain View Press, 2008.
Diving with the Whales. March Street Press, 2008.

Novice poets often make the mistake of putting most of their effort
into evoking the feeling of experience, rather than first practicing a
more objective, concrete description of experience. If something is
highly emotional, highly subjective, then to them it automatically
qualifies as good poetry. They don’t realize it yet, but they are trying
to take a shortcut to eliciting emotion in the reader. If the poem
contains an overabundance of emotion, then how can the reader
not have an emotional experience? The problem is that witnessing
emotion, or being told about emotion, is not at all the same as having
an emotional response to a firsthand experience. And I don’t
think, when it comes to poetry, that this is a failure of sympathy.
What happens is that without a participatory experience on the
reader’s part, any emotion in the poem is likely to remain unconvincing
at best, or to seem like a gimmick at worst. The inexperienced
poet does not yet understand that it is impossible to create
emotion without creating experience for the reader—and that is
precisely what all good poetry must do, rather than simply chronicling
an emotional response to some other experience. The experience
that a poem creates may be of any kind: realistic, fantastic,
linguistic, rhetorical, philosophical, propositional, etc., etc. But if
the poet is unaware of the need for creating an experience of one
kind or another for the reader, he or she is not likely to succeed
very often at doing so, merely by chance.

What Stella Vinitchi Radulescu does most expertly is to create an
experience for the reader of her poems. The nature of the experience
of reading a poem of hers is most often surrealistic, achieved
in a sparse, fragmentary style. In many of her poems, she is also
concerned with creating a meta-level linguistic experience. It is
clear that many of her poems do chronicle emotional responses to
various experiences, but she writes her poems with the inherent
understanding that they must create a second experience that is not
merely a retelling of the original. The opening poem of Radulescu’s
collection, Insomnia in Flowers, is a fine example of this:

                                                                                       a room
         in the room
         my flesh in yours                    thank you mother

         thanks for taking me back                     for the fresh leaves
         the language I speak once a year when the sun

         digs you out                              cherry trees in blossom again
         rehearsing a new death

         spelling loud your silence
                                                                a short yes
         flowers for teeth

         teeth for flowers

                                  (from “Spelling Loud”)

What we can notice about Radulescu’s poem is that it is not a
retelling of experience, but a distillation of experience. Thus the
fragmentary images and thoughts—only those things that will be
most vital for the reader’s second experience. She is also unafraid
of defying the original experience for the sake of the second; in
other words, she makes something new out of the material of the
original experience, and is willing, even eager, to shape and distort
the raw material. This way, she achieves a surrealistic effect, conflating
the cherry trees with the mother, such that the blossoms
begin by “spelling loud” the silence of the dead mother—in other
words, simply reminding the speaker of her mother and of her
death—and then morph to actually take on physical characteristics
of her, to become her: “flowers for teeth / / teeth for flowers”. I
would contend that this second experience that the reader has is
not the same experience the poet (or the speaker of the poem) had,
and yet, perhaps because the poem is not an attempt to simply
recreate the same experience, and it is also not an attempt to convey 
emotion divorced from an experience of the reader’s own, it
succeeds in conveying the emotional quality of the original.

Other poems of Radulescu’s seem less likely to have arisen from a
single identifiable original experience, and yet are no less adept in
creating an experience for the reader. We can see this in “Scream,”
which I reproduce here in its entirety:

         I went too far, too far in the woods. The tree
         was there, the body hanging
         from a branch.

         It was yesterday, I was looking for God.

         Free from gravity, his legs in the wind
         right, left…
         a creepy balance between shadows and light.

         Too far on Earth, too far into night… I touched
         the corpse, it went away in flames
         and dust.

         He is still here in the declining moon some words would fit
         his skull

         And I was scared, the scream
         took my whole body with it, I thought I was flying…

         But no, there I found myself stuck on the ground
         from scream to scream building
         an altar of silence.

This poem is more propositional than “Spelling Loud.” Even the
fact that there are capital letters, as there rarely are in Radulescu’s
poems, indicates that this is a narrative, discursive mode, rather
than primarily an imagistic mode. Here, we have the idea of mystical
pursuit taken too far. The poem seems to indicate that seeking
God can be dangerous, when one is attempting to exceed the
bounds of human knowledge and experience. And yet, the traumatic
experience ultimately results in worship: “from scream to
scream building / an altar of silence.” In this poem, Radulescu is
proposing an idea rather than simply recounting an experience, and
yet, it is through the reader’s imaginative experience that the idea
arrives so forcefully and so convincingly.

Oftentimes, in true Surrealist form, Radulescu's poems ask the
reader to see combinations and juxtapositions of things that would
not be possible in “the real world.” These surrealistic images and
scenes create yet another kind of experience, akin to that in
“Spelling Loud,” and yet distinct, because the surrealism in that
poem can be read as psychological metaphor. It is not so easy to
categorize other poems of hers this way, poems which are more
fully surrealistic. The final stanza of the poem “If I Remember,”
from Diving with the Whales, is a fine example:

         lavender evening
         ghosts approaching the shore
         I follow their footpath           I almost
         hit a star

In “On Turtles and Death,” from Insomnia in Flowers, Radulescu
combines her fascination with language itself with her surrealistic style:

         the high tide leaves more verbs on the beach
         I draw them all over my feet                   they whisper

The title poem of Insomnia in Flowers contains these wonderful lines:

         my house floats backwards on the river

         a child in the garden opens
         black wings

And Radulescu can be more playful as well, combining artistic or
literary allusions to create unforgettable images:

         sky was a joke in our late conversation

         a man lighting his blue cigars

         with Stevens’ tie

                  (from “Stars are like Children,” Insomnia...)

It seems to me that Radulescu’s basic concern is spiritual investigation,
and carrying the reader along, to the extent that it is possible,
in her mystical pursuit. In “Starting Point,” from Diving with the
Whales, she writes about seeking understanding, and says, “and
what if I fail and what if I don’t,” acknowledging the fearfulness of
each possibility—either perpetual uncertainty, or revelation that is
too much to bear (as in “Spelling Loud,” quoted above). She goes
on to say, in the third section of the poem:

         the answer is in our hands
         but we don’t understand      a long time ago

         we named things at random
         now we are paying for it

         we don’t see a soul like we see the moon rising
         we don’t understand simple facts

         where are we going
         why do the seagulls cry        I have these words

         sometimes I feel like touching their flesh
         the roundness

         and then I let them fall
         one by one into your mouth, Mr. Nothing

         make me an offer
         I will buy your big and burning eyes

Those burning eyes of Mr. Nothing tell it all—Radulescu suspects
that there really is no answer to the mystery of existence, no ultimate
meaning. And yet, in personifying and speaking to that nothingness,
the poem gives nothingness form and refuses to accept
nihilism. The only way, for Radulescu, of approaching the mystery
of existence, is words themselves. Notice how she makes them tangible:
“I have these words / sometimes I feel like touching their
flesh...”. And then they become the bargaining chips with which
she will “buy [the] big and burning eyes” of Mr. Nothing by dropping
them into his mouth. Radulescu is skeptical, but unrelenting,
in her pursuit of mystery. In her unrelentingness, she reminds me of
the 17th century Metaphysical poets, while stylistically, she is
clearly a descendent of the Surrealists and Modernists. She has
melded disparate traditions seamlessly in her poetry, and the precise
mixture of elements in her work is perhaps unique in American
poetry, and our poetry is richer for it. The reason her poetry is so
successful is that it has the ability to offer the reader powerful
experiences by which he or she can participate in the mystical pursuit
that is the fundamental characteristic of her work.