Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

Stonework Journal Home

Letters to the Editor

Stonework Staff

Submission Guidelines

Editorial Philosophy

Our Favorite Links

E-mail Stonework:

  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Friday, May 05, 2006

Border Crossings

Jeanne Murray Walker

The sun glinted off the guard’s dark glasses and in my mind’s eye, I could see him demanding that we open our overstuffed suitcases scattered on the ground around the car Ten pair of jeans spring out. “MI AZ?" he bellows. We stare at him in a stupor, not having a clue. Then, suspicions aroused, he forces us to unpack everything. Ripping the suitcase apart, he discovers the two hundred syringes we have hidden in the linings.

Approaching the border between Austria and Hungary, the road in front of us divided into five or six lanes surrounded by low, squat booths and attended by uniformed border guards with holsters and guns. We pulled out of the piercing late May sunshine into what we hoped was the correct lane for the guard to check our passports and interrogate us about our purpose for crossing into Hungary. As they bent into the trunk of the Toyota in front of us, we tried to read the posted signs. Hungarian is not a Romance language. Hungarian bears little resemblance to any language I know. The posted instructions were intended to make the process efficient, but we could not understand them. The bold consonants and diacritical markings seemed to shout threats. I felt as if I had been launched into a free fall. It crossed my mind that this must be what it feels like to be an immigrant in the US who can’t read English. I am an immigrant. I am about to be searched by men who speak a language I don’t know, governed by laws I don’t know, a language and laws that rule here. It’s after 9/11, and border crossings all over have been tightened. I can only guess what the grilling will be like.

This, I thought, is what happens to anyone foolish enough to agree to give a poetry reading in Romania. In the fall of 2004, a Romanian poet named Ionatan Pirosca invited me to read my poetry and talk to a group of poets there about the discipline of writing.

I had never traveled to Eastern Europe. I didn’t know any Romanian. I had only the vaguest notion of what Romanians ate or how they were educated or what their houses looked like. No airport services regular flights in Cluj, where the Conference was being held. I didn’t know what the roads were like, or the currency, or how difficult it would be to rent a car. I heard that Romanian hospitals are dreadful and that I could expect rampant crime in the cities. (This, by the way, turned out to be an exaggeration.) I knew the clichés about Romanian orphans and the cruelty of Nicolae Ceausescu and the poverty of daily life there. But for the life of me, I couldn’t conjure up any images of the place that felt substantial and trustworthy, and I didn’t have time to learn, either, since the dates of the “Cuvinte la Schimb’s Conference fell immediately after six months of reading tours for my new book, just as my teaching schedule at my own University was ending.

Another horror occurred to me. Suppose a Romanian Conference is so different from American conferences that the whole thing falls apart. What are their expectations? How can I know, for sure? Americans are clear, often brutally direct. One university in Illinois sent me a ten page, single spaced contract laying out my obligations for a poetry reading that, when I got there, lasted a little over an hour. In Eastern Europe, though, as in much of the rest of the world, tact reigns. Plans are rarely clarified. Then when expectations aren't met, everyone is disappointed. I know that translation from one culture to another is a sticky proposition, and poetry is virtually impossible to translate at all; indeed some poets and critics believe it can’t be translated. True enough, Ionatan had written, “We invite you with all our love.” And we had something in common; we were Christians. But that could also conceal a more deadly divide between us Were they the kind of poets, maybe, who construct poems like sermons?

I began to dream about crossing borders. Jolts of terror struck my heart at unpredictable times. I laughed about it, yes. But it felt like I was stepping into a black zero, stripped of language, with no ability to predict what might happen. Crossing a border. Crossing over Jordan. The river is chilly and cold. Chill the body but not the soul. I imagined swimming the terrible River of Death in Pilgrim’s Progress, a river that changes identies for each pilgrim—deep, shallow, murky, clear, rushing current or slowly meandering. How could you know? And no one had returned from the other side to tell what it was like.

I phoned my sensible, lively friend, Luci Shaw, who lives across this continent from me, and asked her to come along. After several months of thought, she agreed. We began making plans. Among other things, because disposable syringes are hard to find and jeans are both desired and expensive in Romania, we planned to carry over 200 syringes and as many jeans as we could cram into our suitcases. We collected dozens of books for the poets. We wanted to bring them whatever they needed, if they could explain what that was.

Luci and I left Philadelphia, where it was 65 with slight rain, and flew to sun-filled, 95-degree heat in Vienna. After two days there with Sharon Mumper from The Magazine Training Institute, who deluged us with practical tips about how to work with our translators and essays about Romanian history, culture, and literature, we packed into a small car with Lori Compton, Sharon’s assistant, and drove to the border. When it was our turn at the booth, a guard collected our passports, disappeared, emerged and handed them to us, stamped. Whooping with relief, we changed money, and stopped at a gas station to celebrate by eating delicate pastries and drinking rich, dark coffee. Sitting at a round, glass table, chatting, it suddenly dawned on us that we were the only women in the station. Were we invading turf that was off-limits? Or was the lack of women a coincidence? We never found out. After driving 8 hours across Hungary, we crossed the border once again, with its heart-stopping suspense, into Romania.

Once the Conference started, the process of translation-- inevitably rough-hewn, slap-dash, catch-as-catch-can, hair-raising--was a kind of border crossing, every day. Frankly, as I have said, I have doubts about whether poetry can be translated. But all of our intense debate at the Conference had to occur in translation, because, to put it charitably, Luci and I are beginners in Romanian. Andreea Luncan, our brilliant, patient young translator, made Romanian versions of our poems and our talks and distributed them before we arrived. While the Romanian poets bantered and quipped and hassled over the texts, she and our other translator, Corneliu Szekely-Hategan listened and translated into English simultaneously. This kind of simultaneous translation is so arduous that people who do it professionally at the UN rotate several times an hour. Andreea and Corneliu worked for twelve to fourteen hours a day, through the sessions, thorough lunch, through dinner. The conversation overflowed with puns and other language jokes, which our gallant translators wracked their brains to explicate. I became acutely attuned to the process of translation and came to feel deep affection for our translators, our other halves, without whom we might as well have been deaf.

This other kind of border crossing—translating poetry—is frightening, too, and constantly threatens to break down. Poetry aspires to the condition of music, which cannot be translated. In fact, the unsayable lurks even in takeout orders at MacDonald’s and weather forecasts. What is untranslatable from one language to another we have no language for. Where does that meaning go? . It’s like the proverbial sock that finds a life somewhere away from its mate after it gets lost in the wash. It’s liminal, like midnight, the moment between the old and the new day. Or maybe more accurately, its like negative space in a painting. It defines, but silently. What’s missing hovers out there somewhere like a lonely ghost. We would need a third language to say it.

The Conference was not like any academic conference I have attended here or in Western Europe. Besides arguing over poetry, we ate an exotic kind of pizza outside under trees, sampled Romanian restaurant fare, wandered around Cluj arm-in-arm, listened to Catalin Lata sing folk songs, and lingered for an afternoon in the sculpture studio of Liviu Mocan, who designed the memorial to the martyrs of the 1989 Revolution. We took a lot of pictures and the last day in a ceremony under the trees, Ionatan presented each of us with a scroll and a gift. Then—when our Romanian colleagues told us they would have normally held a bonfire—we blew bubbles. Standing around in the dappled light, dipping and blowing, each of us became connected to the others by hundreds and hundreds of fragile, shimmering, rainbow-colored bubbles. I will not soon forget it.

I do not feel a stranger to Romania any more. I have Romanian friends in this country. I have discovered the great Romanian poets and the remarkable composer, Porumbescu. We are still in touch with the Romanian poets we met last May. They are serious and hugely gifted, though they do not write as much as they would like because they are struggling in a precarious economy just to feed their families. What follows are some of their poems. I am not convinced that the English versions of these poems say what the Romanian versions say. The two versions live in different countries with different habits. But I believe the English versions are fine poems, living just across an impassible border from their Romanian brothers.


Romanian Poets:
Samiel Mitra
Alin Creangă
Camilia Luncan
Andrea Luncan