Merry As We Rot: The Mythopoetics of Nature and Death in the Imagery of Magda Isanos

Someone had to love the harmony of the world, the hidden law of cadences; someone had to be alone and listen for all time…

Magda Isanos

The poetry of interwar Romania carries within the thunderous scream and the heavy silence of confession and creation, one the impulse of the other, and it is under this unyielding paradox that it resides in slumber. Blood becomes text, and the heart of the poem beats to the antithetic rhythm of a haunting reality: confession births an oscillation between death as erasure and death as a vessel for the memories of the poet—confessional poetry positions death as a harbinger of life. And although the author is continuously present in the text, as is often the case with autobiographical works, although shards of personal life travel from the page into the body of the reader, in verse, the sincerity of the poet must not always be taken as a biographical indiscretion[1], but rather seen as a revelation of the will to create freely. The lyrical message of Magda Isanos stands tall amidst numerous examples of confessional Romanian poetry, distinguishing itself by the manner in which it portrays a beautiful reality: that the need to create is stronger than the desire to confess. Its roots reveal the use of verse as a mean of considering the self and the world that contains it. The Isanosian text speaks of poetry as the path to one’s center, giving it properties of ontological rebirth.

The poetic gift is nonetheless devouring, a fact that emerges from poems that linger on the edge of bliss and abyss, and although their rhythm does indeed expunge the border between life and death, often the poet has to put on the mask of death in order to praise life. The memory of death and the prescience of nature manifest themselves in Isanos’s poems with the obsessive, turbid, and intrepid imagery of fundamental drives, doing so not as mere negation of an effacing void, but also as a poetic profile, one that begun outlining itself at the moment of birth.

Coming into the world at the hospital where her parents were doctors, and later living and going to school in the close vicinity or even on the grounds of the facilities where Elisabeta and Mihai Isanos were appointed, the poet has encountered illness, grief, and death from her first breath. In 1917, at the age of one, she contracts poliomyelitis, which she survives under the care of her mother, but she is left in poor health and with a difficulty to walk. Magda Isanos wrote from early childhood, making her debut around the age of fifteen in her high-school magazine[2], with verses that spoke of growing up in the villages of northern Romania, a theme that she holds dear until the very end.

The poem My Childhood, written in 1943, one year before her passing, in which she interweaves nature, fairy tale monsters, and memory, with the grief of losing the miraculous daybreaks of infancy and stepping out into the adult world, beautifully illustrates it:

Who speaks within me,
who will remind me that I lived there
my first Zmei fairy tale,
in the country between grandfather’s knees and the hearth?
Lost years, miraculous daybreaks,
I shall make you live forever.
Above the fence where the world ended,
today I know: that is where the realm of the Zmeu began.

A year after her debut, she co-founds the Iulia Hașdeu[3] cultural society, and is awarded second place in a national competition for her contribution on the theme of women’s rights. Future years spent beyond the fence of her childhood home are marked by numerous publications [4] and further dedication to women’s rights and the role of women in Romanian literature, as well as organizing conferences and fundraisers for war-torn countries. While local magazines of the time begin to notice her talent and describe her as a poet of “transcendental preoccupations”[5], Magda Isanos studies philosophy and law, becoming a member of the Romanian Bar, from which she is forced to later retire, in spite of a promising career, due to her declining health. Her marriage to the writer Eusebiu Camilar cements her love of literature and writing, and together they work on her poems, publishing her first and only volume[6] under his editorial guidance. They also collaborate on translations, and a four-act tragedy[7]. In the summer of 1944, when the poet and her husband had already sought refuge because of the war, an airstrike destroys all of their manuscripts in the empty Iaşi residence, leaving nothing but a notebook behind, which a family friend finds in the garden. Magda Isanos passes away from heart disease at their Bucharest residence, in November, after a long convalescent period, on the same day she was born, the 17th.

The declining health of the poet and her acceptance of a body and a life that waged war on her inner self significantly influenced her writing path, with the motif of death becoming the center of her verses, yet always transforming its meaning, in eternal motion between celebration and grief. In The Anthropological Structures of the Imaginary, Gilbert Durand discusses the transformation of death into a euphemism—to imagine death as rest, as sleep, means to bring forth its destruction, its negation[8], and it is on a similar path that the poetry of Magda Isanos guides its readers, by imprinting the nature of the life-death antithesis upon one’s very being. Throughout her work, nature and death come together endlessly, in a dance of rotating seasons and the endless search for balance, whether the sleep is eternal, or serves as repose between two merry or sorrowful moments. In the first stanza of the poem We Will Soon Die, we encounter a striking image of nature’s permanence opposed to the fleetingness of human beings.

So sad it is to think that one day,
perhaps tomorrow, the alley trees
will linger where you now see them,
merry as we rot.

Although Isanos’s poetry frequently employs the same motifs, it does not repeat itself—each text expresses another identity of the words that at a first glance appear to describe the same emotions, and through this, another identity of the poet’s self, each text leaving its mark on the hearts of both reader and creator, thus giving birth to more and more selves, one as authentic as the other, turmoil best described by her daughter, Elisabeta Isanos:

The sadness found in the poems of Magda Isanos is the reverse of joy […] for she contained her own double: the fascinating, conquering character, with whom you could never get bored or gloomy during the day, had in herself her nocturnal antithesis, and so she herself was, with shadows and lights, one of God’s works of art. The distance between the sadness from the deep and the outside merriment gives not only the measurement of her soul, but also of her talent: spoken bluntly, the turmoil that troubled her would not have interested anyone, but dimmed by the diurnal smile, they give birth to the tenderness in her verses, a delicate thoughtfulness of utterance, risen from the deep and implicit fear that it might hurt. Tears are sifted through the smile, and the smile is filtered through tears.[9]

Elements of interwar poetry—the mysterious hand, blood, the angels who upon descending lose their translucence—play a significant role in emphasizing the mythopoetics of nature and death, but also in positioning the realm of the poet’s childhood at the heart of her work. Magda Isanos creates fairy tales out of everything—in her poems, gods and creatures come together in the strangest of places: in hospitals, at the feet of the sick, in poppy fields, or at the edge of the graveyard where loved ones rest. The world becomes at once a place of worship and a land of desolate ephemerality, the resurrection and the shipwreck of the body. The life and work of the poet mirror not just the turmoil of the times, but also the uproar brought upon by weaving biographical elements within one’s work at such a young age. From the fear that her life will not see its autumn, as she wished for in The Poem of the Woman Who Loved Spring, from the search of a way out of becoming without losing her being, Isanos birthed a body of work that resides upon the shoulders of her readers like the hand of nature’s anonymous forces—a force that shall return us to the shores.[10] An imagery that stretches beyond poetry and into psychoanalysis, beyond the continual search for the self and for the company of others, delving deep into the mysteries of a universe that holds us in its embrace if only for a brief moment. It is nature that breathes eternity upon the death of the human, and it is in the intimacy of nature that our bodies carry on as myths, as soil, as tales for around the hearth.

Magda Isanos weaves together the burning desire for new places with the nostalgic longing for primal landscapes in a manner that few have mastered, creating a mirroring of the self into the waters of the world that goes far beyond the contours of a body or a face; the temporal rostrums that she gathers in the bouquet of her words turn consciousness into a faultless inner refuge—a refuge that embraces both poet and reader, a refuge from the death that surfaced as mere hypothesis in early verses. Hitherto, as Horia Bădescu writes, it is not the same to know that you are mortal or that you must die. “The hypothetical has become the real,”[11] and thus, the memory of death manifests itself in the heart of the poet with the profuse intensity of an unnatural occurrence, as one is not supposed to hold memories of one’s own death, regardless of it being inseparable from life. In Life Do Not Abandon Me, we get a glimpse of Isanos’s unwillingness to accept her fate, with the simple yet beautiful “Come, let us blossom…,” in which she once again engages with the motifs of nature as womb and trees as an extension of the body.

The cruelty of existence and its boundaries is also emphasized by living among the harshness of strangers, and Confessions reads as both the culmination of regret and acceptance, often worn as masks upon a face that saw not just the wonders of the world, but also the evils of its inhabitants.

They said, “The poet is mad,
she speaks with the trees and the stones…”
and then, I slowly moved away,
forgetting their language and their homes.

Passing though the world in the manner in which Magda Isanos did, writing from within a mystifying fire about the self and the world around it has given her poetry an abundance of voices, and whether we are bewitched by her depictions of nature, lured into shipwrecking waters, or exposed to the horrors of war and the tumultuous time in which the poet lived, we cannot help but feel one with the tender pounding of the page—Isanos’s rhythm becomes indistinguishable from the beating of the reader’s heart.

In poems such as Mother, The Blood, The Night Carriage’s Horse, From Burning Cities, or They Are the Poor, her voice becomes scream, incantation, and prayer; it becomes the voice of the silent, the injured, the dead, and it is in that roar that we discover a side of the poet that would have perhaps been the hearth of Romanian poetry, far beyond the darkness of confessional verses or the borders of interwar works, had it not been for her premature death.

As a reader, my first encounter with Magda Isanos happened at a young age, and it was her prose that caught my eye. After reading Dumas’s The Lady with the Camellias, the name Marguerite Gautier lured me from all the pages upon which I would encounter it. It was then that I came across the following passage:

On a meadow, at the foot of a hill, a castle. It felt as if I was chasing a white fury. But no, it is Marguerite Gauthier; Armand Duval is wrapping her shoulders in a shawl. With emotion I recognize her translucent face in which the eyes burn merrily. She will soon die, but not before Armand Duval leaves her, no, and there is too much sadness here and if I could, I would force women to kiss your hand (oh, the many women I know); to kiss your hand, Marguerite, for a heart like yours does not happen often.[12]

Thus, years before reading and translating her poems, I encounter a variation of the line we will soon die, and the sadness that Magda Isanos not only carried within, but was also drawn to in others, whether real or fictional. I found the poet I would come to love, in her short yet formidable portrayal of another’s character, in her translation of grief. And it was that discovery that later steered me towards rendering her poetry in English. Upon translating Faust, Lucian Blaga wrote that “poetry translation is in itself and by itself poetry, otherwise it would be nothing” [13], and it is precisely under the guidance of these words that I have revisited Isanos’s prose, in search for the poetry that she birthed with every word, and more so, in search for a manner by which to mirror that poetry in translation. What most transpires from the Isanoscian text is the feeling of being one with all creatures and things, the need even, of embracing dissonances and paradoxes, of transcending the comfort of familiar places—the need of embracing not just the euphoria of beginnings, but also the grief that surfaces as endings near. And because of that, Full of Joy I Have Awakened is the perfect poem to mark the final page of this collection, one that does not exist in this form in the Romanian language, but which nevertheless epitomizes the oeuvre of Magda Isanos, not as a chronological body of works, but rather as a proof of eternal life.

The coldness of death strikes my face,
the sashes of the gate have opened,
I see the darkness.
Row, row almighty
Charon, I hear the shovels now.
Behind me I leave the mornings.

It is with these lines that Homecoming ends, a foretelling of her final moments, a stanza encompassing the life and work of the poet, a mythological passing from flesh to page. Darkness emerges, and the light colors she often described in her poems, the colors that served as background to the journey towards the fundamental center of being, paint a dark return to the origins, yet a return through which she becomes one with nature, thus conquering the impermanence of mortal time, and again, We Will Soon Die echoes to remind us that “life is but a drop between this beating moment and the other.”

 When encountered in poetry, the mythical bridge that nature creates between life and death is all the more important, as its portrayal is intimately allied with the soul of the poet. Whether as confession or fiction, the imagery of what nourishes the world, the individual, the ephemeral and the eternal, has been amply devoured in both prose and verse, and it is precisely because of this overabundance that one can look at these motifs in the works of Magda Isanos and recognize a truly unique imagery—and not because it gushes from the viscera of an individual existence. The mythopoetics of nature and death in the imagery of Magda Isanos—a phrasing that as soon as it is read takes us on a labyrinthine pursuit of symbols, myths, gods and goddesses, lavish fields, gracious forests, green cemeteries, and portrayals of all that is human in fear and in joy, does this one astounding thing; it brings together the many voices of the poet who listened to the cadences of the world—and she tells us: you exist.

Christina Tudor-Sideri, February 2021

[1] Paraphrasing Romanian writer and literary critic George Călinescu.

[2] In Licurici (Firefly) magazine, with the poems I Wish for a Fairytale and Spring.

[3] Iulia Hașdeu was the daughter of the Romanian writer and scientist Bogdan Petriceicu Haşdeu. A gifted child, she wrote poetry and prose in Romanian and French from a young age, writing a study on the life of Michael the Brave when she was six years old. She taught herself foreign languages, piano, and opera singing, and was the first Romanian woman to study at La Sorbonne University in Paris, where she was giving lectures on Herodotus and working on her Romanian folk philosophy doctoral thesis when she contracted tuberculosis and passed away at the age of 18. Her father dedicated the remaining of his life to publishing her works and building a castle in her memory. The life and works of the two poets are bound together not just through Isanos’s interest in Hașdeu and their love of philosophy and Romanian myths, but also because of their tragic demises.

[4] Among the poems she published in the years following her debut: Warfare, At the Edge of the Graveyard, Wastefulness, Misprint, Verdant Dream, Curse, The Lake, The Night Carriage’s Horse.

[5] “A new talent emerges in full ascent, that of Magda Isanos, poet of transcendental preoccupations, wonderfully rendered in verses of a recklessness that goes beyond feminism.” Lumea (The World) newspaper; 26 December, 1938.

[6] Poems (1943), Brawo publishing house.

[7] The Fires, written with Eusebiu Camilar, published posthumously in 1945, as well as a Romanian translation of Leonid Solovyov’s The Tale of Hodja Nasreddin: Disturber of the Peace, also in collaboration with the Romanian writer. Other posthumous publications in the years following her death: The Song of the Mountains (1945), The Country of Light (1946), Verses (1955).

[8] Durand, G., 1979. Les structures anthropologiques de l’imaginaire. Paris: Bordas.

[9] In the afterword to The Young Trees (2013) by TipoMoldova publishing house, Iaşi Romania.

[10] “Memories cling to me like algae and mud / and here I am, immovable—despondent boat / without the mast of will and the rudder of thought / Who shall return me to the shores?” (Shipwreck)

[11] Bădescu, H., Magda Isanos. Drumul spre Eleusis (Magda Isanos. The Road to Eleusis), Albatros publishing, Bucharest, 1975, p. 8.

[12] On Great Loves, in Iaşiul magazine, May 16, 1938.

[13] Blaga, L. (1972). Faust și problema traducerilor (Faust and the Issue of Translations), in Isvoade: eseuri, conferințe și articole (Notes: Essays, Conferences and Papers), volume coordinated by Dorli Blaga and Petre Nicolau, preface by George Gană, Minerva, Bucharest. Page 123.