“IN PRISON, POETRY WAS MY PRAYER. I WOULD HAVE NOT SURVIVED WITHOUT IT.”
Interview with DEMOSTENE ANDRONESCU
Translated from the Romanian
Mr. Demostene Andronescu, we know today that a unique and astounding phenomenon emerged in the prisons of communist Romania: that of prison poetry. Under conditions of permanent physical and mental torture, people found their freedom, relief, and hope in verse. How was that possible?
In prison, it is the man’s soul that dies first. Without a flicker of spiritual life, man collapses into depression, despair, and then he also caves physically. To save themselves, many have resorted, rather instinctively, to all sorts of spiritual activities. Those who had the vocation of prayer were saved first, but not all of us can experience prayer as an internal flame that gives us the strength to carry on. And therefore, we, the frailer believers, have descended one step further below, from the ethic to the aesthetic, from prayer to poetry. Since poetry is easier to keep in mind, it has become, alongside prayer, one of the forms of spiritual life for prisoners.
Was it just a form of personal resistance or also a collective one? Did you feel that you were empowering one another by communicating the poems you knew from when you were free or the ones you were all writing in prison?
First, it was a form of personal resistance. I for one would have not survived if I did not find this way of expressing myself.
Of course that sharing verses would create a special relationship between people, and you could see how some of their faces would light up, how they lived the poetry, how they were emboldened by it. Then, those with good memory felt useful if they learned the verses and transmitted them through Morse code to the other prisoners.
This is the manner in which poetry managed to provide us all, along with prayer, with an intense spiritual energy.
I knew a few poems of Rady Gyr and Lucian Blaga by heart—poems that restored my spirits and confidence. When I was forsaken and disarmed, I often recited the poem “Cavalcade” by Gyr and would immediately regain my strength:
In long quiver of high tread,
on stallions of heavy brass,
hurtling to ride to the end,
tall, with fists clenching on their hilts,
so many pass and laugh at my limping
behind them, on my hack,
behind them, on my hack!
Their gallop swallowing the signposts,
the horseshoe breaking through the flint,
or rising swamps to splatter me
with rotten, evil tar,
for they left me ten signposts behind,
behind them, on my hack,
behind them, on my hack!
Thirst cannot slow them on their path
Nor do they stop to wash their wounds
There are no mountains to wall them in.
I fall in every dell,
I leave my rags in every thistle,
skin-scrapped, I climb back on my hack,
behind them on my hack!
And as the hordes move wobbling
to nowhere, to no one,
the chase is sinking in the puddles
and the first one falls broken from his saddle.
Beside the ditch in which he lies
I pass in stride with my hack,
behind them on my hack!
And one by one they start to fall,
their harness echoing of worn-out metal,
I have no harness and no spade,
I only trust a spark of star;
and while the ravens come to pick at them,
I crawl back on my hack,
in front of them on my hack!
To me, this poem was “proof” and a supreme encouragement that I will overcome all my burdens, walking tenaciously on my path, in whatever way I could, but following one creed. It gave me indescribable strength; it took me out of deadlock.
I felt the same way when I was writing poems.
How did the poems begin to circulate in prison?
In the beginning, Morse code communication became almost a general occurrence, for there was a pressing need for information. We wanted to know what was happening, who else was brought in, who had died, who was punished and how, whether there was news from the outside. It was very difficult to speak with people from other cells directly. Thus, 95% of prisoners knew Morse code. Even if we weren’t all as skillful, we could still communicate. With the exception of those who were old and sick, who neither could nor wanted to learn any longer. But to not know Morse code was a substantial impairment.
Especially at night, when the guards were busy with other things, “news bulletins” were transmitted in Morse code by tapping on the radiator pipes, and furthermore, entire conferences on various themes were held.
This is also how the poems started circulating.
The tone was set by Nichifor Crainic and Rady Gyr, the greatest prison poets, followed by others, immensely valuable, too, such as Andrei Ciurunga, Constantin-Aurel Dragodan, Fane Vlădoianu, who would transmit their poems. But there were a few eminent men of culture who knew entire verse volumes by our classic and interwar poets by heart, as well as foreign poets, and would transmit them through Morse code. For instance, Ovidiu Cotruș, disciple of Blaga and teaching assistant at his aesthetics department.
Then they all got contaminated with this passion for poetry. After it was transmitted through Morse code, some, those with better memory, would remember it, others would write it with a splinter on a piece of soap, or with a nail on the wooden edge of the bed, then they would learn it in order to pass it forward.
As you know, in prison we did not have the right to any writing instruments or paper. If we were caught with such things we were harshly punished, and anyway, we didn’t have the means to procure them. So the poems would circulate verbally, almost in complete editions—Blaga, Arghezi, Bacovia, and the others. Those who did not know a single verse when they came to the penitentiary, left there with dozens or even hundreds of poems memorized.
The guards did not try to stop this communication?
They did. In the beginning they thought the reason we knew so much was because we had books, since they were getting reports. And they conducted searches for nothing. Then they brought in specialists to check if there was a way to communicate through Morse code by tapping on the wall or in the radiator pipes [which were never heated—editorial note]. They reached the conclusion that it was impossible. But they did not take into consideration the fact that the inmate had nothing else to do and could practice until he would reach incredible performances. We would transmit through shortcuts, understanding every word just by its beginning and communicating back through a signal that we understood, thus becoming very fast.
There were a few that astounded even us. I was once in a cell with one of the best Morse transmitters and receivers, pacing and talking. All of a sudden he says, “Listen here, a lot was brought from Jilava with this or that man.” I say, “but how do you know?” “Well, didn’t you hear the Morse code tapping?” He had such a trained ear that he could catch anything, even while speaking to me.
Had you been writing poems since when you were free or did you discover this vocation in prison?
I wrote one or two poems, like all Romanians—not for nothing do they say that the Romanian was born a poet [laughing]—during my adolescence. Better said, I put together some verses, but I became preoccupied with other things and abandoned poetry. That was until, sometime in 1954, being already in prison, I was sent to isolation with one of my best friends, Traian Anderca. During the communist holidays, but also on Christmas and Easter, they would take the unruliest of us out of the cells and put us in isolation, so they wouldn’t have any unpleasant surprises with us. The same thing happened that time and I met Traian again. This time we were two people in a cell, with our feet in chains—and a few days later they also handcuffed our hands, but that is another story… We had not seen each other for a few years and we caught up with what had happened to us, then we started speaking of the things we were preoccupied with. He was a passionate poetry reader, and I had long been tormented by a poem of Blaga, “John Tears Himself Apart in Wilderness.” I could only remember the beginning, which, for me, had become a leitmotif in the moments when my soul felt heavy. I wanted someone to remind me the rest of the poem, and I could never find anyone who knew it. Traian did not know it either. It was some years later when I learned it from someone thus ridding me of my Elohim obsession [laughing]:
Where are you, Elohim?
The world flew from your hands
like Noah’s dove.
Perhaps even today you wait for it.
Where are you, Elohim?
We roam disturbed without permission,
through the ghouls of night, we pry on you,
kissing in dust the star under our heels
we ask for you—Elohim!
We halt the sleepless wind
and try for you with our nostrils,
We stop alien animals in their plots
and ask of you, Elohim!
Eventually, we gaze upon the borders,
us saints, us waters,
us thieves, us stones,
no longer knowing our way back,
Well, one of those nights, when I would ask everyone through Morse code to tell me about Elohim, Traian says, “why do you keep knocking at foreign doors, why don’t you start writing? I know you have some talent.” And that is when I created my first poem in prison, titled “Transformation,” which I read victoriously to him the next morning:
There was a time I begged for light
From foreign doors,
Not knowing the whole moon
Was lodged inside me.
At the crossroads of life
I was standing, hand outstretched
And travelers would pity me
With snuffed out light.
Now and then, a spark
Tossed by some madman,
Felt like the Milky Way
Bestowed upon me.
And I was passing through life like that,
Pitied by the world,
As if searching through the fog,
I don’t know what.
But once, when evening fell,
Tired of dreams,
I found the world
With all its doors shut.
And finding myself outside at night
Without a candle,
I looked rather on a whim
Inside me like on the horizon.
And I flinched all of a sudden,
For I saw that within me
The darkness is all riddled
With breaking light.
I pushed the cinder to the side
Trembling from the cold
And in my dead depths
A song began to play.
And through my bleeding wound,
As through a crack,
A gentle ray gushed out
A ray of unsullied light.
That wrapping me in everything,
Gave my plane life
From then incessantly
I keep on shining,
Not tall like the proud sun,
But shy as the moon.
And when the mud accumulates
And covers up my orifice,
I bleed out like a fountain,
Deepening my wound.
Communist prisons were extermination sites. You were permanently tortured through starvation, cold, lack of rest, filth, and regular beatings. How did you find the peace and the resources to compose poetry?
Youth does wonders. We had a strong physique, we had, at least in the beginning, the hope that we will not stay locked up for long, we would always find reserves of enthusiasm within us. And then, I repeat, poetry was to us a form of prayer or as training is for a professional athlete—yes, it was a training of the mind and soul, a training we would have gone mad or even died without. For me, at least, poetry often substituted prayer.
Now I have the certainty that these poems were whispered to us by Someone. For I cannot explain how else did such rich verses come to me—according to some connoisseurs.
For instance, I was once in isolation for seven days. And, after the guard closed the door behind me, I started counting: 7 days times 24 hours equals 168 hours, times 60 minutes equals 10.080 minutes… But look, I said to myself, it has already been half an hour since I got here. Then the poem “Uselessness” came to me:
I gnaw at time, time gnaws at me,
Seeking a thought to crumble down Olympus,
With thirst a thought then comes to me
And inside me seems to swelter.
I stab a sacrament; I bring down an angel,
I boil, I struggle, I bleed,
My soul is bending
Like a twig heavy with rain…
… and so on. It’s a long poem…
Did you replace prayer with poetry because it was more within reach or because you felt it had something transcendental, mystical in it, and that in the end, it held the same function?
Through poetry I would come in contact with God more easily. I could express my moments of revolt, of exaltation, of doubt… Through prayer, only my faith and godliness. But the moments in which I was ravaged by revolt and doubt were outnumbering those of profound humility and reconciliation.
It was in one of those moments that the poem “Doubt” was born, after an encounter with the writer Vasile Voiculescu.
I had been moved to another room and was looking to see who my neighbors were, asking left and right through Morse code. Someone answered from the cell above, telling me that among them was also Vasile Voiculescu. I asked him to give my regards to the writer. Then, Voiculescu wanted to speak to me, but he did not know Morse code. We used a different method. We each placed a tin cup on the radiator pipe and took turns at speaking, and when one was speaking, the other had his ear on his cup and we could almost hear each other as if we were on the phone. He asked me how do I know him. I told him that I only knew him through his writing and paid him some compliments for his science-fiction novels. He was sick—in fact, a few days later he was taken to the infirmary—and he seemed to have lost all hope. This man, a monument of faith, was experiencing doubt… And then I conceived the poem “Doubt,” which I dedicated to him:
Lord, how much further to Heaven? Is it long
Until you make me part of your light?
Or perhaps everything was but a tale
And I have dusted all this way in vain…
I’ve been crawling for so long on my elbows,
Tearing down so many morning stars in my climb
For if this climb will go on longer, perhaps
Only those who are too high up will remain unharmed.
And I have wasted so much soul, my Father,
In my incomparably excessive zeal
For if I ever get to heaven
I will have nothing to place at Your feet.
I paid with it in every customs house,
I placed it on every step,
And I am wasting it unendingly, but I’m afraid
That no one will await my arrival.
Crawling on my knees, breathless,
I climb the mountain with invented crests;
I am but a drop of all I was.
Lord, how much further to the peak, is it long?!
How did you manage to remember the “written” poems and also create others, without borrowing verses from the old poems, and without forgetting the ones you created before?
This was indeed a problem. And that is why we were transmitting them to others, for sooner or later, the poems would return to their authors. I memorized about a hundred poems from the two hundred or more that I created. They are the poems published in the volume Inner Landscape.
At one point, when I already had a serious baggage of my own poems, I found a high school student in a neighboring cell who had a very good memory, and he offered to memorize all my poems. And the mere fact that they were in someone else’s mind, sheltered, eased my work for other poems. Unfortunately, that student died there…
Nonetheless, when I was writing I was inspired and taken by a feeling that made me ignore the other poems.
There were various moments that would trigger my poetry, one of them happened during a tempestuous winter night, in Aiud, when an abuse was committed against the writer Constantin Gane, the one who wrote Bygone Lives of Queens and Princesses.
We were in isolation, in cells of concrete, unheated, with the windows wide open, without a bed, without anything to sit on. Freezing cold. If you sat on the floor you would have died. So we had to walk around continuously throughout the cell. At curfew time, when they would put a frail blanket in our cells, we would take that rag and place it between our shoulders and the wall, to rest for a little while, standing up. I got used to sleeping even as I was walking. Since the time of the Secret Police [Securitate] interrogations, when they would not allow us to sleep for days and nights in a row. I would take three steps towards the door, turn around mechanically and take another three steps towards the wall and so on, during which I would fall asleep…
But let me return to old man Gane. During that time, I was praying. When the guard gave him that rag of a blanket, the writer asked to be taken out, otherwise he will die. To which the guard answers: “Your mother’s Easter! Fucking die already, that’s why we brought you here, to die!” And he shut the door. We all started to pound the metal door with our fists and to ask that he be taken to the infirmary. It was an infernal noise. In 20 minutes, more cops came, lead by political officer and colonel Gheorghe Crăciun, the commander-in-chief of the penitentiary. We asked them to bring the prosecutor so he can see how we are treated and to take old man Gane out of there. Colonel Crăciun pondered for a while, perhaps he consulted with the others, and eventually gave the order that poor Constantin Gane be taken to the infirmary. Then they all left and it was silent again.
After about half an hour, I tried to go on with my prayer, but I felt that I could not keep praying and found myself saying: Tonight, My Lord, You will go to sleep starving… I did not sleep all night, but I came up with the poem “Instead of Prayer.”
Tonight, my Lord, You will go to sleep starving,
You shall not have the wafer of prayer with your dinner,
Nor the bowl of humilities or the drop of light
That other times would flicker in the lamp of my thought.
I am too poor, my Lord, I have nothing to offer You
To satisfy your hunger, furies have pillaged my pantry
And took the little soul I kept like salt
To have, like any Christian, something to treat You to.
I wish I could at least give You a shy thought,
But no, I can’t, my garden is trashed and empty,
A petal on a stalk is all I have left
And on a seared branch a single bitter fruit.
If I were to pick it in a haste as offering to You,
Whispering a prayer and trembling a cross,
It would be mortal sin, My Lord, for I would bring You
Poison in broken cups and drag you too far down.
In vain You watch and wait humbled and kind,
You shall not have the warm wafer of prayer with your dinner
And in Your frozen heaven with icicles of light
Tonight, my Lord, You will go to sleep starving.
Did you write love poems in prison?
Only a few, for I was arrested before truly knowing love. I did not have the experience… [smiles bitterly]. There was a girl I was talking to, but after they sentenced me to 20 years in the dungeon, I realized I will not be able to see her again and I tried to forget her. And then, there were other sentiments that flooded me in that environment.
However, in the poem “Regrets,” I speak somewhat of how I was feeling towards my unlived loves.
How much I miss from time to time
To be caressed; the sweet eyes of a girl
With soft eyelids and trembling in her eyelashes
Under which cunning glances lie;
And how tired I’ve become of waiting,
My lip is burning with unkisses,
The cravings aching inside me rot,
My hardened heart does not vibrate,
I am a cemetery of unfulfilled yearnings
And of unsined sins,
Of soft hungers abounding within me
Tormenting me like they torment all others
But they can’t find the spring from which to drink.
Glances ache, and memories ache too,
I miss your eyes, so large, so deep,
I bend and cry over my past
With tears that spill right into God.
Which poem is dearest to you from what you have written?
They are all dear to me, for they have sprung from the overabundance of emotions I was feeling at the time. But I think the ones I feel closest to myself are the rebellion poems, for that was the state that dominated me. I was a young innocent man, who suffered dreadfully, and I could not understand why or how God would allow such a thing. I knew, of course, about divine pedagogy and all that other stuff, but when you bleed it is hard to accept explanations. I was also incensed at the Romanian world, for being inert and not resisting an atheist and criminal regime.
Perhaps that is why one of the dearest poems to me is “Where are the Madmen?” I thought that only madmen could resist the disaster:
Where are the madmen? Where are our madmen?
God, the world is filled with good Samaritans,
The Earth is brimming with saints and martyrs
Everyone touched by wisdom’s phylloxera.
The mob of the wise is silent like the Sphynx
Faced with boundlessness and the world,
Obedient to rules of nature,
Like an ox under the yoke man toils.
The quiet ones whimper in the straps of pain
And, bleeding docility from their deep wounds,
They die beside their wives in their old age,
Not daring to wield the sword of want.
Humanity is convalescent like a heifer
And there is nobody to clear its blood;
History bogged down cries,
Its prow stuck in a crag.
No other madmen are born to herd it
With their staff from behind, like it was cattle,
This century to blast with dynamite
And tear down the age of wisdom.
O, Lord, Lord, where are all the Don Quijotes?
The world is filled with Sancho Panzas
Who dare not swing the sword,
Yet good squires all pretend to be.
Where are the madmen? Where are the Aromanians?
To draw the sword and cut the knot?
The crowd longs for glory
And there are no Caesars to cross the Rubicons…
Release, Lord, madness upon the world,
To ravage and to overthrow her,
Like a ram to take the earth in its horns
And to destroy this century’s foundation!
It seems to me that this also befits the world today.