I met Petru Cârdu in September 1988 at the Vilenica convocation of Central European writers in Ljubljana, Slovenia. If I remember correctly, it was at a large open-air reception given for us by the mayor of the town of Dolina, on our way back from a trip to Trieste (Trst), the border being open that day. The writers were somewhat exhausted and even dazed after the afternoon’s exposure to the consumerist display of a West European city (even the West Europeans among us were!). After the companionable dark of the coaches came the floodlit feast. The Balkan kermess, which had got under way two days earlier, continued and I was doing my best to enjoy it. Nevertheless, my irrelevance to the proceedings, as a representative of the world-dominant Anglophone culture, was painfully obvious! Indeed, I was beginning to think that perhaps I had been invited to participate in this Central European celebration so that I might experience marginalization, so to speak, at first hand.These paranoid ruminations were interrupted by the appearance at my side, in that boisterous gathering, of an extraordinary quiet and sober young man, who introduced himself to me as Petru Cârdu. It transpired, of course, that he had been born in Yugoslavia, bun into a Romanian family, and that he knew and had collaborated with my old friend Vasko Popa, another poet with Romanian family connections. At this gathering, the purpose of which was to assert the centralization of Central European writing and superficiality of the post-war political divisions, Cârdu, with his double Balkan, Slavic-Latin background, seemed to me peculiarly remote, almost more of the detached observer than I was myself. Reluctant to take up my time, he slipped away sooner than I would have wished.
Now, back in my make-believe fortress in Iowa City, Iowa, reading the proofs of Petru Cârdu’s first collection in English, The trapped Strawberry, it is not a remoteness that I sense, rather is it a clever-eyed identification with that remains of European culture, the fragments, the echoes — not so as to preserve or register them for their own sake, but so as to gain time, to find out whether life, culture, in whatever form, is in fact being regenerated. In other words, an almost anthropological zeal informs this work, as though he were witnessing the beginning or end (or both) of a social and cultural order. The writing shares something of the syntactic, lexical lucidity, of that of an earlier generation of East or Central European writers (including, of course, Vasko Popa), but with Petru Cârdu, the issue of survival is still too early to say that post Stalinism (a lacklustre, inert version of totalitarianism), has finally ended, but as Europe once again shapes up to its own history (the national and religious divisions) it is perhaps legitimate to wonder whether humanism will be any more successful in preventing a calamitous outcome than it was in the 1930s. Petru Cârdu draws, as does Vasko Popa, on that French surrealist’ tradition that so influenced Yugoslav poetry in the interwar period, and which characterized much of the work of the modernists in the post-war struggles with the proponents of socialist realism. But whereas surrealism, after the initial excitement and liberation and liberation, has been somewhat unproductive in the West, in the ’other Europe’ (particularly in Yugoslavia and Romania) it has continued to develop. Vasko Popa was able, as Ted Hughes has observed, to tap that deeper ’surrealism’ of the folk, in a discontinuous epic where the writer’s voice and personality is almost entirely subsumed; for Cârdu, the surrealist universe does not exclude that personal voice, yet his post-modernist detacliment is as complete as Popa’s.
I have read through the present collection with growing admiration for the achievement of this young poet. Here is that openness, that non-exclusiveness, that we appreciated so much in the poetry of the remarkable first post-war generation of Eastern European writers. The wide reading, awareness of the whole problematical tradition, the larger cultural context, is still there: the philosophers — Socrate, Cicero, Erasm, Descartes, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard; the writers — very many, ranging from Ovid to Mashima, presided over by the unnamed Kafka; tha artists — Carravaggio, Velasquez, Delacroix, Arp and, especially, the carnivalesque Bruegel. Balkan myths rub shoulders with Biblucal ones. Language, in the most literal sense, is actualized (‚Milk besmeared me/next to the noun winter’). The historical and the contemporaneous are admitted on the equal terms, the physical and the intellectual (‚The poet’s explanation of a situation starts at a poem’s legs’). Distances are abolished (’New migrations begin/Jerusalem is moving to Constantinople’). And take a poem like ’Narrow door’ (p.9): ’If I remember correctly/ I came here to memorize the arrangement/ left door left door/ right door right door/ Happy walls/ exit through me’. Note the curiously focused absent mindedness! The play/stage and the speaker/playwright change places in the end, become as one (I am reminded of Vasko Popa’s ’Little Box’, which becomes the whole world).
This is a poetry capable of engaging us on many levels, because it is itself so multifariously engaged. We recognize ourselves, our fears, our predicaments. We are being addressed, but not hectored, not ’told truths’. Nor is the poet overwhelmed by the pathos of his own situation. Indeed, playfulness, humor, irony are an integral part of his art, an index of the existential refusal to be overwhelmed. Petru Cârdu seems to me to be a very old soul!
Iowa City, November 1990