Liliana Ursu
Poems by Liliana Ursu
Translated from Romanian by Adam J. Sorkin and Tess Gallagher

From poet Tess Gallagher, one of the translators of this new book by Liliana Ursu: “'Like a ring of fire around fire,' Liliana Ursu ends her poem, an image that also conveys the intensity of this book.  Translating these amazing poems was like translating lightning. They left me singed and stricken butlifted by their illuminations, their sudden, piercing power. Co-existing with Ursu’s magical binding of the broken world with 'word-shadow' is her close, wide, child’s eye fixed tenderly on wild strawberries, on the bird’s egg fallen from its forest nest.  She knows to leave the wasp’s sting in us, allowing us 'great pain after great love.'”

Liliana Ursu is an award-winning and internationally acclaimed Romanian poet. A Path to the Sea, new poems translated by Ursu, Adam J. Sorkin, and Tess Gallagher, brings together poems from the poet's birthplace, her sojourns in the United States, and her adopted city of Bucharest. Among Ursu's awards in Romania's highest cultural honor, the rank of Knight of Arts and Literature.

“Liliana Ursu’s poems are like flowers at the edge of the abyss. They are beautifully clear and precise, but behind them one glimpses the presence of an ineradicable dark.” - Mark Strand

“Ursu’s is a poetry of fluidity in which transformations are common and the narrative elements recur and recombine – the dancer, the artist, the exile and the lover move through landscapes of forests, rivers , mountains, lakes, fruits and flowers, their narratives, more or less fragmented, resolving into icons and enigmas.” 
George Szirtes

Cover art by Irish painter Josie Gray, titled “Golden Alcove to the Sea.”

Two new reviews:


Liliana Ursu. A Path to the Sea. Translated. by Liliana Ursu, Adam J.Sorkin, and Tess Gallagher.

New York: Pleasure Boat Studio, 2011. 130 pages.

Reviewed by Mihaela Moscafiuc

The Romanian poet Liliana Ursu's first book in English, The Sky behind the Forest (Bloodaxe Books,

1997), which she translated with Adam J. Sorkin and Tess Gallagher, was named a British Poetry Book

Society Recommended Translation and was shortlisted for Oxford's Weidenfeld Prize. Bruce Weigl

facilitated Ursu's American debut with translations included in Angel Riding a Beast (Northwestern

University Press, 1998), and Sean Cotter transported her into American culture, establishing her reputation

as a major European poet with his Goldsmith Market (Zephyr Press, 2003) and LightwaJl (Zephyr

Press, 2009), the latter a finalist for the PEN USA 2010 Literary Award in Translation. A Path to the

Sea, another beautifully chiseled, collaborative translation among Ursu, Sorkin, and Gallagher, secures

Ursu's reputation as a singular, resonant voice on the international scene.

In A Path to the Sea, Ursu gives us what Gallagher in the "Translator's Note" calls a precious "silken

web" that she "weaves between continents," cultures, histories, and languages.' As we are ferried to

Sibiu, the poet's birthplace; Romania's capital Bucharest; the magical monasteries of Bukovina; then

Lewisburg, San Francisco, and Louisville, in poems that feel as warm and intimate as the holy alcoves of

Ursu's peregrinations, we start to see the world as Ursu does: stripped down to its essence, conceived

in spirit, human connection, and memory. As the poet declares in "1 Refuse to Write about My Heart,"

she could "describe anything easily," especially all the material world with which she coexists "in reciprocal

disdain.,,2 However, she has little interest in that. Her poems both assist and reenact searches for

self-knowledge and sacredness and, as they forge paths through the mundane-toward the archetypal

sea of life/death/renewal-they gesture, always, toward revelation. Ursu whittles experience into

lyrical narratives that are as refreshing and transporting as linen drying in the spring breeze. If we bury

our faces, lips or closed eyes in them, as does the former Siberian prisoner of her poem "Scene with

Wash on a Clothesline,"3 we might experience, if not spiritual ecstasy, then something akin to it.

Under communism, poetry nourished the Romanians' spirit and fueled intellectual appetites.

Post-communist euphoria pulled much of the Romanian intelligentsia, including some of the most

admired poets, into the whirlpool of politics; new markets altered the nature of old appetites and

displaced the need for poetry. Some poets built extravagant villas and stopped writing. The nineties

generation took charge of the new realm of possibilities opened by the closing of half a century of

systemic silencing and produced works that-to borrow Ursu's words-"enter the bloodstream."4

Hunger for newness and individuation, the (re)discovery of the Beats and the New York School poets,

and an acute awareness of local realities gave rise to trends and coteries-such as the "young lions,"

the "fracturists," the "workshop[persj"-that produced a good deal of exciting post-(post-)modern

poetry and started reshaping the Romanian poetic landscape. One of its less felicitous byproducts is

its slow un-souling, which Ursu laments, if obliquely, in her work.

Ursu does not associate with any particular literary enclave, cares little about detonating conventions

in search of new forms or for the sake of innovation, and generally keeps a low profile. This

might explain why, despite her publication record (nine volumes of poetry, two books of short fiction,

and numerous books of translation), the popularity of the weekly cultural program she produced

for Romanian National Radio for over a quarter century, and various awards, she might be better

known abroad than in her native country. Along with Ana Blandiana and Nina Cassian (who lives in the

United States), Ursu is one of the few Romanian women poets whose work has garnered an American


The opening poems in A Path to the Sea allude to the post-communist context from which she

writes. A woman poet (although the gender is lost in translation) advises the speaker, "Transform yourself

into / something else, even a dragon. Forget / for a while you're a poet. It won't do / you any good.

Can even destroy you."s In this initial poem, "It's Not a Good Time for Poets," as in many of this collection's

pieces, the translation records the poem's rich interlingual journey. Some details appear in

English, but not in the Romanian version, such as the name of a market ("Cibiu market") and town

("Sibiu"). One ofthe lines is moved up to replace the less evocative title of the original, "As If Life Went

On." A reconfigured stanzaic structure creates new breathing spaces, and the ending gains texture

and tonal authority as it morphs from "As if stars sprouted out of my skin" into "As if my flesh were,

yes, / what it is: a fountain of stars."6

A poet with first-hand experience of shifting aesthetics and trends, Ursu believes (as I have heard

her say recently) that the only thing worth challenging as a poet is oneself, as the writer pushes to

join the community of poets she or he most admires, trying to inhabit the mystery of each experience.

"They say / the moment the cuckoo leaves off singing, / it changes into a hawk,"? she writes

allegorically in "Prayer for Nettles." "Daughter of the word," "destined for the word," she "bite[s] into

word-shadow, / nourish[ing] [her]self with the light around it.',8 In an interview withClaudiu Tarziu,

Ursu suggests that "poetry is nothing but word with maximum exposure, and the word comes from

God.',g She extends this thought in "Prayer for Nettles," where she writes, "To whom should I bow

down / when I begin each new poem, / asking forgiveness for each word / I pluck from above?,,10

In an interview with the theologian Robert Lazu, the Romanian-born Andrei Codrescu offers a daring

companion thought: "When I write, I write with the hope that my writing might bring heaven closer

to US"ll

At the start of John Logan's two-character play Red, the character portraying the abstract

expressionist Mark Rothko is staring, transfixed, at one of his paintings. Suddenly, he asks his new assistant,

Ken: "What do you see?" "Red," comes the qui<?k reply, and while the answer identifies the color

correctly, it does not describe what Rothko himself sees.12 When, at the end of the play, after working

closely with the master, Ken is asked the question again, his answer, "Red," encapsulates a mode

of seeing and experiencing the color-its textures and "thoughts"-that pOints to his transformation

from novice to artist.13

Ursu's poems, like Rothko's red, are studies in color. They may be deceptively simple, but they

show us how to look and how to see as we follow, for instance, a white feather floating between

two streets,14 a yellow rose that snags the speaker's "busy dress,"lS or a madwoman who "gathers

chestnuts from the hill / and sets her shadow on fire."16 Rothko's trust in the "simple expression of

the complex thought" and in "flat forms" that "destroy illusion and reveal truth" as stated by Rothko in

his "Brief Manifesto" (co-written with Adolph Gottlieb) is Ursu's as well.J7 She has "a compass in [her]

blood" that points toward textured clarity, itself a translation of the clarity of her passion.18 "I wash,

iron, write. / Then wash again, iron, write again. / Every morning I feed the doves / and listen to more

and more disturbing news," she writes in "At Day's End, the Miracle." "It's my hope never to judge /

my fellow creatures," she adds in the same poem.1g

Ursu thinks of translation as a most intimate of acts, one that requires a kinship of spirits and

empathy. A Path to the Sea is a testament to the productive intersection of three such spirits: Sorkin,


whose forty-plus collections of translations from Romanian make him the ambassador of Romanian

poetry in the United States; Gallagher, the author of eight collections of poetry as well as essays and

short stories; and the poet herself. Ursu's work is at once less and more difficult to translate than the

work of many of her peers. There are no real linguistic pyrotechnics here and few language-bound

particularities that would make translating it risky or prone to compromise. Still, a poem's interior life

is so particular and the radiance of Ursu's work so intense that transporting its spirit uncorrupted into

the English language cannot be an easy task. When read alongside the Romanian originals (which A

Path to the Sea does not provide), the English versions expose, at times, notable discrepancies-such

as excised or added lines as well as shifts in diction, tone, and formal structure. This might be because

Ursu cares little for the so-called faithfulness to t~e literal that often produces anxiety in experienced

and beginning translators alike. She has also been known to alter or allow for radical alterations of

her poems so they might travel more seamlessly into English. I once heard her paraphrase Alexander

Push kin as saying that translation is like smelling flowers through a blanket. In her poems, she said, she

wanted that blanket to turn into a silk veil. As a self-translator, Ursu not only facilitates the "crossing

over," but uses the host language, as Cotter states in "Translating a Moving Target," "to test the quality

of the Romanian, like biting a coin to see if the gold is real.,,20 In previous projects, such as Ughtwal/,

Ursu authorized radical modifications of her poems in English and sometimes used the emerging version

to revamp the Romanian one. In this way, Ursu is fairly singular. Although her poems insist that

the English-speaking reader meet the guest poet midway between cultures-and they do so through

instances of xenoglossia, as in "mamaliga" and "toaca," which are explained in the collection's "Notes,"

or by insisting on naming places, thereby transporting physical and literary Romanian geographies

into English-they also refuse to let the boundaries of one language or another infringe on any individual

poem's spirit. The result is a collection of poems as fluent and sinuous in English as if they had

been written by a native speaker with a transcultural consciousness.

In her "Translator's Note," Gallagher remarks on the "very deep and abiding religious center that

nourishes all she sees and gives.21 Ursu writes out of the same sense of wonder and reverence from

which she always has, but herwork has grown increasingly religious over the years. If, as a reader of

the less devout kind, I am not as enamored ofthe more overtly religious pieces such as "lIlumination,"

"To Mother Alexandra," or "Crucified against the May Sky" as I am of others in this stunning collection,

it is because I feel deprived of the discoveries I might make on my own as I turn corners or stare hard

into Ursu's canvases.

Liliana Ursu might not be the trendiest poet writing in Eastern Europe or even in Romania at the

moment, and I doubt she would ever desire such a branding, but she is a poet to whom we will return

as ifto a time capsule for glimpses into what it meant, at some point in time, to sustain an interior life,

find virtue in simplicity, and make each gesture count. On finishing A Path to the Sea, one might feel

like that speaker who does not dare move for fear that the "seeds of sun rays," gifted by a toothless

peasant, are gone, the "hands empty.,,22


Mihaela Moscaliuc is the author of Father Dirt (Alice James Book~ 2010) and co-translator of Carmelia

Leonte's Death Searches for You a Second Time (Red Dragonfly Press, 2003). Her poems, reviews, and

translations have appeared in Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly, New Letters, Poetry International, Pleiades, Arts & Letters, The Georgia Review, Absinthe, and America, among other venues.





Summer 2012,46.3

A Path to the Sea. By Liliana Ursu. Translated by Liliana Ursu,

Adam J. Sorkin, and Tess Gallagher. New York: Pleasure Boat

Studio, A Literary Press, 2011. 130 pp. $ 15.95.

A breath of fresh air from Romania, Liliana Ursu's poetry has all

the rhythmic and stylistic freedom of Joseph Brodsky, Adam

Zagajewski, and other great poets from Eastern Europe, but Ursu is

fortunate enough to be able to go beyond the deep melancholy that

usuallv resonates in poems from this part of the world. Hers radiate

serenity. She is always aware of belonging to a world in which

streets, houses, longings, dreams-be they located in Sibiu,

Bucharest, Venice, Louisville, or San Francisco--glow in the same

gladly alluring way. A woman in a nursing home in Pennsylvania

calls the poet "her daughter from across the ocean," perhaps because,

as the woman notices, "the birds / really have babies, even in our

nursing home, / even here in captivity." Saint Stephen Street in

Bucharest (long ago I myself used to cross Strada Stmtul Stefan every

day on the way to my elementary school) reminds Ursu of her mother

slicing a watermelon and her father "shaving the long block of ice, /

patiently inching it / into our small icebox," while from Steven Street

in Louisville, where she can contemplate only the outside of the

houses, she remembers their color ("blue, pink, yellow) and fragrance

("myrtle and jasmine"). In Altoona, Pennsylvania, a friend helps her

mark her path to the campus by looking at "a country store / full of

apples, a bakery / with steaming pretzels, the small branch / post

office hidden behind brooms / and tools in a hardware store," as

though they were not just small town businesses but, as in the old

fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel, the pebbles and the crumbs of bread

dropped by the children sent to the forest. In the wide world that she

crosses in all directions, Ursu is never lost because she everywhere

knows how to fmd familiar details, gently lovable views, paths, scents.

Magic and sainthood are always within touching distance. At dawn

in San Francisco, "the ocean licks the silence of salt, / of alabaster,

/ of green," and the night buries its jewels "in the angel who keeps

watch over you." Even nostalgia is blissful: an old woman who never

left her mountain village keeps in her Bible hundreds of scraps of

paper. On each "she has drawn / one message: / a ship ... ."

The mixture of vitality and understatement, of imagination and

simplicity, of verbal explosions and friendly wisdom, makes Liliana

Ursu's poetry unforgettable. Together with Adam J. Sorkin and Tess

Gallagher she has provided a splendid translation, whose greatest

merit is that it virtually never sounds like a translation. For the

English version of an earlier book by Ursu, they won the Translation

Recommendation of the British Poetry Books Society, a recommendation

well deserved. A Path to the Sea is a marvel worth having and


University of Chicago Thomas Pavel