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I never knew the poet Nina Cassian as anyone but Nina—until I read her obituary in the New York Times this morning and learned she was born Renée Annie Katz—and to a Jewish family—in Galati, Romania, in 1924. And now it is too late to ask her about that—though I have not spoken to her in 15 years.

I met Nina in 1985 during my first semester in the graduate creative writing program at New York University. She was only my second real writing instructor (Philip Schultz had been my first)—and certainly my first writing instructor under the auspices of the NYU program. Not knowing what to expect from the program, I had one distinct advantage: I was open to anything.

I had another advantage as well, although I did not consider it one at the time. I had gone to a smallish state university in Texas that was not known for its liberal arts program, to put it kindly. So I was aware, at NYU, that I was handicapped by my background. Not a bona fide literary type at all. (I had even majored in journalism!)

A few of the other students in my seminar with Nina were handicapped in other ways—mostly by expectations of grandeur, to put it nicely. They had obviously been gifted students at respected colleges, and they expected the gifted treatment to continue. But Nina catered to no one, particularly when such behavior was expected. She was a communist, after all—with a big C, I later discovered. She despised hierarchies. She treated people equitably, directly and honestly—the way, I assumed, she expected to be treated herself.

I hadn’t known anything about Nina before selecting her as my preceptor that semester, except that she was a visiting scholar from Romania. I had not read her work (it was not readily available in the United States at the time). I had no telepathic glimmer that I would like her as much as I did, from her musical way of speaking, her clear voice and Romanian accent that hit key words in poems with exactly the right emphasis and could turn sly in a flash, the sarcasm in the spoken words not always mirroring what was written on the page.

I loved her blonde hair (though it was clearly enhanced, since she was in her early sixties by the time I met her) and the way it ranged untamed around her long Romanian face. The prominent chin, the beautiful nose. In her apartment in Roosevelt Island the last time I visited, there was a photo of her from her youth in Romania. In the photo, she lay stretched out along a sofa, her head and hair thrown back, her expression purely erotic. I had never seen a woman seem so unabashedly beautiful. And that is saying something, coming, as I did, from the “buckle” of the Bible Belt.

Most of all I liked the things Nina taught me: the importance of humor and rhythm and satire. Her contempt for “Have a nice day” modes of communication, for insincerity of any kind. And, once the semester was over, her knack for living it up around New York with me and another of her students.

I think we American students came as a real shock to Nina. We were nowhere near as well read as she was. We had little understanding of Romanian culture. I doubt that, at that time, any of us had ever heard the name “Ceausescu,” the Romanian dictator who later had one of her close friends tortured and killed, necessitating Nina’s application for (and eventual granting of) political asylum in the United States.

Things I remember: She assigned us each a poet to emulate—a poet she considered our literary opposite. She explained that we could learn a lot by stretching to write to our opposite tendencies. I watched as she anointed my classmates: There was Eliot, Pound, Shakespeare, Dickinson….my mouth watered in anticipation. But when she got to me, I was assigned (sound of tin hitting the floor) Ogden Nash. OGDEN NASH. She spotted my disappointment right away.

“You are too melancholy,” she told me. “You need to try to be happy sometimes.” I knew she was right about the melancholy, but I wasn’t sure I agreed about the need to be happy. After all, Schultz had once told me, “You don’t have to have a miserable life to write good poetry, but it sure helps.”

It wouldn’t be the first time Nina urged me to lighten up. And now that I have aged a bit myself, I have to admit she was right. In fact, the truth is glaring: When someone who lived under Ceausescu tells you you’re too dark, you’d do well to listen.

I remember a field trip we took to the Romanian Consulate in Manhattan—how she showed us all off as though we were her own lovely ducklings. And showed her culture off to us.

I remember a session on Hamlet, back at NYU, when Nina was discussing Ophelia’s demise. “How do we know she killed herself” Nina asked, “if she was alone? Maybe somebody gave her a little push…no?”

And I recall the first time she invited us to her apartment, her nervousness over getting it right. When we arrived, there were several low tables, each set with at least one enormous bottle of good Russian vodka, two packs of cigarettes, and several ashtrays. There weren’t enough chairs so I sat on the rug and watched the dust bunnies drift along the margins of the room. That was Nina. She got the hospitality right—but to hell with housework. I’m a soul sister on that.

After the semester ended, I introduced Nina to an American communist friend of mine. He and I traveled to her apartment on Roosevelt Island. Same offering of vodka and cigs. Heated argument between Nina and my friend over communism and politics. Table-pounding on occasion. I sat in the corner, sipping vodka and listening. Though my friend and I were close, we were no couple (my choice, mostly, but that’s another story). When the yelling quieted down and we gathered our coats to leave, Nina pulled me aside to whisper in my ear.

“What’s the matter with that one? He’s perfect for you!”

To this day, I still believe that is one of the few judgments Nina got wrong.

There are other stories—how she bailed out of a cab that contained me and one of her unwanted foreign suitors, leaving me to escape his clutches on my own. (With the benefit of hindsight, I think she may have been setting us up…)

And the last time I saw her, she was with Galway Kinnell and Stanley Kunitz at a reading to celebrate Paul Celan and the poems of the Holocaust. Though she never mentioned her Jewish heritage, I do recall that she held Celan in highest esteem, translating some of his work into Romanian and introducing us, her students, to his poetry.

I went up to greet her, and she introduced me to her new husband. By then she must have been nearing 75.

I smiled and shook his hand. Happy she was happy. Still resolving to get there one day myself.

 

Here is her lovely voice reading